What makes a document?

On page 22 of the course notes, we are asked to research some historical developments in documentary photography.

John Grierson (1898-1972):

Influential Scottish filmmaker and theorist who is credited as having first used documentary in the new sense/definition of the term, although, the French term documentaire had already been used to describe serious films about travel and exploration and documentary was used as a term in the USA as early as 1911.  (Franklin, 2016: 7)

Documentary as a genre/movement flowed through a number of arenas in the early 20th century: film, photography, science writing, popular literature, radio programmes and art movements, for example, the American Ashcan school¹. Each media reinforced the other and there was a common suggestion that practitioners were neutral observers boldly recounting facts. (Marien, 2014: 248)

In 1926, Grierson described Robert J. Flaherty’s film ‘Moana’ as having “documentary value.” (Bull, 2010: 108) He continued by offering the definition of documentary as a “creative treatment of actuality”  (Bate, 2016: 67) “the selective dramatisation of facts in terms of their human consequences.” and, “a means of educating our generation in the nature of the modern world and its implications in citizenship.” (Badger, 2001: 72) For Grierson, a good documentary is an “interpretation” of real life that “lights up the fact.” He believed documentary had no essence of factual truth and that the documentary end justifies the means. (Bate, 2016: 71)

Grierson believed in educating the masses through mass media, ideas which found counterpart on Roosevelt’s new deal administration. (Badger, 2001: 72) For Grierson, the educative function of film was a means of creating an informed public able to play an active part in running a democratic society. Documentary had the potential to be a tool of education that could militate against foolish distractions and anchor people in the rational world of work and social obligation. (Wells, 2009: 92) Warner Marien (2014: 248) states “Grierson suggested that documentary should be given the power of poetry and prophecy.”

Grierson was interested in intimacy over actuality: “Intimacy with the fact of the matter is therefore the distinguishing mark of documentary, and it is not important how this is achieved.” He later claimed that the 1939 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ was as valuable a documentary artefact as the recording of an actual event. (Franklin, 2016: 7)

¹ American Ashcan School: Group of nineteenth/twentieth century realist painters and illustrators. Interested in depicting raucous and callous reality and the sordid side of city life, especially New York, which provoked the nickname. Best known: Robert Henri and George Bellows – ‘Cliff Dwellers’ (1913) depicts slum life in New York and is a good example of Ashcan realism.

Robert Flaherty (1884-1951):

American documentary filmmaker.

Nanook of the North (1922):

Flaherty spent 16 months chronicling the daily lives of an indigenous Inuk family and their struggle for survival in the frozen wastes of northern Quebec near the Hudson bay, Canada. One of the earliest examples of a feature length documentary film and a commercial success that helped legitimise the documentary mode and led the big studios to search for “another Nanook.” (Warner Marien, 2014: 278)

Moana (1926):

Poetic record of Polynesian life described by John Grierson on a review as having “documentary value.” (Franklin, 2016: 7)

Although actors and scripts were discouraged in documentary filmmaking, makers were not purists. For example, Flaherty restaged a walrus hunt and seal fishing in Nanook. (Franklin, 2006: 181)  In ‘Man of Aran’ (1934), a film about a family struggling to survive harsh conditions on the west coast of Ireland, many of those featured were not actually related and many scenes were performed specifically for the camera.

Mission Héliographiques (1850s):

Term for the photographic enterprise undertaken by the Historic Monuments Commission – a division of the French Ministry of the Interior. The purpose of the project was to document French architecture and ancient monuments, this was an urgent concern because the aftermath of the French revolution, the expansion of urban populations and industrial disruption of the countryside all led to a sense that the future would be markedly different from the past. Historical landmarks, particularly medieval and Gothic architecture, were cherished symbols of French cultural achievement and represented France’s economic and political rivalry with Britain. Many were seriously damaged and had fallen into disrepair and neglect and part of the Mission’s remit was to provide recommendations for renovation.

Five photographers were commissioned for the project: Edouard Baldus, Hippolyte Bayard, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq and O. Mestral. All were members of the Société-Héliographique, an organisation that did not specialise in any one form of photography but encouraged scientific, artistic and technical discussions about the medium. Typically, each photographer was assigned to a particular area of France and particular monuments.

