Social Documentary Photography Timeline Assignment

Documentary photography usually refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle events or environments both significant and relevant to history and historical events as well as everyday life. It is typically covered in professionalphotojournalism, or real life reportage, but it may also be an amateur, artistic, or academic pursuit.


The term document applied to photography antedates the mode or genre itself. Photographs meant to accurately describe otherwise unknown, hidden, forbidden, or difficult-to-access places or circumstances. The earliest daguerreotype and calotype "surveys" of the ruins of the Near East, Egypt, and the American wilderness areas. Nineteenth-century archaeologist John Beasly Greene, for example, traveled to Nubia in the early 1850s to photograph the major ruins of the region;[1] One early documentation project was the French Missions Heliographiques organized by the official Commission des Monuments historiques to develop an archive of France's rapidly disappearing architectural and human heritage; the project included such photographic luminaries as Henri Le Secq, Edouard Denis Baldus, and Gustave Le Gray.

In the United States, photographs tracing the progress of the American Civil War (1861-1865) by photographers for at least three consortia of photographic publisher-distributors, most notably Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner, resulted in a major archive of photographs ranging from dry records of battle sites to harrowing images of the dead by Timothy O'Sullivan and evocative images by George N. Barnard. A huge body of photography of the vast regions of the Great West was produced by official government photographers for the Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories (a predecessor of the USGS), during the period 1868–1878, including most notably the photographers Timothy O'Sullivan and William Henry Jackson.[2]

Both the Civil War and USGS photographic works point up an important feature of documentary photography: the production of an archive of historical significance, and the distribution to a wide audience through publication. The US Government published Survey photographs in the annual Reports, as well as portfolios designed to encourage continued funding of scientific surveys.

The development of new reproduction methods for photography provided impetus for the next era of documentary photography, in the late 1880s and 1890s, and reaching into the early decades of the 20th century. This period decisively shifted documentary from antiquarian and landscape subjects to that of the city and its crises.[3] The refining of photogravure methods, and then the introduction of halftone reproduction around 1890 made low cost mass-reproduction in newspapers, magazines and books possible. The figure most directly associated with the birth of this new form of documentary is the journalist and urban social reformer Jacob Riis. Riis was a New York police-beat reporter who had been converted to urban social reform ideas by his contact with medical and public-health officials, some of whom were amateur photographers. Riis used these acquaintances at first to gather photographs, but eventually took up the camera himself. His books, most notably How the Other Half Lives of 1890 and The Children of the Slums of 1892, used those photographs, but increasingly he also employed visual materials from a wide variety of sources, including police "mug shots" and photojournalistic images.

Riis's documentary photography was passionately devoted to changing the inhumane conditions under which the poor lived in the rapidly expanding urban-industrial centers. His work succeeded in embedding photography in urban reform movements, notably the Social Gospel and Progressive movements. His most famous successor was the photographer Lewis Wickes Hine, whose systematic surveys of conditions of child-labor in particular, made for the National Child Labor Commission and published in sociological journals like The Survey, are generally credited with strongly influencing the development of child-labor laws in New York and the United States more generally.

In 1900, Englishwoman Alice Seeley Harris traveled to the Congo Free State with her husband, John Hobbis Harris (a missionary). There she photographed Belgian atrocities against local people with an early Kodak Brownie camera. The images were widely distributed through magic lantern screenings and were critical in changing public perceptions of slavery and eventually forcing Leopold II of Belgium to cede control of the territory to the Belgian government, creating the Belgian Congo.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression brought a new wave of documentary, both of rural and urban conditions. The Farm Security Administration, a common term for the Historical Division, supervised by Roy Stryker, funded legendary photographic documentarians, including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, John Vachon, and Marion Post Wolcott among others. This generation of documentary photographers is generally credited for codifying the documentary code of accuracy mixed with impassioned advocacy, with the goal of arousing public commitment to social change.[4]

