Research Notes – The history of Documentary Photography

I have used the internet to find information relevant to the topics listed on p22 of the course notes. There follows, a brief summary of what I have read and the URL links of the sites that I used.

(I am using a hard backed notebook to record what I found. This is my workbook, to which I will add notes and images to build an informal learning log/sketchbook. Research notes have blue tabs I plan to include this as part of my assessment submission on completion of the course).

I started my research with John Grierson, the 20th century film maker who coined the phrase “documentary” in relation to narrative films. He was a prolific director and film producer and created the film units for the Empire Marketing Board, the GPO and formed the National Film Board of Canada during WW2. He was also appointed Unesco Director of Mass Communications and Public Information in 1947 and was an influential force in the burgeoning documentary film movement in the early 20th century.

According to an article by Jo Fox, Grierson was never happy with the term documentary, describing it as a ‘clumsy’ expression, ‘ a swell word for a simple thing’. Like today, definitions were flexible and the term has come to mean different things within photography. There are several genres of still photography related to documentary, photo-journalism, reportage, photo-essay and often to term is misused or wrongly applied, sometimes according to what is fashionable. (see more later related to the Anna Fox Study Day)

According the the study notes, Grierson described Robert Flaherty’s film “Moana” (shot in the South Seas) as having ‘documentary value’. His films were  not ‘fly on the wall’ documentaries but rather set pieces of real people doing everyday things in front of the camera. This may have been a purely practical notion related to the limits of the portability and availability of equipment in the early days of filming. It led to the terms ‘docufiction’, ethnographic and ethno fiction being applied to his various films which also included, ‘Nanook of the North’ and ‘Man of Aran’.

Flaherty was a prospector for a railway company  in the Hudson’s Bay area of Canada when the made Nanook of the North. Grierson employed him to work on the film ‘Industrial Britain’ with limited success, due to the budgetary constraints of working with government funding.

The use of photography to record objects, buildings and people for scientific and reporting purposes had been going on long before the development of moving pictures. in the 1850’s the ‘Mission Heliographique’ in France was used to record the architectural heritage of the country with a view to record and learn about the state of repair of the buildings. Five photographers, Eduard Baldus, Hippolyte Bayard, Gustave Le Gray, Henri L Secq and August Mestral were dispatched from Paris with an ?itinerary and a list of sites to photograph. Sadly the Commission of Historical Monuments did not publish the photographs but some negatives (except Bayard’s who used glass) do survive and are now stored in the Museé d’ Oray in Paris. I have printed a few thumbnails and added them to my workbook.

The  W H R Rivers  and  the Torres Straits Expedition of 1898 used photography in relation to an anthropological record. Photographer Anthony Wilkin was one of the team, a photograph of which, is the only one I could find on-line that I could say for certain was from the expedition. Even a 35mm movie film shot by Haddon on the trip seems to be locked away in the BFI archive with impossible (for the distance learning student) obstacles to overcome, placed in the way of viewing. The fact that photography was used in the expedition only receives a mention in passing in Rivers biographical notes on Wikipedia and makes no mention of its impact – more research required.

I did find this paper by Elizabeth Edwards concerning the use of photography on the expedition but it is  closely written in academic language much of which I do not understand. I weighed up the time I would spend reading and possibly failing to understand it, against the its value in the context of my understanding of the history of documentary photography. I concluded that my time would be better spent looking for a different example.

Roger Fenton 1819 – 1869 was active as a photographer for only 10 years but his contribution to documentary photography was significant. As well as founding the (later Royal) Photographic Society in 1853 he is known as the first war photographer for his images of the Crimean war exhibited in 1855. (I’ve added two images to my workbook, ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’ and ‘Landing place near railway stores , Balaklava’) Limited as he was by the cumbersome nature of his equipment, injury and illness, he produced over 300 usable negatives which resulted in an exhibition of 312 prints on his return to London. It is thought that the enterprise was encouraged by the secretary of state for war to counter the unpopular feeling towards the war at home with the photographs due to be shown as woodcuts in the Illustrated London News. Sales of the prints were not as good as expected but Fenton continued to work enthusiastically on landscapes and still life and was appointed the British Museum’s first official photographer. As a painter, Fenton saw photography purely as an artistic endeavour and became disillusioned with the increasing commercialism of the medium. He didn’t want to ‘cheapen his art’ so in 1863, he sold his equipment and negatives and returned to his career at the bar.

Felice (Felix) Beato 1832 1909 photographed widely in India, China (the Opium Wars) and Japan as well as in Sudan as part of the expeditionary force sent to relieve Gordon at Khartoum. He later established several businesses in Mandalay (Burma) and is generally thought to be responsible for the western visual perception of Asia. He pioneered a refined process of hand colouring prints and was a keen and skilled exponent of constructed panoramas. I have added one picture to my workbook which shows the HQ Staff at Penhang Fort (China) in August 1860.

Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson (working in the 1870’s) O’Sullivan is probably better known for his Civil War Photographs and Jackson initially for his work with the US Geological Survey and than as a successful publisher. Jacksons work in Yellowstone and the Tetons was influential in the foundation of the Yellowstone National Park. O’Sullivan’s work with the USGS covered the geological exploration of the 40th parallel from Nevada eastwards. Initially the photographs were designed to attract settlers to the west. The USGS website is a rich searchable source of photographs by a large number of photographers including O’Sullivan and Jackson. In contrast to Fenton, both were keen to exploit the market for images. Jackson in particular became a successful publisher until his company went bankrupt in 1924. I added a couple of images to my workbook and have included a modern colour image of the Flaming Gorge, Utah as a comparison.’Sullivan

Albert Khan  (1860 – 1940) started his ‘Archive of the Planet’ in 1909 when he journeyed to Japan with his driver and photographer Alfred Dutertre. Using Auto chrome plates (Lumiere Brothers) and early cinematography, over 22 years he amassed 72,000 colour photos and 183,000 metres of film by documenting buildings and cultures in 50 countries  worldwide. His collection is housed at his former home Museé Albert Khan, 14 Rue du Port Boulogne, Billancourt , Paris.

Auto chrome process was invented by the Lumiere Brothers. It is an additive colour process using coloured starch grains on a mosaic screen plate. Complex to manufacture and difficult to use for moving subjects because of the long exposures required. The images are difficult to reproduce and a special daylight viewer is required for 1:1 viewing is required. Projection has its hazards as the 500w lamp required risks heat damage to the plates. I have added an example image to my workbook.


Looking at the early uses of photography it can be seen that the medium evolved it’s uses with the rapid change of the available processes and technologies, an evolution which continues today with the rapid exponential growth of digital capability.

Even from this short look at a selection from the history of photography, it is clear that John Grierson was right, Documentary is a swell word for a simple thing. It is a simple thing that can be used for any number of purposes, from the simple recording and storing of types of things (typology) to telling a complex story. The notion that the camera cannot lie is an oversimplification of the idea that, because it is a mechanical process, it can only record what is in front of its lens and is therefore objective. But what of the the truth of what is in front of the lens at that split second the shutter is activated? At her talk to the OCA this week, Professor Anna Fox talked about her work as being a ‘story about truth’, after questions arose about her use of digitally stitching  some of her images.

Other questions arise, when does documentary become art?  Is photography art anyway? Fenton obviously thought so as he was so determined not to cheapen his art that he gave up photography and returned to the law.

I’m sure the discussions that these question raise will be covered in later exercises and projects which I will record here.



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