Socially Committed B&W Photographers 

Jacob Riis (1849-1914): 

Riis-Five cents a spot.jpg

Jacob Riis is widely regarded as a pioneer of what later became known as social documentary photography with a reformist agenda, the “first American reformer to use a camera” who produced “brutal” records of derelict New York. (Jeffrey, 1981: 156) His use of flash photography, process of photographing his subjects in a seemingly unposed way and presentation of his work as evidence with the intent to elicit change was both groundbreaking and controversial – his work being both reappraised and presented in an art context and criticised for being exploitative and recording his subjects as passive sufferers of poverty.

Riis was a Danish immigrant, arriving in America and settling in New York in 1870. For the first three years in the US he suffered unemployment, homelessness and battled with suicidal thoughts before gaining employment as a newspaper reporter for the New York Tribune in 1873. Riis reported on conditions in the poor districts of New York, predominately the Lower East side of Manhattan and the Mulberry Street area, his focus on these areas and desire to highlight the squalor of the slums could be due to identification with the predominately immigrant inhabitants and Riis’ own experiences of poverty in the first few years of his life in New York. Initially Riis engaged professional photographers to illustrate his writing before spontaneously beginning to take photographs himself. His style was that of the snapshot, unposed and spontaneous which gave the images an air of authenticity. His use of flash gave his photographs a harsh aesthetic that came to be understood as the language of candid and objective photography. (Warner Marien, 2014: 204)

Riis’ work has been the subject of retrospective debate and controversy, both reappraised positively as important to the development of documentary photography, particularly after the rise in status of the genre in the 1930/40s, and criticised for exploitation and sensationalism. The first exhibition of his work in 1947 presented his prints cropped and enlarged to increase their impact and suppress their technical difficulties – his status as a major recorder of the American experience was emphasised despite the fact that he photographed for a short time and only produced 250 photographs during his career. In the 1970s, questions about the ethics and intent of his work came to the fore with his work described as sensational journalism designed to excite the anxieties and fears of his middle-class audience by revealing a hidden, impoverished world full of crime. (Bate, 2016: 61) The title of his book ‘How the other half lives’ (1890) appears to confirm this criticism, however, Riis’ position on his subject was typical of many reformers of the time who believed that individuals were both formed by their environments and could be divided into categories of deserving (women and children) and undeserving (unemployed, criminally inclined males) poor. His photographs were not a call for the wealthy to intervene, but for them to consider redevelopment of the slums as a solution to crime and moral decay. The lantern slideshows that formed part of his presentation of the images were reported to feature the singing of hymns and sometimes ended with a slide showing Jesus.

The ethics of Riis’ approach has been much questioned, described as Tagg (1993: 92) as “insatiable appropriations of the camera” and the extension of a “procedure of objectification and subjection.” Riis’ use of the newly invented magnesium flashguns may have allowed him to photograph at night time and in dark areas that could not previously be recorded, but his use of this technique plays to the notion that

capturing photographs was like a ‘shooting game’ with the apparent objectivity of the images actually showing the refusal of the subjects to be able to negotiate in any way the manner in which they were recorded. The firing of his flash was said to bring terror wherever he went with tenants bolting out of windows and fire escapes, through windows and reportedly setting fire to at least two buildings. (Franklin, 2016: 58) Despite the flaws in his methodology, his sentimentalism and ignorance of the economic cause of poverty, Riis did succeed in drawing attention to social injustice and led to legislation aimed at improving living conditions in the slums. Whether his part in establishing the moral authority of documentary photography as factual evidence stands the test of time, especially after the damning criticism of postmodern critics is debatable. It is, however, safe to assume that his motivations were based on a genuine desire for social improvement and the basis for a vocabulary of documentary practice can clearly be seen demonstrated in his work.

Lewis Hine (1874-1940): 