Surprisingly, the Calotype was chosen over the French invention of the Daguerreotype as the form of output for the mission. The Daguerreotype, despite being capable of rendering greater detail, was felt to have a cold, metallic tinge and mass of details that was more distracting than artful. The softer shapes and details of the Calotype was felt to more eloquently express the nostalgia which was one of the aims of the project. The larger size and fact that multiple copies could be made was also an advantage.

The photographs produced as part of the Mission Héliographiques represent an interesting early example of photography as an art form and the value of the untouched negative versus the manipulation of images. For example, Edouard Baldus (1831-89) produced a composite image of the cloisters at Saint-Trophîme by joining many negatives together and retouching as necessary. The result was a large image which went beyond the cameras limited scope. Also, Henri Le Secq (1818-82) often produced finely detailed registers of architecture and sculpture, but also, produced images where deep shadows mute detail and create sharp contrasts that even approach abstraction.

Mission Héliographiques are an example of a ‘survey approach’ typical in early photography which relates to an impulse to go out and collect images of the world, make an inventory and categorise. Another example is Timothy O. Sullivan’s US department of war sponsored survey of the American west after the civil war. The project can also be linked to later ‘typological’ approaches – the process of making innumerable similar photographs by type or of the same thing. Examples include Atget’s series of Parisian shop fronts, Muybridge’s motion studies and Edward S. Curtis studies of native American tribes. (Badger, 2001: 67, 241; Warner Marien, 2014: 50, 53)

Roger Fenton (1819-1869) Crimean War Photographs:

In 1855 when Roger Fenton was commissioned by Manchester print company Thomas Agnew and sons to make images of the war in Crimea (1853-6) he was already a famous amateur photographer and had helped found the Photographic society in 1853. Despite his varied work, it is the pictures he took during his four months in Crimea for which he is remembered.

Although war had been photographed before, Fenton is often referred to as the first war photographer because the 360 images he took in Crimea are the first to survive in bulk and provide a comprehensive documentation of war. The reason for Fenton’s commission was both commercial, the intent was always to sell prints on his return, and propaganda, the war in Crimea was deeply unpopular and heavily criticised in print (in reports by William Russell in The Times.) It was hoped that Fenton’s images could counter these negative views.

By modern standards Fenton’s photographs are not very warlike, they are mostly portraits of officers and landscapes which showed scenes of calm and disciplined order. For Badger (2001: 26) his photographs are marked as much by what he leaves out as what he chooses to include. The decision not to photograph devastation, disease and death can be explained by the commercial nature of the project as well as cultural reasons. It is important to remember that at this time photography was in its infancy and continued the artistic tradition of reinforcing the strictly hierarchical social values and codes of behaviour of the nineteenth century: “There is no democratic or questioning frame of reference in Fenton.” (Clarke, 1997: 45) It is of note however that his subsequent cityscapes employed the same “selective eye” with his photographs of London showing none of the sprawling and chaotic reality of the time.

From his letters we know that Fenton was frustrated by the mismanagement he witnessed in Crimea. The conditions were appalling with the harbour at Balaklava being a cesspool of dead animals and disease being rife, particularly cholera which he contracted himself at the end of his stay. 80 percent of casualties were due to disease and the extreme cold rather than fighting. Although he acknowledges there is little in Fenton’s work that can be described as action, Jeffrey (1981:50) sees “abrupt dislocations” captured in the photographs of heaped shells and guns and tangles of rigging. Also, in his portraits, he sees little evidence of subjects having a martial air with most officers appearing like private citizens in uniform against their better judgement.

The technical difficulties Fenton faced were significant. He employed the newly invented wet collodion process which required the use of a darkroom situated in a horse drawn carriage and exposure times of 10-15 seconds, which meant capturing any scenes of action was virtually impossible. That is without the fact that the language of the work he was creating was not yet established: “Predecessors had shown just how places looked; Fenton had the additional problem of showing what went on.” (Jeffrey, 1981: 51)

Fenton’s most famous picture, ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ (1855) struck a chord and became his signature image. The picture shows a road littered with cannonballs and the pictures title cleverly plays on a line from Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ – combined with the poem the photograph illustrates the aftermath of wars devastation. Badger (2001: 26) states that Fenton did not allow fact to spoil the effectiveness of his image since it was taken a year after the actual charge and several miles from the actual battle site:

“Stark and unyielding, it is proof that a good metaphor can often beat a good fact…Above all, this image appeals to the imagination, and that can fill in the more unpalatable truths Fenton was loathe to reveal.”

