Life Through the Lens: Pioneers of Documentary Photography

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January 25, 2015 by katmcdaniel

A picture may be worth a thousand words. Does this mean that images are better at telling the truth?

The early part of the Twentieth Century saw the rise of photo journalism, as the young medium of photography found a way of making itself useful in documenting human experience. Men and women of uncommon courage and persistence shaped the way future generations would see the world around them; most of them were “odd ducks” who didn’t fit easily into normal society but could serve handsomely as advocates for people who were completely outside of that realm. They spent hours among people they didn’t know, often in adverse circumstances, all the while lugging expensive and bulky equipment across the countryside or cityscape. They developed images on glass plates, a tedious process.

Please enjoy this historical gallery of documentary photographs from three pioneers of the field with quotes from or about the artists. Click the links to investigate further. Images are in the Public Domain unless otherwise credited. All others are used in accordance with Fair Use Policy.

Doris Ulmann (1882-1934)

Mrs. Frank Henderson

Ms. Frank Henderson, Brasstown, North Carolina

Miss Ulmann’s point of view about the people she photographed was quite simple. She concluded that there would always be someone with a snapshot camera to photograph the pretty girls with frills, dresses and curled hair, made-up eyes and lips. She was concerned not with these people, but with genuine, downright individuals. You had to be an individual, a character more or less, before she was interested in you even a little bit. 

–John Jacob Niles, The Call Number, v.19 no.2 Spring 1958, © University of Oregon Press

Niles was Ulmann’s assistant and later achieved fame as a collector and arranger of folk music. To read more about her and the difficulties of the early photographic process from Mr. Niles, click here.

Miss Elsie Stewart, tomboy on cabin porch

Miss Elsie Stewart, tomboy on cabin porch
Brasstown, North Carolina

Nick Barton, Civil War Veteran, May 1928

Nick Barton, Civil War Veteran, May 1928

Gullah women from Roll, Jordan, Roll.

Gullah women, South Carolina 
From Roll, Jordan, Roll by Julia Peterkin and Doris Ulmann

66550

Baptism in the river, South Carolina 
From Roll, Jordan, Roll

Known for the sensitivity and respect that she gave those she photographed, from mountain men and women of Appalachia to the descendants of slaves in South Carolina, Ulmann was a pictorialist who posed her subjects in ways that she felt revealed truth about them.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991)

Children at the Fair, Maine, 1967 © Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

Children at the Fair, Maine, 1967
© Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

…people say they need to express their emotions. I’m sick of that. Photography doesn’t teach you to express your emotions, it teaches you to see.

–Berenice Abbott, Art News, January 1981

Court of the First Model Tenement, 12ndStreet and 1st Avenue, New York, 1936

Court of the First Model Tenement, 12th Street and 1st Avenue, New York, 1936
© Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

Berenice Abbott wasn’t one for sentimentality, although her work is far from emotionless. For her, documentary photos were about the relationship between human beings and their environment and a successful image captured that relationship candidly, without the artist posing the shot. She was famous for her visions of New York City and would later become one of the first science photographers. That work lies out of the scope of this article, but is fascinating. You can read about it here.

 © Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

Talman Street between Jay and Bridge Streets , Brooklyn, New York 1936
© Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

Fulton Street Fish Market, New York, 1935

Fulton Street Fish Market, New York, 1935
© Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

Pike and Henry Streets, New York, 1936

Pike and Henry Streets, New York, 1936
© Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

Grandfather and grandson of Japanese Ancestry at Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California

Grandfather and grandson of Japanese Ancestry at Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California

While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.

–-Dorothea Lange

 Dust Bowl farm. Coldwater District, north of Dalhart, Texas. This house is occupied; most of the houses in this district have been abandoned

Dust Bowl farm. Coldwater District, north of Dalhart, Texas. This house is occupied; most of the houses in this district have been abandoned.  June 1938

Employed by the United States Government as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, Lange used her camera to reveal the plight of families made destitute by the  combined forces of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s, which killed crops across American farmlands. These efforts were largely applauded. Things were far different when she documented the struggles of Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II. The US Army suppressed those photos and most remained locked away for more than sixty years. You can read about them here. A true journalist, Lange’s devotion to the oppressed and impoverished guided her vision more that any aesthetic principles.