During the wartime and postwar eras, documentary photography increasingly became subsumed under the rubric of photojournalism. Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank is generally credited with developing a counterstrain of more personal, evocative, and complex documentary, exemplified by his work in the 1950s, published in the United States in his 1959 book, The Americans. In the early 1960s, his influence on photographers like Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander resulted in an important exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which brought those two photographers together with their colleague Diane Arbus under the title, New Documents. MoMA curator John Szarkowski proposed in that exhibition that a new generation, committed not to social change but to formal and iconographical investigation of the social experience of modernity, had replaced the older forms of social documentary photography.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a spirited attack on traditional documentary was mounted by historians, critics, and photographers. One of the most notable was the photographer-critic Allan Sekula, whose ideas and the accompanying bodies of pictures he produced, influenced a generation of "new new documentary" photographers, whose work was philosophically more rigorous, often more stridently leftist in its politics. Sekula emerged as a champion of these photographers, in critical writing and editorial work. Notable among this generation are the photographers Fred Lonidier, whose 'Health and Safety Game" of 1976 became a model of post-documentary, and Martha Rosler, whose "The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems" of 1974-75 served as a milestone in the critique of classical humanistic documentary as the work of privileged elites imposing their visions and values on the dis-empowered.

Since the late 1990s, an increased interest in documentary photography and its longer term perspective can be observed. Nicholas Nixon extensively documented issues surrounded by American life. South African documentary photographer Pieter Hugo engaged in documenting art traditions with a focus on African communities.[5]Antonin Kratochvil photographed a wide variety of subjects, including Mongolia's street children for the Museum of Natural History.[6]Fazal Sheikh sought to reflect the realities of the most underprivileged peoples of different third world countries.

Documentary photography vs. photojournalism[edit]

Documentary photography generally relates to longer term projects with a more complex story line, while photojournalism concerns more breaking news stories. The two approaches often overlap.[7] Some theorists argue that photojournalism, with its close relationship to the news media, is influenced to a greater degree than documentary photography by the need to entertain audiences and market products.[8][9]

Acceptance by the art world[edit]

Since the late 1970s, the decline of magazine published photography meant traditional forums for such work were vanishing. Many documentary photographers have now focused on the art world and galleries of a way of presenting their work and making a living. Traditional documentary photography has found a place in dedicated photography galleries alongside other artists working in painting, sculpture and modern media.[10]

Notable documentary photographers[edit]

United States[edit]



See also[edit]



  • "A New History of Photography" Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft/Michel Frizot 1998
  • "Down the Line; Light Rail's First Day; Getting off on the right track"; Star Tribune, June 27, 2004.
Power house mechanic working on steam pump (1920) by Lewis Hine
  1. ^Will Stapp, "John Beasly Greene", Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century PhotographyNew York and Oxford, England: Routledge, 2007, pp. 619-622
  2. ^Weston Naef and James N. Wood, Era of Exploration (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975); Joel Snyder, American Frontiers: The Photographs of Timothy H. O'Sullivan, 1867–1874 (Millerton, New York: Aperture, 1981); Peter Bacon Hales, William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988).
  3. ^Peter B. Hales, Silver Cities: Photographing American Urbanization, 1839–1939 (Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 2006), pp. 271-348.
  4. ^William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties' America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973); Maren Stange, Symbols of Ideal Life (New York and Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
  5. ^"Africa united: Photographer Pieter Hugo casts a new light on tired stereotypes of his home continent". The Independent. 
  6. ^"Antonin Kratochvil". Archived from the original on 2012-01-30. 
  7. ^"Photojournalism and Documentary Photography". 
  8. ^Hoffman, R. T. (1995). The form of function: Salt documentary photography. In H. T. French (Ed.), Maine: a peopled landscape: Salt documentary photography, 1978 to 1995 (pp. 156-160). Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
  9. ^Price, D. (2004). Documentary and photojournalism: issues and definitions. In L. Wells (Ed.), Photography: a critical introduction (pp. 69-75). New York: Routledge.
  10. ^Malo, Alejandro. "Documentary Art". ZoneZero. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 

Each of these projects demonstrates the persistent authority that photographers have always relied on – that a camera allows you to step into communities and situations and take a look and also to step back, reflect and comment. Contemporary documentary photography is not a unified form but neither is it a defunct or endangered area of photographic practice. It is simply that its contexts, visual styles and the motivations of the photographers are various. The dissemination of contemporary documentary photography now relies on a number of contexts and is spread between magazines (its traditional environment), books and art galleries.

