Britain has a long-standing tradition of populist image-making since Hogarth. We see this in the work of David Octavius Hill (1802-70) and Robert Adamson (1821-48) documenting ordinary folk in fishing villages, within just a few years of the invention of photography. This duo combined landscape and portrait skills and interests to create a fascinating and artistic record of life in Scotland at that time.
There are examples of British photographers carrying out social documentary work prior to Jacob Riis – John Thomson, Paul Martin and Thomas Annan for example – but many of the notable photographers at the time were really creating art images rather than driving towards a cause.
Sir Benjamin Stone (1838-1914) was known for documenting English folk customs and traditions, particularly focused on festivals and pageants. He is considered to be of great influence on photographers such as Daniel Meadows, Homer Sykes and Tony Ray-Jones. Although this kind of work was unlikely to effect change as such, it was driven by a desire to capture parts of English culture which the photographer feared would soon die out.
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) did not take up photography until the age of 48 but made her mark with intimate and close-cropped portraits of some notable people at the time (including Charles Darwin and Alfred Lord Tennyson). Cameron’s work was heavily influenced by pre-Raphaelite art. The soft-focus and gentle lighting creates a dreamy romanticism which was criticised by some of her contemporaries. In more recent years, she has been recognised as being quite innovative for the time and her images are now considered to have captured the inner expressiveness of her sitters. Helmut Gernsheim considers one of her images of Sir John Herschel to be “one of the greatest portraits ever taken.” .
A startling example of how Cameron’s work seems so very contemporary is her portrait of ‘Iago’ (actually a professional model):
Kate Bush has said: ‘Julia Margaret Cameron is deservedly regarded as one of the founding figures of modern photographic portraiture. The range of her work, from tender, naturalistic observation, to dramatic staged tableaux, anticipates every subsequent approach to the genre. Her closely framed faces, bold, expressive and minimal, are as radical and visionary as the woman who created them.’ 
According to Steve Edwards on his Photography: A Very Short Introduction: “Perhaps Julia Margaret Cameron pursued the idea of photographic art more inventively than anyone else during this period. Her pictures are much simpler, consisting of just a few figures artfully posed against a vague background. However, what is really distinctive about her work is that she employed an all-over soft focus rather than highlighting the most significant part of her image (for this reason, the photographic establishment disliked her pictures). But, in the end, Cameron’s work is not so different from those around her; her subjects are drawn from the Academic repertoire and she made full use of the dressing-up box.”
Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941), who was a professional portrait photographer, recorded the lives of ordinary people in Whitby. These are romantic and artistic images, which, if anything, idealise the scenes and subjects and really do not seem to have a social documentary agenda.
Henry Peach Robinson (1830 – 1901) is another Pictorialist photographer more concerned with photography as art than furthering a specific cause. Known for combining multiple negatives and prints, Robinson’s most famous composite is ‘Fading Away’ (1858) which is an intimate but rather morbid portrayal of a young woman in her final hours. His photo-montages often imitated the so-called ‘genre paintings’, which were popular in England at the time.
Robinson believed in expressing an artistic truth rather than being too concerned with the facts. “In the early days we were surprised and delighted with a photograph, as a photograph, just because we had not hitherto conceived possible any definition or finish that approached nature so closely… But soon we wanted something more. We got tired of the sameness of the exquisiteness of the photograph, and if it had nothing to say, if it was not a view, or a portrait of something or somebody, we cared less and less for it. Why? Because the photograph told us everything about the facts of nature and left out the mystery. Now, however hard-headed a man may be, he cannot stand too many facts; it is easy to get a surfeit of realities, and he wants a little mystification as a relief.” 
John Thomson (1837-1921) is considered to be one of the first social documentary photographers in Britain. He captured images of people in late 19th century London going about their day-to-day activities and presented them with captions describing their living and working conditions. Thomson’s collaboration with the journalist Adolphe Smith led to a monthly magazine called Street Life in London (1867-7). Thomson’s photographs added an authenticity to the ongoing social narrative of the time which was concerned with poverty and urban conditions.
Thomas Annan (1829-1887) was commissioned by the Glasgow City Improvement Trust to photograph the slums during the 1860s. He was primarily recording the housing conditions but, as part of the work, images of the inhabitants were also captured. This may be a more authentic record than that of Riis as Annan was not so focussed on a personal social agenda.
As Walker Evans highlighted in 1971, it is clearly important to distinguish between social documentation and a ‘documentary style’. “When you say ‘documentary,’ you have to have a sophisticated ear to receive that word. It should be documentary style, because documentary is police photography of a scene and a murder….That’s a real document. You see art is really useless, and a document has use. And therefore art is never a document, but it can adopt that style. I do it. I’m called a documentary photographer. But that presupposes a quite subtle knowledge of this distinction.” 
In much of this early social documentary work there is a strong sense of ‘the Other’ – a paradigm of the powerless being observed by the privileged, which modern sensibilities would find patronising. Riis , for example, repeatedly used the term Street Arabs and may have exaggerated the sense of apparent danger and criminality in the slums to cause more sensation. It has also often been said that social documentary focuses on the outward symbols of the (passive) victims’ conditions or situation rather than reasons behind the problem. This is very important to consider in the light of photographers documenting the recent refugee crisis.
Steve Edwards states: “Documentary photography is an aesthetic mode or a style. Often the champions of documentary deny this, claiming their work is styles, objective and direct. Nevertheless, this work is always an approach to photography; a mode of representation predicated on the form of the document. This style is characterized by two closely-related factors: anti-subjectivism and a gaze that looks outward to the world.” 
For further research (prompted by Photography: A Very Short Introduction).
- The concept of objectivity as a response to the capitalist division of labour – how this relates to photography (p18)
- Ethnographic photographs – colonial fantasy where an image embodies the observer’s imaginary conceptions rather than any external conditions. (p 25)
- Gernsheim, H. (1986) A Concise History of Photography. London: Thames and Hudson. (p58)
- http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/about_us/press_and_media/press_releases/2015/06/julia-margaret-cameron.aspx (accessed online 29.9.15)
- Edwards, S. (2006) Photography: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press. (p44)
- http://www.inthein-between.com/henry-peach-robinson-and-the-combination-print-before-digital-2/ (accessed online 29.9.15)
- Evans, W (1983) Walker Evans at Work: 745 Photographs together with Documents Selected from Letters, Memoranda, Interviews, Notes. London: Thames and Hudson
- Edwards, S. (2006) Photography: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press. (p28)