Exercise 2-1: Legacy Documentary for Social Change 

Read the 1939 article by Elizabeth McCausland, ‘Documentary Photography’. Write a short bullet list of McCausland’s main point along with an explanation about why this article is relevant to this part of the course. 

Written in 1939, Elizabeth McCausland’s article on documentary photography makes the following points:

  • Documentary photography is not a fashion, fad or vogue.
  • The emergence coming to prominence of documentary photography in the late 1930s is a response to the “serious and tense spirit of [the] age.” 
  • Documentary’s aesthetic has evolved into an application of photography that is direct and realistic, concerned with the serious chronicling of the world.
  • Documentary can be described as a new form of photography which aims to show “life that is exciting and important…whole and unretouched.” This is opposed to the ‘old’ idea of photography which was concerned with “picturesque bits of life torn out of their sordid context.” 
  • Documentary is linked to a new spirit of realism that looks at the world with new eyes of “scientific, uncompromising honesty.” 
  • The saying that the camera does not lie is false – it rationalises and overlooks, for example, the facts of decay, change, social retrogression and injustice.
  • The photographers of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) represent the antithesis of the statements above as they produce “social document[s] of great moment and moving quality.” 
  • Censorship of truth is evident in all the arts generally and the “opportunities for publishing honest photographs of present day life in magazines or newspapers are not many.” 
  • The documentary photographer uses intelligence and imagination to control the new aesthetic of realism while ensuring facts rather than their personality are the most important aspects.
  • The strongest and most influential examples of documentary photography are the works of the FSA and the Federal Art Project ‘Changing New York’ by Bernice Abbott. This proves that the best sponsor of knowledge is the government.
  • Painting has survived as a medium despite early enthusiasms at the birth of photography that it was under threat because of photography.
  • Progressive documentary photographers are unconcerned about whether photography is an art.
  • Art, along with society, changes with time. Today, art that provides truth rather than rationalisation, idealisation and romanticism is desired. Photography is the way to record the undeniable truth and facts of life, “the chronicles written in the faces of men and women and children.” 
  • The new spirit of art and desire for truth is borne out of a reversal of attitudes of the 1920s (“The cult of non-intelligibility and non-communication is no longer fashionable”) It is a return to an earlier age of realism (for example, Balzac, Dickens, Fielding, Gericault)
  • The photograph has communication qualities that are unequalled in any other pictorial medium – it would take many months to create the detail that “the instantaneous blink of the camera eye” can record.
  •  It is the subject rather than the personality of the photographer that is significant in documentary photography, the key objective of which is to “widen the world we live in, to acquaint us with the range and variety of human existence, to inform us…of unnecessary social horrors such as war, to make us aware of civilization in which we live and hope to function as creative workers.” 

McCausland’s paper is a polemic with many strong assertions, but is dated by preoccupations that have since been addressed, predominately the status of photography as an art form. Pains are taken to emphasise the photographic realism which is aligned closely with truth, and, although there is a recognition that the idea the camera cannot lie is false, there is a naïve optimism that in the field of ‘new’ documentary this can be alleviated by the integrity of the photographer. I found the idea that governments are the best way to enable documentary projects an unexpected notion, although I can understand this is because of the concerns McCausland has around media ownership and the influence this may have. We now understand the deep ideological basis of a project such as the FSA, something that is hailed as an exemplar of ‘new’ documentary, and the way FSA images were carefully selected to prove a particular narrative. Overall, the paper subscribes to the idea that a photograph is objective and a truthful record of reality, something that has subsequently been vigorously challenged. The greatest fault of this viewpoint for me is that there is no acknowledgement of the importance of the reader and the influence that cultural knowledge can have as well as the polysemous nature of the photograph. Clearly, McCausland was committed to championing the work of photographers that she determined were important in helping us understand the world and her idealistic belief that these can incite change is admirable if misguided. The context of the time this article was written is significant – that documentary practice of the 1930s emerged as a response to the frivolity of the 1920s and the seriousness of that followed is an important consideration.


McCausland, E. (1939) Documentary photography. Photo notes website. Available online at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/photonotes.pdf [accessed 31st July 2017]

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