Exercise: analysing social documentary

Brief

Do some further research into the work of at least two of the photographers mentioned in this survey of the chronology of social documentary, from Stieglitz onwards.

Select one image produced by each photographer (either from the course guide or the internet) to analyse in more depth.

  • What is the subject of the photograph?
  • What was the context?
  • Was the photographer working for pay?
  • Was the taking of the photograph consensual or non-consensual? (i.e. did the subject agree to have their photograph taken?)
  • Does the photograph reveal any particular ‘trademark’ or style of the photographer?
  • Is the photograph successful?
  • Is the photograph an example of social documentary or is it photojournalism? Try to explain your answer.

Write at least 250 words for each image in your learning log or blog.

Response

Before getting into the exercise I wanted to address the last question (social documentary or photojournalism) and clarify the definitions in my head. I started, as advised in the course notes, with Wells (1997:69-71) but found this unsatisfactory. I recalled and reread something I read in Bate (2009:54) discussing the concepts of process, event and state. He cites and builds on Peter Wollen’s Fire and Ice essay (1984) to explain that a photojournalistic image signifies an event, while documentary photography can expand beyond an event to signify a state and/or a process. Paraphrased in a simpler way: photojournalism captures moments, social documentary captures circumstances.

They differ in terms of their intent as well: the FSA motto was supposedly “not only to inform, but to move” (Clarke 1997:149). The subtext I found here is that while photojournalism is for the former, social documentary also strives for the latter.

1. Children Sleeping on Mulberry Street, Jacob Riis c.1890

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Children Sleeping on Mulberry Street – Jacob Riis c.1890
  • What is the subject of the photograph?
    • Three children sleeping in an alley
  • What was the context?
    • The poverty and appalling conditions in New York tenements at the end of the 19th century
  • Was the photographer working for pay?
    • Not as I understand it; he was doing it to raise awareness, of his own volition
  • Was the taking of the photograph consensual or non-consensual?
    • Non-consensual; they appear to be asleep, and in any case are too young to give consent
  • Does the photograph reveal any particular ‘trademark’ or style of the photographer?
    • Generally yes, Riis was known for unposed, snatched shots without the subject’s consent – though there are some more distinctive characteristics of this image, discussed below
  • Is the photograph successful?
    • Yes, in my opinion, as explained further below
  • Is the photograph an example of social documentary or is it photojournalism? Try to explain your answer.
    • Social documentary, as explained below

This image is one of Riis’ most famous, and made the cover of some editions of his seminal work How the Other Half Lives (1890). Like many Riis images it focuses on the appalling conditions in which families lives in certain New York neighbourhoods at the time. It does however differ from many Riis images in a few key aspects: much of his work was of adults and families, often at night. The shocking aspect of this was the image of children sleeping rough.

It certainly fits the criteria of social documentary as raising awareness and driving social change was Riis’ stated aim. The photographs caught the attention of the (pre-presidential) Theodore Roosevelt, New York police commissioner at the time – and so affected not one the social policy of the time, but how the US government reacted decades later when the Great Depression hit.

2. Allie Mae Burroughs, Walker Evans 1936

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Allie Mae Burroughs – Walker Evans 1936
  • What is the subject of the photograph?
    • A female sharecropper against the wall of the family cabin
  • What was the context?
    • The poverty and displacement caused by the Great Depression in the USA in the 1930s
  • Was the photographer working for pay?
    • Yes, he was working for Fortune magazine (although in 1941 he incorporated the work into the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, co-authored with James Agee)
  • Was the taking of the photograph consensual or non-consensual?
    • Consensual; he got to know the family and took several pictures
  • Does the photograph reveal any particular ‘trademark’ or style of the photographer?
    • Evans is generally known as a social realist photographer so, yes this fits in with his oeuvre well
  • Is the photograph successful?
    • Yes, in my opinion, as explained further below
  • Is the photograph an example of social documentary or is it photojournalism? Try to explain your answer.
    • Social documentary, as explained below

This is one of many images Evans took of the Burroughs family while he and Agee stayed with them in 1936. While there were other shots that depict the family as variously happy, hard-working and contented, for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Evans specifically chose this closely framed portrait where Allie Mae’s expression is one of brooding resentment, lips pursed and eyes fixed on the camera. Like Migrant Mother, this image humanised the Depression for those who could not witness it first hand. Ultimately it helped to bring about social change.

Sources

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

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