Research point: Robert Frank’s The Americans

Whilst lauded as a classic now, Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) divided critics on its publication as it eschewed the photographic conventions of the day and pushed people’s perceptions of what ‘good photography’ is. It is hard to truly experience the ‘shock of the new’ looking at it decades later, when these once-revolutionary aesthetics and vision can be seen echoed in the work of countless subsequent photographers. You have to try to put yourself in the shoes of the late 1950s viewer. Through this virtual lens it becomes clearer how much of a break from the past this collection represents.

A different kind of photography

Frank’s work is, at first glance, frustrating (well it was to me anyway). At first I couldn’t really see what the big deal was. But this is one of those collections where the more you look, the more you see.

What comes across is a set of images that place feeling/mood/emotion over technical quality. His work is often blurry, loosely composed, with tilted horizons, with unsure focus, with people’s faces obscured… in some instances I found it maddening that he hadn’t straightened up, cropped closer, refocused to get a better shot. But he seemed to select the exposures that conveyed the right feeling to him, not the ones that were technically the best. This in itself was revolutionary at the time.

Almost all photography up until this point (and much photography since) was edited for aesthetic quality; but if photography has a documenting role, it needs to be able to capture a moment that may not be technically perfect, but get across what was happening at that split-second. It is, as Cartier-Bresson says in The Mind’s Eye (1998), about getting the “essence” of the situation.

Is this ‘beat photography’? It’s telling that Jack Kerouac provided the introduction text. The style of photography has much in common with the ‘beat writer’ style and rhythm, which in turn was influenced by the musicality of jazz – disjointed, fragmented, staccato, improvised, seemingly stream-of-conciousness but with an underlying cohesion and rhythms, if you look for them. Specifically the road-trip format of the project echoes Kerouac’s most famous work – he manages to work the phrase “on the road” into the first sentence of the introduction.

Subjects and themes

In choosing what to shoot (and select in the edit), he set himself apart from his contemporaries; America as a broad theme had been done before, but not like this. He shot a huge variety of subjects, including many that others had not covered before: work and play, rich and poor, black and white, cities and wide open spaces. He seemed to be looking for a cross-section of subjects – people, places, activities – that together summed up America. His outsider status (he was a Swiss national) gave him both a curiosity about his adopted country and an empathy with the minorities he saw. This is not the America that a state-sponsored photography project would have covered.

From The Americans © Robert Frank

He was, with this set of images at least, more of an eye-witness than an artist. In choosing to cover subjects/events not normally photographed, he provided a record of the country at that time. Furthermore, in choosing the specific exposures that more technically proficient photographers would have rejected, he was giving the world a chance to see specific moments of life that would otherwise never have seen the light of day. Example: the Hollywood starlet on the red carpet at the movie premiere: she’s out of focus, the spectators are in focus. He chose to highlight the ordinary people over the celebrity.

Whilst he had a knack for interesting subjects, he clearly had some specific thematic elements in mind. Some of these are now considered so stereotypical of 1950s USA that you wonder if they already were clichés or if Frank captured them on their way to becoming iconic: diners, big cars, jukeboxes. Several images allude to the racial segregation that was still being suffered by minorities in the 1950s. Other elements are timeless Americana: the US flag is highly prominent, stetsons make a few appearances. A couple of less obvious thematic elements become apparent on closer examination: death is depicted or alluded to in several images; religious imagery, specifically the crucifix, makes a few appearances.

Looking at it again recently, a couple of other, more subtle themes emerged for me. I was surprised how many of the images alluded to class differences, and not just racially based. I don’t think of the USA as being as class-conscious as Britain, but there are a number of images of the ‘upper class’ at play that don’t paint them in a very sympathetic light. The other extra layer I spotted was the overriding sense of loneliness in many of the images; I always felt a sense of melancholy in the series, but more specifically I’m now seeing images that emphasised how alone people can be, even in crowds – looking different ways, not engaging with each other. It’s added a new depth to some of the pictures. Frank the outsider coming though the pictures again.

Meaning and intent

What was Frank trying to say here? It’s certainly not a linear narrative, nor even, for a road-trip, a geographic one. He criss-crosses the states and captures what amounts to a series of vignettes, not a neat story with beginning, middle and end. He seems to want to provide a snapshot, or rather a series of snapshots, that show what a complex, multi-faceted place the USA was. If anything, he’s saying: all this is America; America is all these things. He is capturing a mood, a vibe. Holding a mirror up to a nation.