The photograph is also not without controversy with accusations that it was staged by Fenton: two exposures were made at the same position, one with cannonballs at the side of the road and the other with them scattered along the path. The insinuation is that the cannonballs were moved by Fenton to increase the drama strength and drama of the image. Errol Morris discusses and researches this at length in ‘Believing is seeing’ (2011) – an essay I will return to in the future.

By the time Fenton’s photographs were exhibited in late 1855 the war was over and his images out of date. Ironically, Fenton was not present in Crimea to witness the fall of Sebastopol and the public were indifferent to the images of a distant and costly war they wanted to forget. The photographs were eventually sold at auction for a discount. Despite this, and the various arguments surrounding Fenton’s work and their authenticity, he is regarded as the first war photographer and the Crimean war set the pattern for war correspondents to come.

(Badger, 2001: 26,30; Bull, 2010: 115; Clarke, 1997: 45,58; Gernsheim, 1965: 139,141; Hoy, 2005: 150, 152; Jeffrey, 1981: 48, 50-2; Warner Marien, 2014: 81,98,99; Wells, 2009: 86)

Félice Beato (c. 1820s-1907?) Second Opium War

Beato was Italian by birth, but a naturalised Englishman. In the 1850s he opened a photographic studio with his brother in law John Robertson (who photographed the end of the Crimean war after Roger Fenton had left), both later photographed many wars.

Beato photographed the Indian Mutiny/Sepoy rebellion (1857-8) and was the first to show dead bodies in photographs, admittedly these were confined to the enemy who were seen as deserving of punishment, inferior and heathen. In photographs of the Secundra Bagh Palace taken a year after the slaughter of 1800 Sepoy defenders by British troops, he scattered the courtyard with human skulls to recreate the battle. Pictures of Indians were accepted as their deaths were seen as just revenge for the revolt – the taboo against showing British dead remained.

In 1860 Beato was with Anglo-French troops at the end of the second opium war (1856-60), possibly in a semi-official capacity. Beato conscientiously documented western allies as they took an important fort near Taku which was a critical step in advancing toward the capital Peking. Unburied Chinese dead were photographed, however, although these images predate grisly American civil war photographs they did little to explain the complex relationships between China and the West that led to the war.

(Hoy, 2005: 114, 152; Warner Marien, 2014: 115, 118)

Matthew Brady (1822-1896)

American portrait photographer famous for documentation of the American civil war (1861-5.)

After learning the Daguerreotype process from Samuel F.B. Morse and John William Draper, Brady opened his first portrait studio in New York in 1844 and celebrity portraits became his stock in trade. Throughout 1850s he created portraits of distinguished American figures in law, government business, society and the arts – his status rose along with that of his sitters until he was a celebrity himself. In 1860 he took a famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the eve of his Cooper Union Address which Lincoln later credited as being responsible for making him President. Most Americans had never seen Lincoln at the time and his campaign was dogged by rumours of his ugliness. Brady posed Lincoln in a statesmanlike way, directing the light to his face to detract emphasis from his gangliness.

At the beginning of the civil war, Brady saw a commercial opportunity – there was an explosion in demand for photography with portraits of military and political leaders popular and demand from the families of soldiers going to war for pictures of their young men. In turn, the soldiers also wanted keepsakes of their families to take with them. Brady’s success as a portrait photographer meant he had the resources, experience, skills, equipment and contacts to document the war. A number of assistants were hired, including Timothy O’Sullivan and Alexander Gardner, Brady himself took few photographs himself due to his poor eyesight. Despite this, without his far-seeing plan, the war may never have been recorded. Almost all of the wars major battles were covered, the wet collodion process was too slow to capture action with the majority of photographs showing before and after battle. Brady’s civil war pictures can be seen as defining the genre of war photography with their depiction of battlefield scenes, the aftermath of battle, dead bodies, decay and destruction. Shocking images of the dead were praised by the New York Times for bringing home the terrible reality of war, an acknowledgement of the further development between photography and the press.

