Category Archives: 1 Legacy documentary for social change

Discussing Documentary–Maartje van de Heuvel

Exercise Read the introduction the the Essay “Mirror of Visual Culture” and make a summary.

Maartje van de Heuval raises several questions in this introduction:

  • Does documentary photography need to change to be accepted into the gallery?
  • Will it be able to function in its traditional communications role in this setting?
  • Can documentary images still be perceived as truthful when viewed as art?
  • Should the context of the photographic document be wider to reflect the increasing role of the media in the making and viewing of work?

She then discussed the role of the media in our understanding of the world around us and how increased visual literacy (which is not taught but absorbed by contact with the media) gives us a second hand view of the world, remote from our personal experiences and the effect this is having on the way in which artists create work dealing with the way images are handled in the media. (Visual Literacy: the ability to distinguish and interpret visible actions, objects and symbols in one’s surroundings and apply these to communication).

Next was a discussion of the traditional perception of the documentary and the “militant eye-witness” and how different artists freed themselves from the “human interest” tradition of Hine and Riis, later evolving into the left-wing activist’s tool for illustrating the class struggle. Along with this, the B&W, high contrast, coarse grained “of the moment” 35mm  images led an immediacy and reality.  Subsequent development and the influence of the TV’s presentation of reality, docu-drama, docu-soaps etc., further clouded the objectivity of the documentary image.


The American Social Documentarians

Jacob Riis’ book “How the other half lives” documented the living conditions in the New York slums in the late 19th century. He was a journalist and self taught photographer, Riis used  magnesium flash to photograph the interiors of the slums which would otherwise have  remained invisible. He only photographed from 1888 – 1898 and stopped photographing when he had enough material to illustrate his books and articles. His contribution to the movement of social reform in the US is thought to have started Social Documentary Photography genre. MOMA has a collection of his work.

Lewis Hine was another socially aware photographer who documented child labour in the US between 1908-12. His photographs with original captions can be found here:

Hine also photographed immigrants at Ellis Island, extensively in New York City and documented the building of the Empire State Building.

Both of these men were committed reformers and their influence can certainly still be seen today in the work of many documentary photographers.  A modern example of this type of campaigning documentary can be found in on-line magazines such as Life Force

Reading and research Chris Killip–b 1946

Killip is a multi award winning documentary photographer probably best known for his work recording  the decline of the industrial north-east of England and his home – the Isle of Man. I’m unfamiliar with the north-east and have only visited briefly but one place that did stand out when I was reading about Killip was Skinningrove. While walking the Coast path in this area in 2007, we stopped a the Riverside Cafe and Community Centre here for tea and scones on a foggy July morning.  The link to Michael Almereyda’s award winning short film in which Chris Killip talks about his project in photographing the village is here:

Chris Killip also talks about the Deutsche Borse nomination for his exhibition “What Happened – Great Britain 1970 –1990” here:

There is no doubt that Chris Killip is a dedicated social documentary photographer.

It is perhaps an indictment of these financially constrained times, that the Hampshire Library Catalogue contains no items by Chris Killip.

Reading & Research–Nick Danziger–”The British”

Following the idea in the course notes, I borrowed this book from the library to make the comparison between the early work “The English at Home” by Bill Brandt and Danziger’s book. Unfortunately I was not able to see a copy of Brandt’s book but there are enough examples from it on the internet to give me a good idea of the work.

I started by looking at: to find out more about his work. He is a committed and dedicated filmmaker and photojournalist who has travelled extensively and focused his energies on reporting the plight of the disadvantaged and helpless in the troubled regions of the world. A lot of his work is in black and white.

The British (2001)

I mentioned in an earlier post that Brandt’s “The English at Home” used pairs of photographs on opposite pages to juxtapose the class differences he found in the 1930’s. Danziger has done the opposite, producing a double ended book with the seemingly poor and powerless documented at one end and the establishment of the rich and powerful at the other. This is also a later work (2001) so is more contemporary with the work of the Exit Photography group and more relevant to modern Britain. It is also interesting that Danziger, although British by birth, made this work as a “local stranger “ (He has not made Britain his home).

I liked this book for the sheer scale of the undertaking, the variety of  the photography and spontaneity of some of the images. Social documentary work both as photographs and films seems to be the prime focus of Danziger’s work.



Reading “Bill Brandt” Introduction by Ian Jeffrey


This slim volume provided a summary of Brandt’s work in words and a selection of images taken over his long career in which he appeared to divided up into genres although I am sure these periods overlapped. He published books and worked for various publications including Picture Post and Lilliput. Ian Jeffrey has entitled his introduction “Brandt’s Secrets” and describes his style as “anachronistic” probably as a result of having to learn about Britain (his father’s homeland) from picture books as a child.(Brandt came to Britain in 1933 at the age of 29) The English at Home, his first published book was described as a work of montage and juxtaposition where paired images contrasted themes.