Lewis Hine was a Wisconsin born teacher, sociologist and photographer, widely regarded as the father of modern humanist social documentary photography, a genre which is defined by Badger (2001: 46) as “a complex animal that is as full of contradictions as Hine himself.” The potential for socially concerned photography became apparent to Hine as he taught at New York’s progressive Ethical Cultural School. His first major work in 1904 was a study of immigrants arriving on Ellis Island, the purpose of which was to reveal the new arrivals as individuals and counter ideas that they were “worthless scourings of Europe”, this redemptive purpose typified all of his subsequent work. (Jeffrey, 1984: 159) The body of work he produced between 1907-18 investigating child labour and commissioned by the National Centre for Child Labour is the series he is most renowned for. Hine took over 5000 images right across the US, frequently incognito, photographing children at work in factories, mines, canneries and mills, showing the appalling conditions of child labour with the express aim of ending it. Hine’s later work moved from showing abuse, to picturing the dignity of the working class, photographs he termed ‘work portraits.’ in 1930 he was commissioned to photograph the construction of the Empire State Building (published in 1932 as ‘Men at Work.’) These photographs served as generalisations for industrial work – workers were symbolised as stalwart heroes and posed accordingly. By this time however, Hine found himself out of step with the prevailing mood that viewed the machine of capitalism and what would previously have been deemed progress as suspect following the stock market crash and great depression. Hine struggled to find work throughout the 1930s (turned down by Roy Stryker to work for the FSA project) he died homeless and in poverty.

Hine’s aesthetic approach contains many seeming contradictions, however, it is commonly regarded as being of a different, higher, ethical standard of many photographers of the time who often patronized their subjects. Jeffrey (1981: 159) states that Hine differed from Riis because rather than merely recording squalor, Hine documents present hardships in a way that looks to the future: “beautiful pictures [that] shine out as symbols of a better world.” Despite the aesthetic qualities of his images, his style is also defined by a deliberate neutrality, unreliant on false sentimentality, deliberate in approach, and yet, still achieving a warmth and ease of a snapshot that means his subjects are presented as individuals rather than types: “For these unfussy, unpretentious images helped provide evidence that eventually outlawed the exploitative practices of employers.” (Badger, 2001: 46) By contrast, Franklin (2016: 59) considers Hines’s composition dull, his work being of note because of the tenacity he displayed as a social campaigner. Many commentators describe

Hine as being unmotivated as an artist, placing his work ethic separate to contemporaries such as Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz. Franklin disputes this by referring to letters in which Hine discusses his frustration at being overlooked as both artist and documentarian, certainly the evidence shows that he died in poverty, his work only became revered retrospectively. This quote from Hine describing his life’s mission perhaps describes his drive and ambition: “There are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.” 

Warner Marien (2014: 205) makes some interesting points about Hine’s narrative techniques. He described his work as ‘photo stories’, that is a narrative composed of words and pictures intended to be published in journals and magazines. The essence of these was often nonlinear – linked by ideas rather than the flow of images, indeed, Hine criticised this form of visual storytelling typical of magazines such as ‘Life’ as “the fetish of having a unified thread.” In an address to the National Council of Child Labor in 1909, Hine refers to ideas of photographic truth in a way that seems extremely forward thinking for the time. He warned about placing unbounded faith in the integrity of photographs as “while photographs may not lie, liars may be photographers.” 

Bill Brandt (1904-1983): 

See exercise 2-3: Bill Brandt’s art of the document

Brandt was a German born photographer, regarded as the “most important 20th century British photographer.” (Koetzle, 2015: 74) His career was wide ranging, beginning with pictures best described as social documentary, importantly working in an authorial mode that grew alongside photography’s acceptance as art. He also made landscapes, celebrity portraits and nudes that were definitely intended as art. His influence is wide ranging, showing photographers that followed such as Martin Parr, Don McCullin, Chris Killip and Tony Ray-Jones that photography could also belong in the museum. Biographer Paul Delany makes this assessment:

“Bill Brandt, the greatest of British photographers, who visually defined the English Identity in the mid-Twentieth century, was an enigma, In fact, despite his assertions to the contrary, he was not in fact English at all. His life, like much of his work, was an elaborate construction. England was his adopted homeland and the English his chosen subject.” (Koetzle, 2015: 75)

Brandt started his photography career in 1929 working with Man Ray in Paris – the influence of surrealism in his practice seemingly increasing through his career culminating in his late nudes which were directly influenced by his own psychoanalysis and celebrity portraits in which the external space the subject was placed became loaded with symbolism. Even in his more traditional documentary work, Brandt’s style can be seen as theatrical rather than realistic, psychologically dark and mysterious, exhibiting a combination of the tender and the cruel. Although his work is typified by acute social observation, his scenes frequently contain a sense of drama and that something is about to happen. (Warner Marien, 2014: 79, 83-4, 291) He frequently photographed at night which fit the aesthetic style of photographs printed heavily with brooding high contrast – black dominating the sky as much as the street. There is a voyeurism and eroticism to his nocturnal work typical of the surreal. (Herschdorfer, 2015: 74; Badger, 2001: 84)

His first book, ‘The English at Home’ (1936) focused on the social hierarchy of British life, the class system and behaviour. Differences between rich and poor are contrasted and juxtaposed, catering for the national interest in the class differences not for social-political commentary but because of the inherent surrealism. (Badger, 2001: 84) This is not a neutral portrait as Spender intended with the contemporary Mass Observation project, everything can be read in terms of existence in relation to larger ideological questions and social differences. In the images I can see the beginning of a subjective style of documentary photography that would be developed later by the likes of Tony Ray-Jones, Chris Killip and Martin Parr.