It’s understandable now why this is such a pivotal photo essay. It used photography in a new way, it defied convention, it showed that photography can be raw, honest, unglamorous. It can capture seemingly mundane slices of life as well as grand events. It can evoke a feeling that is detached from the aesthetic beauty of the image. With the decades of photography that has followed, it’s easy to take those things for granted. With this book you can see the roots of a new type of photography.


Cartier-Bresson, H. (2004) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. Woking: Aperture.

Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen: Steidl.


Exercise: The decisive moment

First of all, I have to say that I am very much looking forward to this Modernist practice project as it most closely fits my preferences for photographic genre.

However, I’m not sure why the whole course section is entitled Social Documentary rather than a simpler and broader Documentary. I say this as the work covered from this point in the chapter are broadly documentary but not in the strict sense of social documentary, i.e. striving to inform, move and make social change around a particular issue or community.

The photographers covered here worked in genres (or maybe documentary sub-genres) such as street photography, photojournalism and reportage. They may have followed the same fundamental principles as social documentary (authenticity, lack of staging, lack of post-processing) and they do, in the strictest sense document things (events, activities, people), but their intent is quite different to ‘true’ social documentarians.

Having got that semantic pedantry off my chest, I’ll move on…



First, look at the two Cartier-Bresson images above and try to identify why the photographer might have considered each one a decisive moment.

Now go out and photograph an event or location for yourself. Look for and include the decisive moment. Produce a contact set of three scenes and analyse your reasons for selecting the image that has the decisive moment. Your scenes should all include at least one person.


I am baffled by the notes in the full brief that say that identifying the decisive moments in the Cartier-Bresson images is “a difficult thing to attempt“– it really isn’t!

In the first, a number of compositional elements come into an aesthetically-pleasing arrangement: the slight angle of the boy and the wall; the admiring onlookers; the balance of the two bottles; the movement implied by the front leg; the depth of field and perspective that imply the path he has already walked down. What really makes it though is the delightfully smug expression on the boy’s face.

The second is even more obvious – the geometry of the image is so well-balanced: the steps down; the curves of the railings; the matching outer curve of the kerb below; and finally the positioning in the clear space to the left of the cyclist. The implication is that he followed the viewer’s eye and came down the steps (he probably just rode in from the right).

Understanding ‘the decisive moment’

There’s a sense in which Cartier-Bresson’s association with the phrase and the concept The Decisive Moment is something of a misunderstanding. The book (Cartier-Bresson 1952) that spawned the phrase was only given that title in its English translation, and came not from Cartier-Bresson himself but from a quotation in the preface from the 17th century French cardinal de Retz. The original French title of the book was Images à la Sauvette, which roughly translates as Images on the Run – a concept slightly at odds with the precision implied by the rest of Cartier-Bresson’s writing on his approach.

What Cartier-Bresson did say, and presumably led to the choice of the de Retz quote in the English preface, is:

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” (Cartier-Bresson 1952)

I confess that I used to slightly misinterpret the concept myself until I reread The Mind’s Eye (Cartier-Bresson 1998) where the above quote is paraphrased, amongst a more detailed explanation of his thinking. I should also give credit to Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye (1966) as his interpretation of the definition further illuminated my understanding:

“[…] that segment of time that Cartier-Bresson called the decisive moment: decisive not because of the exterior event (the bat meeting the ball) but because in that moment the flux of changing forms and patterns was sensed to have achieved balance and clarity and order – because the image became, for an instant, a picture (Szarkowski 1966)

So this was my eureka moment. I had previously interpreted the decisive moment as needing to be the precise moment when something momentous happened in the unfolding of the event – the pinnacle or the turning point, something that ‘told the story’. Through reading Cartier-Bresson and Szarkowski more closely I came to realise that the decisive moment is not decisive to the event, but decisive to the forming of a good photograph. It does not need to be anything dramatic. At its simplest it’s just about finding the right time to press the shutter.

Another quote from The Mind’s Eye is useful here in teasing out the subtle nuances of the decisive moment [my emphasis]:

“Above all, I craved to seize, in the confines of one single photograph, the whole essence of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes”
(Cartier-Bresson 1998)

My attempts

I must say that even with the above context, producing decisive moments on demand is not as easy as it looks!

1. Skateboarder

I only managed half a dozen pictures as it was a very busy street but the reason I chose the last one as the ‘decisive moment’ should be self-evident: I caught the moment of the jump. I had also done this in the second shot but a couple of passersby had walked into shot.