Projects created for all of these contexts are represented in this exhibition. The motivations of the photographers whose work is shown here suggest the range of emotional forces – political, humanist and aesthetic – which drive documentary photography.

Image by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin/Colors

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are the creative editors of Benetton ’s Colors magazine. Photographs from two assignments undertaken during the last six months are shown here. These appeared in issues of Colors, addressing mental health and the penal system, alongside related documentary projects by other photographers from around the world, commissioned by Broomberg and Chanarin. Their photographs make clear gestures towards the heritage of documentary photography. They use a large format camera, which requires a tripod, and makes the taking of photographs a slow and conspicuous act. The sense of activity being slowed for the camera makes references to nineteenth century photography both in terms of process and style. It also serves to detach their photographs from the conventions of photojournalism. There is a sense that Broomberg and Chanarin arrive 'either too early or too late' and not within the usual media-driven time scale at a site of social crisis. These photographers talk about the constraints and contradictions of working in this way in the interview excerpts below.

Listen to Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin discuss working within the community in the following audio clips

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

I think a good place to start is one of the main principles that we have when we go into a place and that is that we produce a piece of media which is in some way acceptable to the people who live in that community. So we produce it bearing in mind that we will send this thing back to them and that they won’ t be exploited and they will feel a sense of pride of having taken part in the project. That informs a lot of the way that how we go about getting into a place and how we behave when we are there in terms of getting access. So for instance, there’ s no hidden agenda. What we do is the first step, talking really practically and logistically, is to send a magazine to the community and they have a look at what we are doing and I think that in that sense they see this is not an attempt at exploiting them or an attempt at making some kind of political or hyped-up exposé . It’ s an attempt at really exploring this community.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

We spend so much time in each place. You can't just walk in, take some snaps and run out with your goodies. People get to know each other. You form intimate relationships. You spend three weeks in a place. People have to … they see what you're doing, they get to understand what you're doing.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

It's quite evident that the people we are photographing are aware of the fact that they are being photographed. In a way, we're present in those photographs because there's the sense that people are given time to compose themselves. They're aware that they are being photographed. They've been asked permission and the fact that we use a 4 x 5 very slow camera and the fact that we're not looking through a lens, but we're actually above it, looking at the subject and they're looking at us, means that there is a different relationship. The mechanics of that camera contribute a lot to the way that image is formed and the way that it's read. I think there is a dialogue between the stuff which is documentary and normal reportage whereas this doesn't pretend to be catching a special moment or a moment that tells the truth about a situation. It's very simple, almost 19th century straight-up standard portraiture. But also it differs from that in the important sense that we talk to people. I think a lot of reportage photographers don't talk to the people that they photograph and although we have taken this very formal 19th century approach, the difference is that we stop and talk to the person after we photograph them. I think that in a way that's the saving grace of it, because what we've essentially done is tried to inverse the language of colonial photography which takes this person and makes them into a stereotype or a type. I think if we didn't talk to them and interview them and get their name and actually engage with them in an intellectual way, I think it would be very problematic.

Image by Clare Richardson

Clare Richardson

Harlemville is a small community of people in northeast America that lives in accordance with the writings of the early 20th century philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Clare Richardson first visited Harlemville in the spring of 2000, initially to spend time with a friend who was studying biodynamic farming, Steiner’s agricultural practice. Richardson was immediately taken with the impact that this community’s beliefs has on the rearing of their children - in particular, the emphasis that was placed on mobilising the imaginative world of each child and the importance of story telling and play in developing this capacity in them. Richardson stepped into this community without being conscious of the connections this rarefied existence had with her own childhood or photographic practice, but both elements became her links with Harlemville and the basis for the friendships that she formed.

'I always kept my camera in my bag but often I wouldn’t take it out for days. I’d find that I’d spend three days with the Harlemville community and though I might not have taken a picture during that time, when I did, the relationships I am forming are evident and come through in the pictures.'