Arranging elements before photographing was commonplace. For ‘Home of a rebel sharpshooter’ (July 1863), Gardner openly rearranged the scene to intensify the visual and emotional effect. The dead subject was a moved next to a stone wall, head supported by a knapsack and the prop of a rifle owned by Gardner added. That this was accepted by the public shows how far from modern understanding of what is permissible the image is. That there was no attempt to keep the scenes manipulation secret perhaps shows a willingness to allow photographers to construct a scene in order to establish truth in a larger sense rather than fidelity to visual fact. Coming from a background in portraits where directing and arranging the scene before the camera was the norm it is understandable how Brady and his photographers would see this as a natural way to work.

Documenting the civil war proved to be a financial disaster for Brady and he was left heavily in debt by the war’s end. The initial enthusiasm for photographs declined as the war went on and there was little government support – it took until 1875 for Congress to purchase the pictures and hence preserve them. Now they are regarded as an important resource and document. The American civil war was the first war to be photographed so extensively and for which photography was not only seen as providing realistic images but also as news. Jeffrey (1981:55) sums up photographs of the civil war:

“Nowhere else is war presented so unflinchingly, with so stern a face. The news is all of a war unstintingly pursued – a test of nerve for both antagonists and onlookers.”

(Badger, 2001: 24, 131, 242; Bate, 2014: 61; Franklin, 2016: 177-8; Gernsheim, 1965: 142-3; Herschdorfer, 2015: 75-6; Hoy, 2005: 72, 153, 154; Jeffrey, 1981: 55; Warner Marien, 2014: 103, 104, 106, 108; Wells, 2009: 87)

Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-82)

O’Sullivan was one of the most famous photographers of the American Civil War, his pictures of bloated corpses on the Gettysburg battlefield marked a new, brutal realism.

Following the war, O’Sullivan took part in a number of U.S. Government Surveys of the American West, the aim of which was to document and examine the newly conquered landscape with the prospect of governance and scientific discovery. In 1867, he was hired by aristocrat scientist Clarence King in a move that set a precedent for surveys to follow due to King’s insistence on including a photographer in the party. The mission of the ’40th parallel’ project was to examine the geology and topography along the proposed northern railroad route. When the expedition wintered at Virginia City, Nevada, O’Sullivan was the first to photograph inside the Comstock mine – the most famous deposit of gold and silver in America. In 1870 he joined the Darién Survey Expedition to explore the isthmus of Darién (Panama) site of a proposed canal. In 1871 he joined the Wheeler Survey of the 100th parallel and produced a memorable image of the Black canyon of the Colorado. In 1873-4 he took the images for which he is best known – dramatic rock faces, and native American cliff dwelling culture of the Cañon de Chelly (now Arizona). The transient habitation and cataclysmic change O’Sullivan showed sought to both “awe and inform.” (Hoy, 2005: 123)

The photographic surveys O’Sullivan was involved in are an example of the nineteenth-century imperialist expansion – the visual being used as a rationale for domination and the expansion of economic power. O’Sullivan’s photographs were part of the development of the American cultural symbolism: the landscape was presented as a primordial paradise of plains, prairies, deserts and mountains, the indigenous people as too wicked and weak to stand in the way of civilisation.

O’Sullivan’s pictures are regarded as some of the most interesting of early landscape photography. While the main purpose was for them to be documents that might reveal how the land could be exploited for profit, they are also a meditation on nature and man’s place in it: “both uncertain documents and beguiling pictures.” (Badger, 2001: 131) The pictures have been reappraised and recontextualised over the years. For example being shown alongside photographs of some of O’Sullivan’s contemporary’s in a 1942 exhibition at MOMA, and more recently, being hailed in 1981 by Joel Snyder, looking through the prism of 1970s conceptual art, as demonstrating “proto-modern style.” (Hoy, 2005:125)

(Badger, 2001: 131; Clarke, 1997: 58; Franklin, 2016: 28; Hoy, 2005: 122, 123, 125; Warner Marien, 2014: 131, 133, 139)

William Henry Jackson (1843-1942)

One of the best known photographers of the American West whose photographs of Yellowstone became enduring visual symbols. Joined the first official government and scientific survey of the Yellowstone area in 1871 led by Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden. Previous expeditions had aroused public interest in the geological wonders of the area and there was also the prospect of a rail service. Jackson’s photographs of Yellowstone helped Congress pass the first American National Parks bill in 1872.