His work for the illustrated periodical has become the standard exemplar of social documentary for the middle part of the 20th century when he documented life in Britain during periods of upheaval and change. His later work, landscape, celebrity portraiture and his surreal nude studies is of a different character although it appears to have evolved from his interest in people and (according to Jeffrey), sex. Here are three images from each of these bodies of work that I was interested in:


During World War 2 Brandt was employed by the Ministry of Information to record life in the air raid shelters and underground stations in the blitz. This is a typical example of the work that he did at the time.


His landscapes tend to be dark and brooding and often with figures very small in the frame.


It is for his nudes that Brandt is best known apparently. Although they are very different in style to any other photographer’s work, echoing the forms of the landscape of which they form a part, I don’t find them particularly attractive. I’m not a big fan of “artistic” nudes either in paintings or photographs.

While I have been aware of Brandt for many years, this is the first time I have looked closely at his work. There is no doubt that he has influenced a generation (or two) of photographers. I was recently looking through my black and white archive from the 70’s . I think you can see where I got some of my ideas and inspiration from, even if it was subconsciously.

 Going Home

Part 2 – The Black and White Document

Project Legacy documentary for social change

Exercise: Read the 1939 article on documentary photography by Elizabeth McCausland.

I found it difficult to identify the main points in this article, it rambles a bit, contains obscure references, is very wordy and it seems to be written in the style of a voice over for a 1940’s documentary film.

Its relevance to this part of the course is that, historically photography has always adapted and been at the vanguard of social change. We can learn from documentary movements of the past but we must also consider photography’s role as a tool for expression, not only of the photographer’s perception of the world but to communicate clearly those situations that would be otherwise overlooked or ignored. In this way photography can be an agent for change.

Exercise: Read the article “Survival Programmes” in Eight Magazine (June 2006).

I could see that this was an important work showing the harsh realities of life in 1970’s inner cities. I was cushioned from these times, living the south, I always had a job, a car and a house. I was fully occupied building a career, home and family and these gritty images were only peripheral to my life. The power of the images comes partly from the uncompromising texts and from the humanity and drama of the photography.

Exercise: Read “Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document” by David Campany.


Parlour maid and Under Parlour maid Ready to Serve Dinner 1933

In this article, Campany uses this photograph of Brandt’s to illustrate the longevity  and artistic properties of his work. He claims that the image has several roles in helping us to appreciate Brandt’s work:

  • It stands for all of Brandt’s work
  • It is regarded as a milestone in both art and documentary photography
  • It is an Illustration of life in the 1930’s.

He then goes on to describe its appearance in various forms during 5 decades

  • 1936 in Brandt’s book “The English at Home”, a pictorial survey across social classes
  • 1938 in the magazine Verve alongside a reproduction of a Matisse painting  of a dinner table
  • 1966 Brandt included it in his anthology “The Shadow of Light”
  • 1969 Walker Evans selected it to illustrate the artistic quality of the photographic medium. Also in this year it featured in a Brandt show at MoMA in New York
  • 1970 it was reproduced in the catalogue for the same exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London.

Campany quotes critic Raymond Mortimer writing about “The English at Home”. He describes Brandt as an “artist and anthropologist” which reflects the poetic realism prevalent between the wars. Campany goes on to explain, “Poetic realism often adopted well-established visual devices, clichés even, that flattered the viewer with pictorial artfulness as a means to convince them of the social authority of the image” . Brandt was more at ease with the surrealist view of photography which leaves the viewer to make up their own mind about the meaning of the photograph. Neither was he convinced of the role of social description and the use of photographs in social reform.

How did black and white photography become such a respected and trusted medium?

This happened mainly because in the heyday of documentary, reportage and photojournalism were only ever in black and white as it was the cheapest and most efficient method of graphic reproduction, not only in mass circulation newspapers in the cinema and later, television. These were the only media available to keep the population informed of what was happening in the world. Both were taken seriously. When colour printing was introduced to mass circulation in the 1960’s, initially as the “colour supplement”  it tended to be used for advertising and lightweight editorial copy, leaving the serious reporting  to the faster and more reliable medium of the half tone black and white print. It seems today that the nostalgic presentation of factual documentaries in black and white, print still carries that gravitas.

6th August I have today reserved “The British” by Nick Danziger and “Bill Brandt” with an introduction by Ian Jeffrey, from Hampshire Library to supplement my reading for this section of the course.