Listen to Clare Richardson discuss the origins of the Harlemville project in the following audio clips

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

I didn't arrive there with my camera. I arrived in Harlemville originally to see a friend and that's how it began. I kept returning and returning for visits. The place is so charming and feels so very different in a funny way. It soon became apparent that I wanted to photograph it. It started one day when I was swimming in the local pond which is where everyone swims in the summer. I met a lad who came walking over the hill who'd been up at a survival camp up in the woods, where they'd been sleeping out under the stars, catching rabbits and covering themselves in mud for camouflage and using native American survival techniques combined with Steiner's philosophy of the child being at one with nature to learn as much about themselves as the environment in which they find themselves. The children of Harlemville are incredibly comfortable in nature, in the countryside because they don't seem to fear it in the same way that other children I've met who live in cities, because they're always bought up very much responding to it.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

I spent more time with the children in Harlemville than I did the adults. I can't specifically say why, other than the fact that they were particularly engaging as children and interesting company. Their inquisitiveness and their questioning nature made them really good company.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

Whilst there I always kept my camera in my bag, but quite often it wouldn't come out for days. When I photograph it's very sporadic. I find sometimes that I'll spend three days … within that three days I feel I gain something with my relationship with the people I'm photographing and though I may not have created a picture, next time I take a picture it's very evident because I feel that my relationship with them comes through in the picture more.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

I'm not trying to tell a story with my picture. I'm trying to tell my story of my time or my relationship to that place for sure. That determines what I take. I have a very isolating way of looking at things, so that's what I come back with. I always think that I'd like another photographer to go back to somewhere that I've photographed like Harlemville and see what they come away with.

Image by Albrecht Tübke

Albrecht Tübke

Dalliendorf is a small village in the north east of Germany. Albrecht Tübke came to Dalliendorf with his family when he was ten years old and lived there for a decade before moving to Leipzig to study photography. When he re-visited Dalliendorf as an adult and no longer an inhabitant, the landscape, homes and people of the village seemed to him to have undergone only minor changes since his childhood. Returning to Dalliendorf created emotions in him that combined his present with his remembered relationship with this place. Aged 26, Tübke began making photographs in the village as a way of marking his dual experience of Dalliendorf. There is a level of detachment in the way in which Tübke chose to present the village and, in particular, the portrayal of the villagers. This approach acknowledges his position as a photographer stepping back into Dalliendorf. But what also emerged, for Tübke, was the realisation that this level of detachment had always been part of his relationship with this place.

'I knew then that I had always been a guest in Dalliendorf, and not a villager. Taking these photographs was me getting the message. This documentary project was an intense reflection on what Dalliendorf is but also on the essential and sensitive quality of photography to reflect your past and who you are.'

Listen to Albrecht Tübke discuss how he relates to the people of Dalliendorf as a photographer in the following audio clips

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

As I made the photographs, it was the closest connection to these people I ever had because I reflected everything much more. I reflected my distance, but I reflected the personality of each of them for the first time.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

It was a time in which I said goodbye and I finished the relationship. It's not an end, it's changing. So I love to be in Dalliendorf, but it became something different and I know that I'm a guest when I am in Dalliendorf, but I'm not a villager and that was the time I got the message.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

I'm always reflecting with my camera and sometimes I think I'm not able to do this without, but sometimes I can't switch off my 'photo brain' to be just me and not a photographer. So photography and making photographs became a very sensitive tool for me to reflect myself and my past and what it was to me, especially Dalliendorf. I'm not sure if I would have reflected Dalliendorf as much as I've done it, without being a photographer.

Image by Deirdre O’Callaghan

Deirdre O’Callaghan

Deirdre O’Callaghan’s Hide the Can series is the culmination of four years of spending time and photographing in Arlington House in North London. This hostel is home to mainly Irish men in their fifties and sixties who came to London as young adults to earn money as manual labourers. Deirdre O’Callaghan moved to London in the early 1990s, as did many young Irish men and women, in search of work and her initial affinity with the residents of Arlington house came from their shared economic migration. But it was equally her differences from the men – her age, her gender and, of course, her choice to enter the lives of Arlington House - that became the keys to this documentary project. Taking these photographs created a routine from which the communication between O’Callaghan and the men was created. Her role in providing the time and the excuse for the men to reflect on their lives was confirmed when she was invited to document their holidays to Ireland arranged by the House. Hide the Can is a traditional version of humanist documentary photography, one in which O’Callaghan attempts to give a dignity to the men of Arlington House and show her empathy for a forgotten generation of migrant workers.