7056460817_7d125e7b7c_b

Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma 1936

Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936

Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936, Nipomo, CA

Unemployed lumber worker goes with his wife to the bean harvest. Note social security number tattooed on his arm. Oregon, 1939.

Unemployed lumber worker goes with his wife to the bean harvest. Note social security number tattooed on his arm. Oregon, 1939.

Young sharecropper and his first child. Hillside Farm. Person County, North Carolina

Young sharecropper and his first child. Hillside Farm. Person County, North Carolina, 1939

Tagged Girl, Oakland, CA, 1942

Tagged Girl, Oakland, CA, 1942

Documentary photography chronicles life, both the mundane and the extraordinary. Photojournalists and amateur photographers alike exult in capturing the fleeting moment, freezing a thought or emotion for posterity. And yet a photo is subject to interpretation and manipulation, revealing a combination of truth and illusion that can bring out the unexpected or project something that isn’t even there. The camera cannot decipher motivation, nor does it present a complete story, being only a moment plucked from a richer timeline. Technology has added to the potential for creating propaganda. What once would have required posing or staging can be done, and is done, through digital manipulation.

Images shape who we trust and can be used to build or destroy empathy. We need artists today who will take photos that show the world as they see it and we need them to be honest about the accuracy of that vision.

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6 thoughts on “Life Through the Lens: Pioneers of Documentary Photography

  1. mkriegh says:

    Nice post! Right up an alley of interest for me. As to whether photos tell the truth or not, that raging debate continues. I think I have concluded that the most you can say is that they present a point of view. Something about what someone saw that moved them to make an image. The “truth” of that point of view is a relative matter, always. Sometimes the objectness of the scene is rendered with straightforward honesty, sometimes it is not. And the selection of what to include in the frame, what to leave out, makes a huge difference to the information offered about the scene.

    I’ve begun to look at photographs as frozen mirrors. They reflect an image of individual and/or collective selves back at us. What we receive in that reflection depends on what our frame of mind is at the time as much as anything.

    • katmcdaniel says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! Yes, a photo is subject to the values and prejudices of its creator and its viewer.
      I wonder if humans are able to see objective truth at all. Some folks go as far as to deny its existence…I think it does exist, and sometimes it hits us like an iceberg underwater. It isn’t always unpleasant, but it is seldom pure and clear. Life makes us all detectives.

      • mkriegh says:

        Hmmmm…I think there are truths we all participate in, bodily death is certain, a sharp knife will cut you.

        There are also extended truths, like the sun will rise tomorrow, that won’t always be so, but it doesn’t matter for our time frame.

        Come to think of it, the bodily death certainty is growing less certain now that we have cloning and that longevity strategies are developing. When we are as much machine as animal will we ever physically die?

        I think science would lay claim to objective truth, but I think the photographic medium hints at that possible fallacy.

        I suspect society constructs the objective truth it needs to organize itself and behaves accordingly. Perhaps the job of art is to continuously poke at that objective truth and provoke changed behavior as a result…

      • katmcdaniel says:

        I wonder how many of our truths are of the extended type and how many are social constructs, illusions that work for the moment. We still need those “truths”, even if they aren’t absolute, but we ought to be able to change some of them if they aren’t working.

        Art definitely does help poke holes in perception doesn’t it? I remember a quote in which someone said there were four types of people: some to build walls, some to protect walls, some to breach walls and some to tear the walls down. SinceI read that, I have considered myself a breacher. I put that quote up a few years ago… I’ll find it.

  2. […] 3. Life Through the Lens: Pioneers of Documentary Photography […]

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