Social documentary research: the early years – USA

What is social documentary and what are its traditions and values? Where does social documentary end and photojournalism begin?

Social documentary photography is, in simple terms, an objective visual capture of the human condition. Of course, controversy has existed since the invention of the camera as it can be an artistic medium as well one of pure documentation. Even if the camera is considered to be objective, by default, the photographer is editing and censoring before he or she even presses the shutter by choosing where to visit and what to point the camera at.

One of the earliest examples of this is the work of Alfred Stieglitz (1894-1946). Many photographers in the 1890s were aiming to create painterly images with the new printing techniques available to them. In England, George Davison had already moved away from The Photographic Society, which had a strong scientific tradition, to set up The Linked Ring and this encouraged Stieglitz to start the secession movement in the USA.

One cultural (and economic) impetus for the rise of Pictorialism was the invention of the Kodak camera in 1888. This led to an explosion of amateur photography and serious photographers needed to find a way to be different. It will be interesting to see what long-term impact the rise of the smartphone has on photography in the 21st century.

Roger Fenton (1819-69) was actually working in the Crimean War as a photographer just ten years after the camera had been invented. His darkroom was a horse-drawn carriage, which doubled as sleeping quarters. Valley of the Shadow of Death is his most famous image. From Getty: ‘Across a desolate and featureless landscape, not a single figure can be found. The landscape is inhabited only by cannonballs- so plentiful that they first appear to be rocks – that stand in for the human casualties on the battlefield. The sense of emptiness and unease is heightened by the visual uncertainty created by the changing scale of the road and the sloping sides of the ravine.’ (1)

Matthew Brady (c1822-96) documented the American Civil War with teams of assistants out in the field. “From the first, I regarded myself as under obligation to my country to preserve the faces of its historic men and mothers.” (2) Many sources claim Brady was the first example of photo-documentation of war but these tend to be American sources, unsurprisingly. There have also been claims that some of the images were staged. (3)

Pictorialist subject matter often emulated paintings, as well as style. There was a distinctive look in terms of tone, texture and lack of perspective. They are dreamy sepia images that will have influenced Matt Mahurin and other contemporary photographers/artists.

Like the Ash Can artists (4), Stieglitz wanted to document everyday life. He said: ‘It is high time that the stupidity and sham in pictorial photography be struck a solar plexus blow … Claims of art won’t do. Let the photographer make a perfect photograph. And if he happens to be a lover of perfection and a seer, the resulting photograph will be straight and beautiful – a true photograph.’(5)

My impression, having watched The Eloquent Eye documentary is that whilst I am sure he was sensitive to the treatment of migrants, he was obsessed with capturing what his eye saw and his heart felt.  Note re: documentary truth… there is no mention of the alleged affair between O’Keeffe and Rebecca Strand in this film although the time that she was away is quite poignantly referenced and his fear that she would not come back. The narrators also mention it being a puzzle that O’Keeffe and Stieglitz got married.

Stieglitz was undoubtedly an artist/curator way ahead of his time and was driven – often for egotistical reasons – to break with tradition as much as possible. It is generally accepted that his two most famous images are The Terminal (1893) and The Steerage (1907). These also capture something of the changing times, which is why he is an important part of an overview of the social documentary movement. There is more on his life here: which talks about how his awareness of Cubism influenced the images he made.

In his Concise History of Photography, Helmut Gernsheim says, ‘Stieglitz, Steichen, Coborn and other members of the American Photo-Secession exerted an undoubted influence on photographic exhibitions in Europe, yet it must be emphasised that the self-conscious picture-making of these small cliques contributed little to the mainstream of photography.’ (6)

Whilst Stieglitz was on a one-man mission to show French avant-garde art to America, photographers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine were pioneering the use of photography to expose the dreadful conditions of the poor.

Although those two men are often referred to in the same breath by historians there are very clear differences in their approach and the aesthetic quality of their work.  It is clear however that they both staged a number of their images to achieve the impact needed to spread their message regarding the plight of the poor.

Jacob Riis (1849-1914), was a Danish immigrant who experienced the realities of homelessness and poverty before getting a job as a police reporter at the New York Tribune. This work took him into the slums of the Lower East Side of Manhattan where he says “the sights I saw there gripped my heart that I felt I must tell of them or burst” (7). Driven by strong Christian values, Riis published ‘How The Other Half Lives’ in 1890 which was the first such social reform photobook of the time and ‘continues to serve as a model for all photographers and urban historians dedicated to social change within the city.’ (8). He literally illuminated this shadowy world of poverty to the middle classes who had no idea, instigating a city wide reform programme. His work was enabled by the invention of magnesium flash powder and this technology has a strong bearing on the style of his images.

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) worked as a staff photographer for the National Child Labour committee and captured thousands of images, often undercover, of child exploitation, highlighting the plight of the working class. He was keen to show that it was people working the machines, which were creating the change and the wealth. Although Hine was also very driven by his reform agenda, his photographs are great works of art in their own right.

Riis shot his pictures to accompany his writing and then found the images to have more much impact. They are pure documents rather than works of art. The photographs were taken in very dark environments, often at night and without warning. The result is a series of eerie, almost ghostly faces, caught just a fraction of a second before their faces could register how startled they must have been by the presence of the photographer and his assistants. They are powerless.

Italian mother and baby in New York City, c.1898 (b/w photo), Riis, Jacob, USA, Bridgeman Education

Hine’s work on the other hand reveals his respect for the individuality of his subjects; we see the humanity and dignity. This was achieved by approaching the images as more intimate portraits – close-ups, with people often looking to camera.

In his book The Photograph, Graham Clarke says that Hine’s great strength “was to inform each image with a complex (but seemingly effortless) awareness of the multiple contingencies which informed and controlled and individual’s life. In the images of Ellis Island, for example, an extraordinary social record in their own right, he allows the immigrants to retain their own sense of self. Hine never exploits. Just as he would alert the subjects to their being photographed, so his treatment is to allow the subject to remain separate from, rather than be dominated by, the camera.” (9)

These issues are important in social documentary and street photography and need further investigation.   I’ve had some spectacular failures with street photography where the balance of power feels all wrong and becomes at best amateurish and at worst creepy.


The second of these images definitely works better – because we can see his face? – and who knows what I might have got if I had interacted with him?

  5. American Masters – Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye(documentary online). Perry Miller Adato. Winstar (1999) At:
  6. Gernsheim, H. (1986) A Concise History of Photography. London: Thames and Hudson.
  7. Bolton, R. (1992) The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. MIT Press
  9. Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph. New York: Oxford University Press.

Notes for future (off topic) exploration:

  • Stieglitz’s work with O’Keeffe to create a composite portrait over a lifetime. He created 300 portraits of her between 1917 and 1937 and was especially obsessed with her hands. Stieglitz seems to be accepting of the idea of women being equal, he was heavily influenced by Freud’s ideas about sublimation and sexual expression.
  • Search for “The Great American Thing” that O’Keeffe refers to in the Steiglitz doc – will be interesting to look at this further in the light of the US’s self-regard (tie-in with Kyle Cassidy’s Armed America?)
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