Listen to Deirdre O’Callaghan talk about the Hide the Can project at Arlington House in the following audio clips

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

Well I was always quite fascinated with it because I lived near Camden years ago and I'd meet a lot of the guys coming in and out. It's a very intimidating, quite amazing building. So I went in and tried to get permission and I had to go back a few times before that all materialised and then I went in to shoot there, the first time I did, I was absolutely petrified.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

I just went in because I was always fascinated with the place, but I'd no idea that it was going to go on as long as it did. I'd no idea whether I'd exhibit the work or even do this book. That's something that grew. The more I got to know the men, the more I got drawn in because I became really attached to a lot of the men. There's some amazing people in there and some amazing stories Obviously a lot of them are really tragic, really sad, but then there's such a brilliant sense of humour and obviously the whole Irish thing as well. It's like I just got it, straight off, obviously. I think it really helped me being a woman because there aren't any women in there except some of the women that work there, but I think a lot of the men felt immediately more comfortable and trusted me more.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

It was really hard to decide when the end of the project was. I was always asking myself 'My God, when is this ever going to end?' And it did go on for a long time, but at the same time it's just something that it's great that it did because I developed with it and also just kind of really got to know the house, the place, the people, etc, etc. It is the sort of project that needs to take a long time.

Image by Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen

In 1982, Roger Ballen began photographing the homes and people of small town South Africa. Ballen’s first photographs were strongly led by his desire to define an aspect of South African culture. This reflected his position as a newcomer, stepping into a marginalised community, foregrounding the socio-economic position that his subjects held. But in recent photographs shown here, taken in towns on the outskirts of Johannesburg and Pretoria, Ballen has moved further and further from attempting to document a culture. His photographs are powerful and complex because of their extreme aesthetic contemplation of a subject that we assume to be worthy of visualisation purely for its social meaning. Ballen’s recent photographs suggest a passion for texture and composition. The starting point for the construction of an image could as easily be a dot on the wall, a dog’s tail, or the teeth of the subject.

'The purpose of photography has changed for me. I am no longer an outsider trying to pick up interesting details of a place. Right now, I’m only looking at one place – the interior of my mind. And from that, I step outside.'

Listen to Roger Ballen discuss the evolution of his work in the following audio clips

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

When I first started taking pictures in the early 70s my subject was the whole world. I made a five year journey around the globe by land, taking pictures of boys and I finally did a book called 'Boyhood'. My arena was everywhere. As time has passed by the arena has narrowed and narrowed and narrowed itself to the point where my subject might even be a point on the wall, maybe a dot on the wall, a nail on the wall. So ultimately, whereas my subject before was really human beings engaged in some environment, my subject now is everything in the photograph, whether it's a dot on the wall or whether it's the teeth of a subject or the dog's tail. Everything is an equal part of the whole scene. So I think, by definition, my subject is everything in the photograph, it's an organic whole and like a human body, if you break one part of it or take one part of it out, everything else collapses around it.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

There's definitely been an evolution in my work from being a somewhat documentary photographer to one that's really only interested in aesthetics. When one thinks back why this happened, how it happened, one can always say it's perhaps just part of my own life process. There's no one meaning. I don't know whether I'm more introspective now than I was twenty years ago or thirty years ago, except the purpose of photography has changed for me. I'm really no longer there looking at a culture, an outsider trying to pick up interesting aspects of that particular place. Right now I'm looking only in one place and that's in the interior of my own mind, in the interior of myself and from that I step outside.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

I tend to go to the same places, to the same people over and over again. Some of the subjects I've been working with for nearly twenty years. Knowing a subject isn't always a sure thing for getting a photograph. There've been times when I've met a subject only once and got a great photograph and there've been times when I've worked with a subject for many, many years and never got the right photograph. So trust and acquaintance can be a help, but it's not a formula for taking a picture. A photograph ultimately is about putting a lot of complex elements together. My job, I guess, as a photographer, is really a visual organiser.

