Documentary photography is one of the earliest genres of photography. The philosophical basis lies in the main purpose of the camera, to document what is before it. This genre is intent on recording reality, an umbrella term for the state of things in culture and society.
Farewell to the old, hello to the new
The beginnings of documentary photography may be traced back to one of the Pictorialist pioneers, Alfred Stieglitz and his inner circle of peers. While Stieglitz continued his interest in Pictorialism despite the changing world and modernization in early 20th century, many of the photographers in his circle were already showing interest in the non-soft-focused and straightforward photography. These photographers were Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler and Edward J. Steichen.
Of course, there were other photographers too who have independently expressed their preference for straightforward photography, such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. Pictorialism ended during the First World War, with straightforward photography taking over.
The Met Museum writes:
The outbreak of World War I essentially ended the Pictorialist movement as a viable aesthetic program. The inherent violence of the war soon engendered a new commitment by the world’s photographers to document every aspect of the fighting, from life in the trenches to views of fighter planes cruising the skies. Nothing was left hidden from the camera’s burrowing eye.
This wasn’t only exclusive in America. German art photographers, for example, had to take up photojournalism in the postwar era. The Met continued:
The hardships of postwar Germany forced many art photographers to turn to photojournalism for a living. Among them were many of the stars of the German picture press: Alfred Eisenstaedt, Felix H. Man, Martin Munkacsi, and Willi Ruge. Erich Salomon took readers behind the scenes of important events, photographing political and industrial leaders on the sly with a small handheld camera.
Defining roles: documentary photography vs street photography vs photojournalism
These three genres are very easy to confuse, and it is true that they may overlap with each other. Documentary photography holds an issue or motive, while street photography is inspired more by the spontaneity of peopled places. Learner.Org writes:
In documentary-style photography, there is typically a predetermined intention to explain a particular social or economic phenomenon. In this way, documentary photography is related to journalism, and is often used to promote social change. Street photography, on the other hand, is not focused on a particular subject or social movement, allowing for more freedom to spontaneously depict scenes as they unfold in public places. In this way, street photography is inspired by the often surprising nature of street life.
Documentary photography is all about the big picture of a certain issue while photojournalism focuses on the moment of a newspaper story. Antonin Kratochvil and Michael Persson write in Nieman Reports:
Today, photojournalism is different from what it once was. Speed is what counts. Instantaneous reports about world events, stock markets, even sports have become the norm. And news photography keeps pace. But has speed changed the content quality of what we see and, for that matter, how life is portrayed? To these questions, I answer yes. There is a division in photo reportage. There is photojournalism and there are photo documentaries: Identical mediums, but conveying very different messages. Documentary photographers reveal the infinite number of situations, actions and results over a period of time. In short, they reveal life.
Contemporary documentary photography: a new tradition
Standards of documentary photography was revised in the 1950s and 1960s. The Postmodernist era has changed a lot about the works of documentary photography especially in the light of the progressing world.
According to The Met, three photographers helped redefine documentary photography: Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. Winogrand was known for his documentation of New York, Arbus on the marginalized people in which others deem their looks to be “weird” and Lee Friedlander, who is known for his photographic documentary on the “social landscape.” Friedlander is said to have also changed social documentary photography.
In the 21st century, documentary photographers like Don McCullin, Nan Goldin, Martin Parr, Steve McCurry, Sebastião Salgado, Mary Ellen Mark are celebrated as the best.