History of documentary photography

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27th Feb 2017 Photography Reference this

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For this assignment we were required to work in groups to give a formal presentation on early documentary. Specifically the biography and works of the following three 19th century photographers; Francis Frith, Rodger Fenton and Mathew Brady discussing three images of each photographer. These photographers were a few of the first to record history in the making. To explore and share the places they captured and the people living there. This new form of communication played a vital role in the way society viewed painting and drawing. Not only as a method for channelling material but also as a medium of visual or artistic articulation.

The Rockland Community College (2007 ¶3) when discussing the history of documentary photography give the following definitions;

The Oxford Encyclopedia of photography defines documentary; “In the broadest sense, all photography not intended purely as a means of artistic expression might be considered ‘documentary’, the photograph, a visual document, of an event, place, object, or person, providing evidence of a moment in time. Yet the term ‘documentary photography’ has a more specific meaning. The Life Library’s Documentary Photography (1972) defined it as ‘a depiction of the real world by a photographer whose intent is to communicate something of importance—to make a comment—that will be understood by the viewer’.

Francis Frith, an English photographer, was born in 1822. By 1853 Frith become a founding member of the Liverpool Photographic Society. A good businessman, Frith sold his companies in 1855 and committed himself exclusively to photography. He made three voyages to the Middle East, the first a trip to Egypt in 1856 with a sizable 16″ x 20″ camera. When he finally made the journey home Frith was regarded as celebrity as his works had reached London long before he had.

In 1860 Frith embarked on a monumental mission. He wanted to document every city, town and village in Britain. His intention was to portray a 3D scene onto a 2D box as accurately as possible. While most travel photographers were partial to the more convenient paper-based calotype, Frith preferred to use the collodian process. This posed many problems during his expeditions to Palestine and Egypt where the climate is dominated by heat, dust and insects.

His images have a literal, straightforward representation of the most characteristics of a place. This was accomplished by having a foreground middle ground and background. When possible he added people into his images to give an idea of scale and to add information such as hobbies and fashion. (see Addendum A, fig. 1-3)

English born Fenton, came to photography from the legal profession. His first works were a series of calotypes taken during a visit to Russia. He became the principal founder of the Photographic Society of London. His most widespread acclaim came in 1855 with the Crimean War and becoming the official photographer for the British Museum after photographing Queen Victoria.

Balaklava looking seawards, (see Addendum B, fig. 1) gives us a general view of the landscape and buildings. In the foreground sits the Commandant’s house, behind to the right, is the arms quay and the harbour, in the distance there is line of ships retreating. In the left corner we see the remains of the old Genoese castle which sits on the hills.

Images of the war were originally intended to counteract the general unpopularity of war and occasional critical reporting (see Addendum B, fig. 2). The images from Fenton were transformed to woodblocks and then published in Illustrated London News which was regarded as a less critical publication. This staged image illustrates the civilised, structured and almost glamorized way in which Fenton wanted to portray the war.

Widely regarded as the “first iconic photograph of war” (see Addendum B, fig. 3). This image was captured in close proximity to where the Charge of the Light Brigade (which was made famous by Tennyson’s poem) occurred. The soldiers writing back to their families called it “The Valley of Death” Fenton bolstered this by intentionally titling the image The Valley of the Shadow of Death with its specific reference to Psalm 23. This emphasizes Fentons efforts throughout his career to elevate the status of photography as an art. As seen by Fentons description this image fulfils the role of the documentary photographer in that it is a visual record of history in the making.

Known as the father of photojournalism, Ameriacan Mathew Brady was one of the most acclaimed photographers of the19th century. Brady is best acknowledged for the documentation of the American Civil War and his portraits of celebrities. He made use of many paid assistants, managing to capture thousands of images of American Civil War. It is from these images taken that we gather the most knowledge and understanding of the curcumstances which occurred during the War.

One of Bradys most well-known images of three confederate soldiers who were captured in Gettysberg, 1863 (see Addendum C, fig. 2). Due to the exposure time we can safely assume that Brady asked the men to gather in order for him to capture the image. In doing so the men intuitively posed in such a way that grants us an indication of how they wanted themselves portrayed. While these men are captives they still stand tall and proud, with one man even having his hand on his chest. Brady had the capability to recognize a story and capture the atmosphere of that story on to film.

Brady took many group portraits of both Union regiments and Confederate soldiers.

These images (see Addendum C, fig. 2) were all posed in a similar way, showing the order and discipline of both sides. Brady portrayed them all as American Heroes, they fight for that which they believe in. In comparison the photographs of both sides tell the same story of men willing to die for their cause, the only difference being their uniforms.

The following image (see Addendum C, fig. 3) was taken of a slave known only as Gordon after he had escaped from a Louisiana plantation. Gordon found refuge at a Union regiment camp where, before he enlisted as a soldier, he was examined by doctors who found the horrific scars on his back. The purpose of the image was to record the brutal treatment Gordon was forced to endure. After this portrait was taken it became on of the most important and powerful images used as part of the movement to abolish slavery in America.

Prior to the invention of photography all events, occasions and information were illustrated by a painting medium, and although many paintings evoke an emotional response it would be severely misguided to assume that what we are being presented with is not inaccurate, fictitious, or even unashamedly deceptive. Queen Elizabeth I, for example, has had so many different paintings composed that we have no real means of truly identifying her. However, unlike paintings, the images Frith, Fenton and Brady produced could show more accurately new landscapes and record historical events.

Nasreen Chothia and Darren van Tonder 1

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