Image by Tina Barney

Tina Barney

The subject of Tina Barney’s photographs is the relationship between family members, paused and magnified through photography. Barney’s representations of familial dynamics began with her exploration of her own elegant and affluent family in North America. In recent years, Barney has extended her investigations to families in Europe and, in 2001, to English subjects connected by blood, marriage and friendship. The English carries the hallmark of Barney’s approach – her continued anthropological fascination with how relationships are disclosed through spatial connections and gesture performed for her and her camera. For this series, Barney sought out subjects who were drawn from the English upper class. The quality and colouration of interiors, and the sitters’ dress and demeanour, eloquently describe this rarefied sphere. The English is not, according to Barney, a critique of the British class system. As Barney points out, she would have photographed other strata of English life if this was her primary agenda. Instead, The English is a revealing document of an aspect of English society and the relationships within a family, as seen by a photographer who stepped in from another, connected, world.

Listen to Tina Barney discuss working within families in the following audio clips

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

The emotional strain of photographing at home for all those years - for those twenty years - was very, very difficult. I put a lot of pressure on my own self. Nobody will ever know how difficult it was and still always is to intrude on people's lives, even my own family's lives. And it's worse when it's your own family because they can turn you down and they also, in the beginning especially, really thought that I was just making a big fuss about nothing. And then things started changing when my work became well known, they would become more self conscious. Basically what happened is that I became tired of photographing in the same place and it was quite frightening because I really began not to be able to see any more.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

When I first began this venture in Europe I was afraid that, number one, I didn't know these people and I would never be able to really feel what they were like, what their relationships were like and then it would be a very superficial body of work or let's say even experiment. Because I started working with magazines, I realised in the very first magazine editorial jobs that I had that I had the same instincts for people that I didn't know for people that I had for people that I do know very well. I think that it's very presumptious to think, but more than once people come to me, that I've only met once, that I maybe have really looked at for all of half an hour before I take the picture and say how did you understand this? How did you understand us so incredibly well? How did you know that I felt this about my brother or my mother or my sister or my father? How did you capture these intimate feelings that we have that are so very private and specific within our family? So I like to think that by mere instinct that I am able to just feel what is happening within a family.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

Everyone asks me, when they offer their help in trying to find people to photograph, ask me, 'What do you want?' And the first thing I say is visuals - I use the word 'visuals'. I usually say that it doesn't matter who the people are, what they're like, if I walk into their home and it doesn't turn me on, I really have a hard time taking a picture. And also what I ask them to look for is - my interest that I've always had is tradition and rituals, so basically the family has lived in that house or there's some age, you can see that there's time and tradition in that house or home. The other thing is that you know you're in England when you see these pictures because I know there are probably a lot of European apartments or houses that could look fairly modern and you might as well be in California or New York City. So the fact that there's something very English about those interiors is important to me. At this point it doesn't always have to be a family. If someone's interesting, if the face is interesting, that's fine with me too. So I don't really want to … a lot of the times I go and have lunch or dinner with the subjects first to meet them and introduce myself. Most of the people don't know my work in the different European cities that I've been to, so I really have to tell them a bit about what I do and what I'm interested in doing. A lot of times I don't see their home until I get there. And I don't think I've ever had a situation in which I think 'Oh, God. This is terrible. I don't like it. I'm not going to be able to do it.' So I've been lucky.

Image by Donovan Wylie

Donovan Wylie

After settling in London in 1997, Donovan Wylie embarked on a photographic project exploring an aspect of his background in Northern Ireland. The project is primarily focused on his memories and close relationship to his uncle. Out of this comes a re-examination of a background, a Protestant rural background, in the context of the 1970s, when Wylie was a boy. Combining his grandfather's diaries, extended family's scrapbooks and snaps, as well as his own photographs, Wylie gives a subjective view of a history that shaped him and the environment from which he came.

'This project was a strange mixture of not "looking" and then being taken by what you see and feel at a particular time. This seems to be the most exciting thing about making pictures – that they come to you.'