Jackson had a philosophy of the natural world that was informed by the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, he believed in nature being infused with a higher spiritual intelligence. As part of the Yellowstone survey, Hayden also commissioned artists including Thomas Moran with whom Jackson collaborated. Moran selected vantage points and Jackson gave him prints as basis for sketches. Later, Jackson recalled that Moran helped him solve many problems of composition that enabled him to combine art and documentation.

Jackson settled briefly in Omaha, Nebraska and during this time made studio and location portraits of the Pawnee, Otoe and Omaha peoples culminating in a book ‘The descriptive catalogue of photographs of American Indians by W.H. Jackson photographer of the survey 1877.’ These images were part of a view of native Americans that was becoming increasingly prevalent at the time: the dwindling vestiges of primitive America could only survive by adopting the values of white Americans.

Clarke (1997: 61) sees Jackson’s work as part of much landscape photography of the 1870s which looked to the sanctioning of nationhood and independence. The sense of wonder displayed in Jackson’s photographs continues to be a key element in American landscape tradition and set the terms of reference for much of twentieth-century landscape photography. (For example ‘Grand Canyon of the Colorado’, 1883)

(Badger, 2001: 243; Clarke, 1997: 60-1; Hoy, 2005: 121-2; Warner Marien, 2014: 134-5)

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952)

American photographer celebrated for his portrayal of Native Americans. 1896 – opened portrait studio in Seattle. 1899 – met ethnologist of Native Americans George Bird Grinnell and with him joined the Harriman expedition to Alaska in the role of photographer. As part of the expedition, he documented plants and glaciers as well as the Inuit, learned survey methodology and conceived the idea for what would become his life’s work – the documentation of North American Indian tribes. He devoted over 30 years to the project taking over 40 000 images, material which was gathered in an ambitious and lavish 20 volume publication ‘The North American Indian’ which was published between 1907-30.

While Curtis’ dedication to the subject is to be commended, it is the stylistic choices he made that are of particular interest. Warner Marien (2014: 190) classifies this as ‘anthropological pictorialism’ and sees a link between Pictorialism’s emphasis on hand craft art objects and an idealised view of Native Americans living closer to nature. At the turn of the century, Native Americans were both identified with America’s heroic frontier past and accepted to live a way of life that was quickly disappearing which gave Curtis a sense of urgency. Perhaps with the best of intentions, he presented a constructed image of the Native Americans as proud and strong, sometimes retouching photographs to erase traces of modern life and directing subjects to enact ritual dances and battles. He also brought costumes with him for the Natives to use wear which fitted his viewer’s idea of what was authentic. The photogravure and platinum printing techniques he employed for the photographs gave a soft, faded quality which fitted the aesthetic he was seeking.

(Herschdorfer, 2015: 114-5; Hoy, 2005: 126; Warner Marien, 2014: 190, 192)

Albert Kahn (1860-1940): Record of the peoples of the world/Archives of the planet (Archives de la Planete)

Albert Kahn was a French bank-financier who funded an effort to record everyday life around the globe with the intent that those who viewed it would be motivated to embrace human differences and contribute to world peace. The ‘Archives of the planet’ project initiated in1912 ending during the 1930s having amassed 4000 black and white and 72000 autochrome photographs as well as 100 hours of film – at the time the largest collection of images of its time in the world.


Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

Bate, D. (2016) Photography: The Key Concepts. (2nd Ed.) London: Bloomsbury.

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph: A visual and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press.

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon

Gernsheim, H. and Gernsheim, A. (1965) A concise history of photography. (2nd ed.) London: Thames and Hudson, 1965, 1971 printing.

Herschdorfer, N. (2015) The Thames & Hudson dictionary of photography. London: Thames & Hudson.

Hoy, A.H. (2005) The complete book of photography: The history, the technique, the art, the future. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

Jeffrey, I. (1981) Photography: A concise history. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

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

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