‘A Night in London’ (1938) is heavily influenced by Brassaï’s ‘Paris du Nuit’ (1933) and Hogarth and shows the darkened streets juxtaposed with respectable life – a kind of ‘Rake’s Progress’. For this work Brandt staged many of the images, for example, his brother and sister posed as prostitute and client for one photograph. Badger (2001: 84) sees this as typical of the way many photographers worked at the time and not diminishing the work as a “magnificent piece of art” despite the fabrications. During World War II Brandt was employed by the Ministry of Information to produce propaganda images. ‘In The Underground (1940) perfectly fulfils this brief showing a young couple sleeping peacefully in an improvised air raid shelter – the unspoken subtext being the resilience of the British people during wartime. That everything seems a little too convenient and is presumably staged does not stop Brandt capturing a tender ambience in the photograph.

Exit Photography Group: 

Survival Programmes-1

Exit were a collective active in the 1970s interested in documenting social issues. ‘Down Wapping’ (1974) was a small booklet published about the working-class community of Wapping featuring work by Nicholas Battye, Diane Olson, Alex Slotzkin and Paul Trevor. Chris Steele-Perkins joined the group after this and membership became a core of him Battye and Trevor. They received funding from the Gulbenkian Foundation to document inner cities – the funding was a fraction of what was needed for the project which eventually became ‘Survival Programmes’ (1982), however, Steele-Perkins (2014) states it seemed appropriate for them to be living on the margins of photography while attempting to document it. I have already written about ‘Survival Programmes’ and my admiration for the groups work has only increased since then having had the chance to view the photobook – it is a serious work that does not patronise the people and communities shown in the pictures, instead, it gives them a voice (text of interviews is given equal space with the photographs) showing them their lives and experiences to be complex and detailed rather than showing them simplistically.

Chris Killip (b. 1946): 

Chris Killip left London and a career in advertising photography to return to his birthplace of the Isle of Man to become a documentary photographer, a series that was eventually published as ‘Isle of Man‘ in 1980. In the late 1970s Killip moved to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne co-founding the Side Gallery. His photographs of north-east England depicted a landscape ravaged by the terminal neglect of industry associated with the dominant conservative ideology of the time. It was a landscape of unemployment, poverty, urban squalor and emotional helplessness – Killip’s use of black and white provoked a bleak, barren atmosphere. (Clarke, 1997: 72) Despite representing the working class in a way that is recognisably in the documentary tradition, the work is more concerned with subjectivity than an objective, factual approach. (Wells, 2009: 72) Warner Marien (2014: 416) sees his approach as typical of a trend that turned away from the direct promotion of social change to personal observation and interpretation of social life.

‘In Flagrante’ (1988) brings together Killip’s work from the north-east, particularly focusing on Newcastle, the seacoal community of Lynemouth Northumberland and the residents of the North Yorkshire fishing village of Skinningrove. The title is taken from the phrase in flagrante delicto meaning caught in the act of committing an offense – while the pictures focused on the effects of deindustrialisation the title shows Killip’s political intent as a focused critique of the government’s efforts to reduce social support. For Badger (2001: 142) the work demonstrates how the seemingly contradictory terms documentary and poetic can exist together, for example, ‘Crabs, Skinningrove, 1981’ is a picture full of tense, purposeful watchfulness. It is unclear what the man and women in the photograph are waiting for and yet there is an unspoken sense that they anxiously await the safe return of fishing boats is indicative of a particular way of life typical of fishing communities. ‘Torso, Pelaw, Gateshead, Tyneside, 1978’ is a photograph that both denies the viewer a definitive reading and yet offers many clues. The face of the man in the image is not shown and we are given no context – we can only guess at his story, but details like the poorly repaired coat pocket present a mini history. For Franklin (2015: 146) this is an important photograph which demonstrates a function that can only be achieved through photography: the creative treatment of actuality as revealing detail through stillness which is both rhetorical and ambiguous. “What remains is a living still life of exquisite detail from which our stories, our fictions and our metaphors can be built.” The non-didactic and psychological nature of the image constitutes an important aspect of documentary practice – the ambiguous image.