Listen to Donovan Wylie discuss working with archival images and photobooks in the following audio clips

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

I chose very early on to mix my own photographs with archive, really because I liked that idea of mixing past and present, if you put it as crudely as that, but I liked that cinematic idea. I liked that idea in terms of a book. I've always felt that photography - [unclear] said this and I firmly agree with him - that photography lies somewhere between cinema and literature. So the photo book for me is a very exciting place to work. The idea of using my own photographs with past photographs was purely from a visual point of view, very exciting.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

I had one problem which was I didn't know whether I should use pictures from the 50s or 60s because I didn't live in the 50s and 60s. I really didn't know how to use those photographs. So then I thought I'd just use stuff from the 70s because that's when I was around, that's when I remember and therefore I should use that. But then I realised that it was absurd … again, I'm just trying to take you through the process … I realised it was absurd trying to use photographs in an historical context. It was just stupid because you couldn't and it didn't really reflect that. Anyway, I stopped worrying about it, I stopped being anxious about it and just did what I felt. What I actually ended up doing was putting photographs together that shaped a character of a place that I understood. If that meant using a photograph that was from a time before me, it didn't matter.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

When I'm there, I'm not quite sure what I'm doing and by being there you work out what you're doing. You discover what all this is about. You find out what it is you're looking for, you begin to understand really more clearly why or what it is you're looking for. The photographs generally come out of just experience of hanging out and being with my uncle. You have to play it very carefully because by holding a camera and walking around with a camera you kind of go blind. What I usually do is have the camera near me, but forget about the camera and just live in that moment or that day with my uncle. Then suddenly he stands a certain way or looks at you or does something that triggers a whole variety of emotions, feelings, maybe different to each other, but triggers something and then you're sort of split second trying to remember where you've put your camera.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

It's that strange mixture of not looking and then being taken by what you see and feel, a flicker of time, which always seems to be the most exciting thing about taking pictures - that it comes to you.

Image by Allan Sekula

Allan Sekula

Allan Sekula's Freeway to China project explores the contemporary maritime world, focussing on the ports of Los Angeles and Liverpool. For this exhibition he has selected two photographs, both taken in Liverpool, and a passage of text from the total eighteen works that make up Freeway to China.

Since the early 1970s, Sekula's photographs and writings have influenced critical debate about the meaning and ideology of documentary photography. His pairing of the experiences of text and photography in this exhibition is illustrative of one of the main tenets of his approach – to construct a relay between writing and image. Both mediums resonate with political, cultural and personal connections through, in this instance, the comparison of the port of Liverpool with that of Los Angeles, where Sekula was raised.

Listen to Allan Sekula discuss working in maritime cities and the connection between word and image in the following audio clips

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

I'm well aware that I'm at a disadvantage because very often the most profound photographs of a place are made by people who really locate themselves there. And I'm always reading what I can understand of a city against the way I move in the city I live in - Los Angeles. So there's a kind of dialectic in the city I know and the city I don't know, but which I'm able to read because I have some of the grammar and vocabulary for understanding it in place, given that cities are not wholly unique, particularly maritime cities.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

One thing that struck me strongly in Liverpool and it was certainly present in some of the fiction I'd read what this sense of generational rupture and continuity within working class families. That the sea itself was a kind of thread of escape and becoming. Often I see a kind of masculine-ness becoming. Obviously as a young man, go to sea, then their return and their re-integration into the community. I suppose to come back to the two images from the total of eighteen that make up the piece that are in the exhibition, that generational tension there, young people seizing this crazy, floating map of the British Isles, this kind of imaginative, territorial larceny that they're engaged in. And then this man who's a guard who clearly has this complex understanding of the ironies of his situation and a kind of wry way of looking at the cultural fate of this city. In terms of the actual incident - the queen of the pirates photo - in fact, as kids were being chased by the police around the dock and they're swimming with this kind of rebellion. And I was touched by the fact that it's a girl who's leading the group - she's the queen of the pirates.

Download: mp3 | oggView transcript

The strange thing about talking for a supplemental audio tape is that I'm often thinking about relations between words and images and that's structurally embedded in the work. So whatever text is there or audio tape is very expressly part of the artwork along with the image. I don't assign a priority to either one. They're parallel elements and there's some kind of relay between them. When curatorial practice is innovative enough to imagine the idea that an artist's voice could be heard in the gallery space near the work, I see that as something else. It's not so different from taking, let's say, the idea of the artist's talk or the artist's gallery tour and then sanctioning that as something that could really be permanently in place near the work. I don't mind that, but it's different, it's not the same thing.

This content was originally created to accompany the exhibition Stepping In and Out, on display at the V&A South Kensington between 5 September 2002 and 26 January 2003.

One thought on “Social Documentary Photography Timeline Assignment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *