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Generic Conventions of Documentary

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Published: Tue, 01 Aug 2017

The Purpose of this Essay is to explore the Generic Conventions of Documentary and Documentary photography, comparing the two and to explore how street photography has evolved since its introduction in the late 19th century. This essay’s primary purpose is to Examine How Street Photography came about and how it has changed since it was revolutionised in the early 20th Century, then it will explore and compare two photographers who forever changed the way that street photography is perceived, The secondary purpose of this essay will be to debate the question, unlike documentary photography, which sets out to record historical events and everyday life, does street photography need a subject in the image – in particular with Eugene Atget, who went around photographing various street corners and shops in Paris without a person in the photo.

First of all, one must ask the question, exactly what is a photograph? In The Photograph, Graham Clarke Describes the word “Photograph” as “Light Writing”, he goes on to say that “it also speaks as an underlying concern to control light and time and that the photograph not only signals a different relationship to and over nature, it speaks very much to a sense of power in a way that we seek to construct the world around us” – Clarke, (1997, P11).

In most photographs it’s left up to the viewer on how they read and perceive a photograph, Graham Clark continues by saying “The photograph has a multiple existence which informs its multiple meanings, its seeming simplicity of form and function belies an implicit problematic of sight and representation” – Clarke, (1997, P11) What Clarke is suggesting to the viewer is that photographs have multiple layers of text conveyed within one image, Clarke wants the viewer to look closer and determine what the photograph means to each person individually and why it’s being represented in this way In relation to street photography this is the main question to be explored in the second part of this essay.

So how does one read a photograph? A picture is worth a thousand words, but how does one interpret them? Every time the viewer sees an image he or she has their own personal view of that image so it falls to the photographer or artist to put their own messages/meanings behind their images and leave the interpretation open to the viewer, Photographic Art Generally falls into four main types of photographic genres, Landscape, Portraiture, Fine Art, and Documentary, each picture in each genre gives off a different emotional response In Particular Eugene Atget and Cartier Bresson’s Photographic styles would fall into the Landscape & Documentary categories.

So let’s look at what these two categories are, in photography; The Key Concepts, David Bate describes documentary photography as “Telling a story with pictures, Documentary photography gave new life and social function, Documentary aimed to show in an informal way the everyday lives of ordinary people, to other ordinary people” -  Bate, (2009, P45). This emerged as popular practise following the First World War, and began to develop through the 20th century, after the horrors of the First World War, more and more photographers went out and photographed everyday events happening to normal everyday people out in the streets, this social documentary work went on to dominate the early 20th century with people undertaking projects based on the after effects on war and how it changed the lives of everyday people’s lives forever, One such example would be the 1972 accidental napalm attack in the Vietnamese war, one of the most reproduced images of that time, Robert Haeberle’s “People about to be shot” which Clarke describes as “An anonymous war machine raining down napalm ‘accidentally’ on innocent children but such a narrative cannot deflect us from the presence of intense agony” – Clarke (1997, P160) By looking at this photo the reader is invited to feel all the emotions these children went through, screams, cries and sorrow, but the photographer is trying to invite the reader to understand that although we can see visually how horrible the events were, that there’s nothing more horrible than what the innocent subjects were going through, The Photographer Robert Haeberle’s statement himself “guys were about to shoot these people I yelled hold it and shot my pictures, M16’s opened up and from the corner of my eye I saw bodies falling but I did not turn to look” – Rovert Haeberle – Clarke, (1997, P160).

Next there’s Landscape Photography, there are many different narratives that landscape photography could fall in to, but the main thing to think about with street photography in landscapes is what is the photographer attempting to show the reader in a landscape picture? Is it just the environment, the place, or is it perhaps a landscape being dominated by the presence of humans in the photograph, In David Bate’s Photography, the key concepts, Bate goes on to say “what this means is that whatever is seen is always coded via the picture. Therefore HOW the material is seen in the picture, the way it is pictured, is as critical as what is shown” – Bate, (2009, P90) the photographer is encouraging the reader to think of the bigger picture of what the landscape photograph represents, Roger Fenton, one of the early Pioneers in photography was one of the first to make the reader question and think about what they were viewing, his approach was to places that had been established as tourist areas, places that people already had a view on, places of great beauty and social harmony “In his approach to landscape Fenton both reflects a highly specific cultural vocabulary based on literature and painting, this sense of the photographer as privileged tourist is underscored by the way Fenton often photographed tourist areas which had already been depicted in painting and literature – his images reflect the leisurely assumptions of a class of people who looked upon landscape scenery in aesthetic and philosophical terms” – (Clarke, 1997, P56). The photograph often gives off a hint of a unified Britain, but Fenton, a war photographer, is trying the challenge the readers views and make you see the bigger picture, look beyond the picture and think of problems that may have been going on around that area at the time.

This brings the essay on to Part two, firstly unlike Documentary Photography, does Street Photography need a person in the photo? As mentioned earlier in the essay this is left very open to the viewer to make their mind up, Eugene Atget didn’t think it did, Eugene Atget was one of the main pioneers in 20th century street photography, and most of his work was done on the streets of Paris, his photos that do have people are very surreal, questioning our perception of what is dream and what is reality, looking at one of Atget’s pieces of work, A Corner, rue de seine, As quoted by Clive Scott in Street Photography, From Atget to Cartier Bresson “Perhaps the most celebrated photograph of this street is the one that Atget took on an early May morning in 1924, a photo of a wedge shaped building at the corner of the rue de seine, The oblique view shown here emphasizes the rapid foreshadowing created by the wide angle lens, the distortion produced by the lens also gives the building a marked precariousness, is this tilting to the right a consequence of intoxication or old age? The building has open eyes, only on the third and fourth floors at the near end, everywhere else in the building is sealed in somnolence or death” -(Scott, 2007, P178/P180) The Photograph is a very surreal image which is challenging the reader to try decode its many layers, The viewer sees it as an image with a lot of gothic potential, the mist adds to this effect, and the building is shown to be in disrepair, so although the image is shown without subjects, there’s a much deeper hidden meaning, a very dark and dreary meaning that could perhaps signal a change in cultures, the building is old, very pre-World War One, perhaps this image also trying to indicate a struggle to adapt to the new world after war, also although most of the text in image is left blurred or too small to read, we can clearly read the words “petit bouif” which is actually a shoe repair shop, which Atget is also well known for photographing,  we also see the pictures of what we assume are lost family pets, again we can relate this back to the time, 6 years after the world war ended what exactly has Paris become.

Moving on to Cartier Bresson,  much of his work is not actually considered documentary photographer, he was a revolutionary photographer who couldn’t really be placed into any single genre, he did almost every type of photography you could do, but although he wasn’t a documentary photographer, one of his most well-known images that I’m going to look at is, the photo was taken outside the train station saint – lazar, although colour camera did not exist at this time Bresson noticed the rain in the foreground, and the beautiful mist like feature blocking the houses in the background, and by chance he saw a man jumping over the picture which he then snapped on his black and white camera, we can see from the picture that the man was caught in mid motion, the blur that has appeared from the mans speed but also the contrast makes the picture stand out more, so we have to ask the question, had the man not been there jumping over the ladder when Bresson snapped him, would this have become arguably Bresson’s most well-known photograph? Although there is still a lot going on in the picture, such as the ladder and rubble in front of it, the railowsky sign clearly visible in the midground, and even the other person visible near the background, at least in this case although Bresson may not have been a documentary photographer, this picture is a documentary photograph

Reference List:

Scott, Clive. Street Photography. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007. Print.

Bate, D. (2009). Photography. Oxford: Berg.

Clarke, G. (1997). The photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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