‘Youth on wall, Jarrow, 1976’ is a photograph that demonstrates the problems associated with reading too much into a photograph. This image of a young man, seemingly in a state of distress, anger or frustration has been used as a graphic representation of the effects of Thatcherism – despite the fact that the image was taken three years before Thatcher became prime minister and the clear captioning of the image which refutes this reading. In an essay about Martin Parr, Badger (2010: 80-1) compares the way similarities between Parr and Killip are seemingly ignored despite the fact that their subject matter and view of northern working-class life has many similarities with Killip’s work being as subjective and personal a viewpoint as Parr’s. The works are seen as worlds apart because commentators failed to see past Killip’s superficial similarities with the classic tradition of documentary – specifically his use of black and white instead of colour meaning it is style rather than substance that drives many readings. Killip himself made no secret of the lack of objectivity in his work, describing ‘In Flagrante’ as a “fiction about metaphor” – a comment that seemingly escaped reviewers.

There is much I admire and find affecting in Killip’s work and I consider him an important photographer who is inspirational to me personally. There is also the added connection that a great deal of his work is based in north-east England where I am from – what he shows is recognisable to me despite being of times past. Despite the subjectivity of his work there is also, paradoxically, an inherent integrity and realism – that is a truth about real life that is present in the images. I suspect that Killip’s working methods are significant in achieving this – he gets to know the people he photographs which allows him to photograph without artifice. The lengths he went to capture his ‘Seacoal’ series which depicts a community of workers and their families who scavenging the spoils of industry deposited as coal on the beach of Lynemouth Northumberland is a case in point. Killip first visited attempted to photograph the community in 1976 but was chased away as the group were suspicious of his intentions believing he was a spy from the DHSS. Despite the threat of violence, he kept returning to the beach, only to be continually chased away. In 1983, he eventually gained access and acceptance when one of the group remembered an encounter between them at the Appleby horse fair some years earlier. This endorsement allowed Killip access to take photographs and led to a strong bond with the families and workers which lasted many years. His commitment to the work was further demonstrated by the fact he lived in a caravan at the site for nearly two years while pursuing the project. When I have visited the beach in Lynemouth, which I have many times, Killip’s pictures take on an extra resonance for me. The camp and the sea coalers are no longer there – the industry that led to the coal being washed ashore having long disappeared. Despite this, the landscape is deeply evocative and affecting.

Nick Danziger (b. 1958): The British 

Nick Danziger’s photobook ‘The British’ (2002) is an attempt by the photographer to show a Britain “caught between beauty and decay”, a nation that was once grand but is now in decline. Like Brandt, Danziger is interested in the divisions created by the British class system. However, rather than exploring this through juxtaposition he presents the poor and the

establishment as completely separate from each other. The book uses a conceit of presentation by being able to be read from either side – one side is the haves, the other the have-nots. I am unsure about the success of the series, these are individual images that although grouped into thematic sections do not get under the skin of the content, unlike for example Killip’s work. Like ‘Survival Programmes’, the photographs are complemented by text. Unlike the earlier work, however, it is apparently Danziger’s voice and opinions we hear rather than the testimony of the people in the photographs. I question the authenticity of much of the text as there is a tendency to hyperbole and statements presented in absolute terms. For example, the section on the west end of Newcastle describes an almost post-apocalyptic nightmare world of dereliction and lawlessness where old people are prisoners in their homes, fearing to venture out unless they are victims of violence and the youth are feral. This is an offensive depiction that appears to be forwarded by an outsider appealing to ‘it’s grim up north’ stereotypes. Significantly, the photographs in the ‘poor’ section are taken in the north while those of the ‘rich’ are in the south – what could have been a comment on the north/south divide instead becomes a demonstration of lazy simplicity.


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

Badger, G. (2010) The pleasure of good photographs. New

York: Aperture

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

Beckett, A. (2002) Beauty and beastliness: The British, Nick Danziger. The Guardian 15th June 2002. Available at: [accessed 1st October 2017]

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.

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

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

Koetzle, H-M. (2015) Photographers A-Z. Cologne: Taschen

Steele-Perkins, C. (2014) Ideas series: Exit photography group. Photoworks website. Available at: [accessed 15th August 2017]

Tagg, J. (1993) The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. (2nd Ed.) MN: University of Minnesota Press.

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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