2. Bongo Players

This was an impromptu jam session that I stumbled upon, where the chap with the two drums was randomly joined by a stranger who asked if she could have a go on the drum he wasn’t using! In this instance I was strangely drawn to the shot where the guy in red on the left was paying least attention and nonchalantly fighting his cigarette. His inattentive demeanour seemed to juxtapose with the excitable drumming of the pair, and the admiration of the other two spectators. This felt like the most interestingly composed version of the shot.

Bongo Players
Bongo Players

3. Bird Man

This was the one I attempted on all manual settings – as you may be able to tell from the three underexposed shots. In this set I was looking for a shot where a bird was flying towards him rather than sitting on his hand, I was aiming to depict how he attracts the birds. The best shot was the one below. Strangely (or maybe not), once I’d dialled in the right settings I found it easier to work fully manual, as there was no autofocus lag.

Bird Man
Bird Man


Cartier-Bresson, H. (2004) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. Woking: Aperture.

Szarkowski, J. (2007). The Photographer’s Eye. New York: MOMA.

Exercise: Positive and negative spin


Compare an image from a broadsheet newspaper with a tabloid image. If possible, choose two images portraying the same (or similar) person or event. The story you choose could involve race, but it doesn’t have to. The idea of this exercise is to show you how public perception of a person or event can be influenced by the photographic imagery used.

Read the commentary and the headlines to see how the person or event is being portrayed in words, then study the images carefully. For example, look to see whether the images have been cropped differently.

  • Where different images have been used for the same story by different papers, what do you think is the editorial basis for each choice?
  • Is each story positive or negative, sympathetic or sensational?
  • If a reader was just given the headline and the image for each story, what different conclusions might they draw? Or is there no difference?
  • How has the imagery been used to influence/manipulate the reader?Place the images and your analysis in your learning log or blog.


I looked for a topical story in today’s papers (I even bought the Daily Mail and the Sun!) but came up short on anything usable. Interestingly, there were examples of racially-angled stories in the Mail and the Sun (Ramadan affecting exam timetables; British Jihadis) but without photographs. Maybe the newspapers are more circumspect in their use of racially-fuelled imagery, even if the tone of the reporting and editorial text is still noticeably biased?

So I went a little further back and looked at how different newspapers covered the Paris terror attacks in November 2015.

The Guardian


Left-leaning broadsheet the Guardian went with a scene from the actual incident, focusing on the police response.

Daily Mail

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 17.42.15

The more sensationalist Daily Mail (which evidently went to press earlier, given the lower death toll), chose to associate the attacks with an unrelated story from the day before regarding the death of the terrorist known as ‘Jihadi John’.

To the questions in the brief:

  • What do you think is the editorial basis for each choice?
    • Guardian was balanced, respectful and did not jump to conclusions, as befits a quality newspaper
    • Mail went straight to juxtaposing the headline with what would turn out to be an unrelated story, feeding its readership the editorial line depicting Muslims as evil radicals
  • Is each story positive or negative, sympathetic or sensational?
    • Guardian was neutral, balanced
    • Mail was highly sensational
  • If a reader was just given the headline and the image for each story, what different conclusions might they draw? Or is there no difference?
    • Guardian headline and image give a reasonable account of the attacks
    • Mail headline and image imply that the masked figure depicted is somehow connected to the attacks, or that the image is from the incident itself
  • How has the imagery been used to influence/manipulate the reader?
    • Guardian uses the image to support but not editorialise the story
    • Mail heavily implies a connection between the attacks and a tabloid-notorious individual, shown as a stereotypical Islamic terrorist, manipulating their readers with their agenda of racial and religious intolerance


The Guardian, 14th December 2015

Daily Mail, 14th December 2015

Exercise: analysing social documentary


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.


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

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

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.


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.

Research point: FSA and Migrant Mother

The importance of the FSA project

The 1935–44 Farm Security Administration (FSA) project led by social scientist Roy Stryker is arguably the most important example of state-sponsored social documentary in photographic history. It was intended to support the Roosevelt government’s ‘New Deal’ following the devastating impacts of the Great Depression that gripped the USA in the 1930s.

In the context of photographic history it provides a groundbreaking case study of using photography to help drive social change. It is not without reason that virtually every significant book on the history of photography makes mention of the FSA project, and many famous US photographers passed through its ranks, including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Jack Delano and Gordon Parks.

Authorial and editorial intent

One of the most fascinating but problematic aspects of the FSA project was the complicated set of influences placed on what would be photographed, how it would be photographed and what intended messages were expected by the different parties in the project.

Whilst clearly falling into the social documentary category, it raises questions on the extent to which the message can be controlled – and researching the project unearths ongoing tension between the participants on what the objective of the project was, and how best to achieve it.

Initially, the brief was to provide motivational images of those Americans that were still working  (Wells 2009: 97) but most of the photographers gravitated towards what they saw as the ‘real story’ of the poor, dispossessed families leaving their homes and making gruelling journeys across the USA to find work and food. Evans and Lange in particular felt it their duty to tell the stories of the displaced, regardless of the ‘shooting script’ they had been given. Lange is quoted putting it simply: “We were after the truth, not just making effective pictures” (Wells 2009: 40).

So the photographers often veered off brief in terms of the subject matter. Some went further and applied photographic techniques that lift the images above pure record and add layers of emphasis and connotation that move into a more subjective and emotive style than the FSA intended. Stryker’s ‘mistake’ (or alternatively his masterstroke) was hiring good photographers; they couldn’t help but apply their skills. As Sontag puts it in On Photography:

“The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration […] would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film – the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry.” (Sontag 1979:6)

Whether they did this consciously or not, taking an aesthetically pleasing, well-composed image (such as Migrant Mother) can help in evoking empathy in the viewer – and so furthered the objectives of the project.

Once delivered to FSA headquarters, however, the images were subject to strict selection and editorial control. The FSA effectively acted as a picture agency, choosing what images to place where to support the government’s intended message. The message evidently evolved over time, as by 1939 the FSA published many of the images in the book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion – a title that demonstrated that the ‘official’ intent of the project did indeed move towards depicting the Depression’s victims, as per the photographers’ intent.

By 1942 though, the aim had swung back towards boosting morale. Sontag quotes a Stryker memo: “We must have at once pictures of men, women and children who appear as if they really believed in the US. Get people with a little spirit.” (Sontag 1979: 62). Once again the final say on what is shown to the public rests with the financial patron – in this case the government.

This raises important questions on the ‘truth’ (accuracy, authenticity, objectivity) of so-called social documentary, which may purport to depict ‘cold, hard facts’ yet always has an underlying set of assumptions (objectives, angles, viewpoints, prejudices, directives).

The FSA project stands as a reminder that one must always endeavour to find out who has instigated and funded a particular work – and attempt to ascertain their intent. In particular this point applies to state-sponsored documentary, which at its extremes becomes propaganda.

Migrant Mother

Wells (2009:39-49) includes a comprehensive study of Dorothea Lange’s famous 1936 image known as Migrant Mother, and offers a number of ways to analyse the image and its impact. Whether some or all of these factors can be applied to all documentary images is questionable, as few photographs gain the iconic status of Migrant Mother.

At its base, it is a social/historical testament: “The woman is used purely as subject. She is appropriated within a symbolic framework of significance as declared and determined by Lange” (Clarke 1997: 153).

Beyond the simple brief, Lange made decisions on how to shoot and in particular what to include and exclude. The woman had seven children but only three are included in the image. The close framing excludes the surroundings (tent, landscape) that would have placed the scene in its appropriate FSA-directed context. The choice of this specific exposure had a number of effects; removal of environmental cues made this a more universal image, easier to empathise with. As long as it is presented in the context of other photographs that do place the scenes in the appropriate context, the power of this image is magnified, not diminished, by the close framing.

The expression on the woman’s face and the bringing of her hand to her chin both suggest deep thought, inviting the viewer to ponder what is on the woman’s mind (survival?) which intensifies the emotive connection. Two of the children hide their heads, a gesture of shyness or perhaps embarrassment (their faces are visible in the rejected images from the shoot).

The allusions to existing art, namely the Madonna and Child, are plain to see and almost certainly a significant reason for choosing this exposure.

Wells also considers the effect of the title (1997: 43-44). It has been alternatively captioned Seasonal Farm Labourer’s Family and Destitute Pea Pickers in California, a 32 year old mother of seven children – but the former implies the presence of a husband-father and the latter clumsily contradicts the image contents. Migrant Mother is loaded with significance: migrant is a potent word, conjuring up images of having to leave home to survive, and mother is such a universal image that one can’t help but empathise. The simple alliteration didn’t hurt either, it made it all the more memorable.

The gender aspects of an image of ‘The Mother’ taken by a woman is discussed (Wells 1997: 45). Women photographers were rarer then than now, and Lange was a pioneer. Her legacy is of bringing a depth of compassion to social documentary that was hitherto lacking in the more ‘objective’ work of her male peers (Wells 1997: 45, quoting Fisher 1987: 131) and has since become a widely accepted aspect of documentary work.

Finally, the image became so famous that it transcended its documentary roots. It was (and continues to be) reproduced and reused in a variety of contexts, including art gallery walls. Its universality was sealed in its inclusion in The Family of Man (Steichen (ed) 1955). It became shorthand for the FSA, for the Great Depression, for early 20th century American photography, for women photographers, for documentary photography.

It became a symbol of so many things that it ultimately developed a life of its own. Very few images do that.


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

Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Steichen, E. (ed) (2015) The Family of Man (60th Anniversary Edition). New York: MOMA.

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

Research point: Riis, Hine and others

The course notes follow the pattern established in numerous photography textbooks of bracketing together Jacob Riis (1849-1914) and Lewis Hine (1874-1940) as part of the nascent history of social documentary, despite their differences in approach and style.

Here I will compare the two with a view to highlighting the part each played in the development of the genre. As requested in the notes, I will also touch upon a few British practitioners of the same era.

Jacob Riis

Riis emigrated to the USA from Denmark in the 1870s and settled in New York. Initially struggling to find work and therefore seeing the poverty of the slums first-hand, after some time he became established as a police reporter and he made it his goal to campaign against the social inequality of the time.

Riis did not consider himself primarily a photographer; to him the camera was a means to an end. Wells (2009:78) relates how Riis’ frustration with the lack of impact of “mere words” led him to move to taking pictures. His determination led to him becoming a pioneer in the use of flash – the tenements were too dark for natural light photography so once magnesium flash was available he chose to use the technology to literally (and metaphorically) shine a light on the appalling conditions suffered by the New York poor.

His most famous work How the Other Half Lives (1890) is one of the first examples of published social documentary, and in the words of Clarke (1997:147) “associates documentary photography with a moral and radical vocabulary”, setting an early benchmark for what documentary photography can achieve.

New York Tenement – Jacob Riis, c.1890

His style was objective in the extreme, documentary in the literal sense as well as under the accepted definition of social documentary. He took pictures without permission – the subjects often heard men approaching, saw a flash of light and heard them scurrying away – and in almost all cases the subjects do not face the camera. Wells (2009:78) quotes Stein (1983:14) as attributing the lack of subject gaze to a very deliberate idealogical decision: “That he rejected those rare photographs in which the subject did happen to look back suggests how premeditated the effect was”.

Riis had a rough and ready style that disregarded the technical norms of the time (composition, posing etc) and insisted on showing the previously unseen truth of how the poor lived and died. His visceral, uncompromising approach would be softened by Hine and others in subsequent years before being reclaimed and magnified by contemporary social documentary photographers decades later.

Riis deserves his place in the history of photography as a pioneer of the medium as a tool of social communication and change. That his style was a little crude for some tastes and was succeeded by a more stylised form of social documentary is, however, understandable.

Lewis Hine

Although often mentioned in the same breath as Riis, Hine is remembered as being altogether more nuanced. Where Riis was the objective photographer thrusting blunt images of poverty in people’s faces, Hine took a more humanist and hopeful approach.

For a start, Hine was a professional photographer who knew how to make aesthetically pleasing images, and he was hired by the US National Child Labor Committee specifically to record the use of children in the workplace. He applied a more thoughtful approach to his work, and spoke to the subjects to find out more about them before taking their photograph.

His images come across as less ‘angry’ than those of Riis, and display a deeper understanding of the complexity of social issues. While Riis shot his subjects as though inmates in a human zoo – emphasising their ‘otherness‘ – Hine appealed to the viewer to empathise with the children in his images.

Sadie Pfeifer at Lancaster Cotton Mill – Lewis Hine, 1908

Hine applies more subjectivity to structuring his message, as though he understands how to affect his audience better than Riis did. Clarke (1997) puts it well:

“Hine’s great strength, however, was to inform each image with a complex (but seemingly effortless) awareness of the multiple contingencies which informed and controlled an individual’s life.” – Clarke (1997:147-148)

This is maybe the crux of the difference to Riis: Hine was concerned with individuals. The subjects are never simply ciphers to be exploited to make a point, they are people. One gets a greater sense of the horrors of social injustice from Hine’s work as he is more successful in personalising the problem being examined.

Early British social documentary

The course notes suggest a few names to research to compare how British documentary photography developed in parallel with the better-known US examples examined above. Once again I find myself scratching my head regarding the examples chosen.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) is famed more for her portraits, often of the celebrities and upper class of the day, and for her artistic techniques such as selective focus than for any social documentary work. In a sense the most interesting aspect of Cameron’s work from a sociological point of view is that she was one of very few women practicing photography at the time – but the work itself displays no significant social or moral dimension.

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941) gave an exemplary extended study of place and community identity in his work on Whitby, bringing to life the character and activities of the seaside town in Victorian times. His work was sympathetic without being overly sentimental, everyday without being banal and objective without being harsh or impersonal. He is perhaps closer to my idea of a documentary photographer than Cameron was, in that he was documenting Whitby life – yet I see no campaigning imperative, no social conscience, no overriding desire to educate or change. So again I wonder if he is a representative example.

Finally, Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) is mentioned. Yet again I question the inclusion: he is most famous for his use of early photomontage (along with the likes of Oscar Rejlander). Like Cameron and Stieglitz, Robinson is most renowned for pushing photography closer to the status of art.

Given that I basically disagree with the examples provided – none of them strongly demonstrate a moral or campaigning element to their most famous work – I felt the need to do a little more research of my own.

Whilst a strong thread of social documentary photography would establish itself in the 1930s with the work of Bill Brandt and others, including the Mass Observation programme of social research, my objective here was to find British documentarians in the same era as Riis and Hine, broadly the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century.

Thomas Annan (1829-87) fits the bill, being a photographer of Glasgow slums as early as 1866 – some time before Riis had established himself on the other side of the Atlantic.

Fellow Scot John Thomson (1837-1921) worked with radical journalist Adolphe Smith to expose the conditions of life in the less salubrious quarters of London in the 1870s.

Both of these can be considered to be peers of, or equals to, Riis and Hine – if less well-known.


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.


Exercise: This is where I live


Go out and photograph your local environment in two ways. First, go out and record the scene that greets you in your local village, town centre or area of the city. Do the work on a compact.

Try to think of the viewer looking at your work in 100 years time. The images should be self-explanatory – that’s what was happening. Select 12 images to show the place ‘warts and all’. Respond to the scene.

Write around 250 words reviewing your images in your learning log or blog. To what extent have you managed to show the ‘truth’ about your town or area?

Now re-visit the same location with your DSLR camera and, this time, apply a craft approach to the scene. Produce a set of images that shows the area at it best or most intriguing.


I live in Pickering, North Yorkshire, a small market town on the edge of the North York Moors National Park. It’s a fairly picturesque and tourist-friendly place, with attractions such as a steam railway and medieval castle ruins. Out of season it’s a little quieter but the high street (‘Market Place’) where I took these shots is a surprisingly lively and busy place for locals to shop, meet, eat and drink – even on a winter midweek afternoon.

Set 1: point and shoot

My first set of photos was taken with a compact on a fixed focal length as instructed. I rattled off lots of shots and on first-pass editing I was pleased to see that I had managed to capture a number of aspects of the town’s character (positive and negative) that I would associate with the place, such as:

  • charity shops
  • cafes
  • elderly people
  • local independent shops such as greengrocers
  • quirky bric-a-brac shops
  • sense of community, people meeting up in public to socialise

I do think I’ve captured it ‘warts and all’ reasonably successfully, without deliberately seeking out an ‘ugly side’ if that makes sense. Although it’s difficult to switch off your ‘photographic eye’, I tried to present the street in a matter-of-fact / deadpan manner, recording what was in front of me without any pretensions. A viewer in 100 years time should get a reasonably balanced picture of the town centre from this set of a dozen images.

Set 2: stylised

Once I’d reviewed and selected the first set I’d lost the light for the day so will have to return to town tomorrow. This gives me a chance to think about what ‘applying a craft approach’ might mean. The brief says to “produce a set of images that shows the area at it best or most intriguing“. This could include making a number of specific photographic decisions to emphasise certain elements of the locale. The could include:

  • colour palette (i.e. I could make the second set black and white)
  • framing, viewpoints and angles
  • subject selection: I could specifically seek out distinctive people and objects, for example, or I could concentrate on people-less scenes
  • depth of field decisions to provide emphasis

… and so on.

OK, I’ll complete this tomorrow.

For the second set I kept in mind the specific objective of making the place look more interesting. For Pickering, this meant playing to its traditional strengths, in particular emphasising:

  • its history and heritage
  • its tourist-friendliness

In practical terms this meant isolating specific elements using:

  • focal length
  • focus
  • framing

There wasn’t a huge aesthetic difference between the two sets; image quality of good compact cameras is getting closer to professional level, and as noted above it’s hard to switch off one’s compositional eye completely. The big difference was in the specific subject matter and my treatment of it.

Whereas with the first set I shot what I saw (and parsed the information in the images after the event to build a representative picture of the town), with the second set I planned what I wanted to shoot, then sought it out. This is my eureka moment…

What I’ve learned

In The Photographer’s Eye, John Szarkowski used the phrase “To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft” (Szarkowski 1966) and this concept came home to me perfectly with this exercise.

While both sets are nominally of the same place (and the difference in equipment used is a red herring in my opinion), the real difference was in the intent. In the second set I wanted to show Pickering off as a distinctive, interesting place. This involved selective focusing on that which makes it interesting, and more pertinently excluding visual information that didn’t support my objective.

In documentary photography language, the first set appears to be more objective while the second set is more obviously subjective. Note that I am placing them both on a continuum rather than labelling them absolutely objective or subjective. As Bate (2009) puts it:

“The idea that one picture is more objective than another only really means that one has hidden its ideology within a rhetoric of neutrality and description, while the other flaunts its codes of subjective investment.” – Bate (2009:53-54)

So to respond to the questions that close the brief:

Is it possible to create a false impression? When we look at the work of documentary photographers do we believe what we see? Is integrity therefore an issue for the social documentary photographer?

Yes, it absolutely is possible to create a false impression – deliberately or unwittingly. We should therefore be wary of the documentarian’s intentions, to the extent that it is possible to know them. And yes, integrity is an issue. One of the keys to understanding the intent or viewpoint of the documentary photographer is to understand who commissioned the work and why.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) project in the 1930s and 1940s was a well-documented example of how editorial direction dictated what subjects should be sought in order to influence the national mood (Sontag 1979:62).

At its extreme, highly manipulated ‘documentary’ can become propaganda.


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

Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Szarkowski, J. (1966) The Photographer’s Eye. New York: MOMA.


Photographers: Fenton and Brady

The next photographers the course notes ask us to consider are Roger Fenton (1819-69) and Matthew Brady (1822-96), both known for their war photography.

Roger Fenton

Fenton was a very early enthusiast of photography and became known for a wide range of genres including landscapes, still life and portraits.

His normal practice was not what one would consider that of a social documentarian. According to Clarke (1997: 45), “His images do not question cultural assumptions, but rather they reinforce them in a way that eighteenth-century painting did for its wealthy patrons“.

His war photography was no different. Clarke (1997: 45) notes that “Even the famous Crimean War images ignore the brutality of war, instead creating set pieces of an army at leisure“. Cotton (2009: 86) goes further in describing Fenton’s brief specifically as “being sent to take photographs that would reassure the public” following critical reporting by The Times newspaper.

As noted in the course text, the Fenton image Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) is infamous for being created in two versions, one with the cannonballs on the road and one without. Art historians disagree which was taken first, though the majority school of thought is that the cannonballs were placed on the empty road after the first shot to increase the sense of danger (with the alternative explanation being that the empty road shot was second, after the soldiers had harvested the ammunition for re-use). We may never know the definitive sequence.

Whichever is ‘true’, the fact of the differing opinions and the reputation of Fenton as someone who was interested in ‘keeping up appearances’ add to the overall fog around his work and intentions.

If nothing else, Fenton provides some evidence that notions of ‘truth’and ‘accuracy’ have been slippery since the birth of photography itself. Deciding what to take pictures of, and staging elements of a scene for reasons of either censorship or exaggeration both amount to a kind of subjectivity that clouds the ‘documentary’ issue significantly.

Matthew Brady

Brady’s most iconic work came out of the American Civil War. More than just a photographer, he oversaw a travelling studio of assistants documenting the war, often in a directorial capacity. He was a Civil War photographer in a wider sense, in that he also collected, archived and curated images from the war; he was almost an early example of a photography ‘brand’.

Clarke (1997: 34-36) explains in some detail how Brady, like Fenton before him, used photography to reinforce established hierarchy. He seems as incapable (or as unwilling) as Fenton to engage in what we might now call ‘straight’ reporting of what he saw.

Brady did however expand beyond the unrepresentative ‘army at leisure’ imagery of Fenton and got closer to the action. In this respect he was a pioneer in photojournalism in general and war photography in particular, even if his brand of ‘journalism’ has subsequently been accused of subjectivity. One must always consider the purpose (and the patron) of a photographic endeavour.

Image manipulation

As highlighted in the course notes, Brady was not above a little bit of Fenton-esque scene manipulation or staging – moving people and things to better evoke the sense of narrative. Is this ever acceptable? This is a very contentious point, almost as old as photography itself. It brings to mind the 1876 case of Dr Barnado and his use of staged images of child poverty (Wells 2009: 71-72), which hinged on the difference between the denotative truth and the connotative truth. Other art forms can get away with embellishment or hyperbole to reinforce a point, but photography does not get such a pass; its indexical nature is interpreted as a guarantee of ‘honesty’ (rightly or wrongly).

Bringing the problematic topic of image manipulation right up to date, Reuters recently instructed freelance photographers to only provide straight-out-of-camera JPGs, not images processed from a Raw file. Whilst this is related to processing manipulation rather than staging manipulation, the underlying rational is the same: the ethical imperative to show ‘truthful’ images.

My personal opinion is that news photography should not be manipulated, either before or after the shot was taken – unless the publication that uses the image very clearly explains how and why the image was constructed or altered. The risk is that images are very often taken away from their original context.

My opinion differs when one considers social documentary photography (as distinct from pure photojournalism); in this genre I believe it’s acceptable to apply a certain level of artistic ‘vision’ on the subject matter to support the overall message – whether this be increasing the contrast, straightening horizons or cloning out telegraph poles sticking out of people’s heads. Aesthetics do matter to a certain degree in getting the intended message across. But to reiterate, I believe that news photography should not have such an aesthetic filter applied (literally or figuratively).


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. (accessed 17/12/2015)


Photographer: Alfred Stieglitz

As suggested I watched the documentary Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye (1999).

It was a highly interesting overview of one of the giants of photography who I am slightly embarrassed to not have known quite enough about until now, and for that I am very grateful for the course notes for pointing out the film. However…


For the life of me I can’t work out why Stieglitz is the first photographer mentioned in a section entitled Social documentary. My impression of Stieglitz, completely borne out (and hugely strengthened) by the film, was always of the leading proponent of photography as art, and in this respect wonder why he was introduced in this section of the course and not the Fine art chapter. It’s almost as if the course author has laid some sort of trap to see if students are paying attention…!?

Two images are included in the notes to characterise Stieglitz as a social documentarian: The Terminal, from 1893, purportedly illustrating the harsh conditions of an impoverished area of New York in the winter, and The Steerage from 1907, showing the lower classes huddled on the deck of a ship, separated from the higher class passengers in the finer parts of the vessel.

However the film and wider reading make clear that in both instances (quoting Stieglitz’s own writings) he was much more concerned with the aesthetics of the image than the social conditions. In the case of The Steerage, his stated eureka moment was to be entranced by the combination of the shapes and the human feelings – he saw formalist art first and social commentary very much second.

In The Photograph (1997) Graham Clarke describes The Steerage thus:

“There is no social or documentary concern. Stieglitz saw a picture of ‘shapes’, not of human figures, and concentrated on an abstract pattern which for him suggested the feeling he had about ‘life’. The abject condition of the figures in steerage is completely ignored.” (Clarke 1997: 168)

The father of modern photography

Setting aside the category error of his inclusion in Social documentary, I found the Stieglitz story to be fascinating. By coincidence I am slowly working my way through Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment (2012) which currently has long sections on Stieglitz, his disciples and his influence. The Eloquent Eye film added enormously to my knowledge of him.

I wasn’t aware until now how influential he was in both promoting photography as art and promoting modern art generally. He was a rebellious, anarchistic and impatient, both as a practitioner and as a talent-spotter. He brought the works of Rodin, Matisse and Picasso to the USA, he published the first of Gertrude Stein’s writing, he started a magazine called Camera Work then infuriated photography fans by filling it with paintings, sculptures and drawings.

By the time his work was done, photography was finally sitting on something like equal terms with art, or at least with modern art. What fascinates me is that he did this not just by pushing the envelope with regards to photography itself, but also by embracing the interplay between photography and other art forms – perceptively identifying and encouraging what styles such as impressionism, cubism and pictorials owed to photography. In On Photography (1979), Susan Sontag expands on the influence that photography had on painting, quoting Stieglitz’s writing in Camera Work in 1909 that “the impressionist painters adhere to a style of composition that is strictly photographic” (Sontag 1979: 92).

He pushed boundaries throughout his life and career, and it seemed that whenever public opinion finally caught up with his tastes, he had got bored and moved onto something else; ever the contrarian, his eye was always seeking ‘the new’ (for some reason he put me in mind of John Peel and his approach to music… must be my age).


I am indebted to this opening part of the course notes for allowing me to fill in a major gap in my photographic historical knowledge! I just still can’t get my head round why they included this in the documentary section (rant over now).


Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye, YouTube (accessed 15/12/2015)

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

Dyer, G. (2012) The Ongoing Moment. London: Canongate.

Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin.