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Documentary Photography Collage

Documentary Photography - History and Concepts

Started: 1843

Documentary Photography Timeline

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Jacob RiisJacob Riis
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"There are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated."

Lewis Hine
Quotes
1 of 17

Beginnings of Documentary Photography

Early Documentary Projects

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson's <i>Willie Liston, 'Redding [cleaning or preparing] the line'; Newhaven fisherman</i> (1845) shows one of many fishermen portrayed in their extensive documentation of village life.
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson's Willie Liston, 'Redding [cleaning or preparing] the line'; Newhaven fisherman (1845) shows one of many fishermen portrayed in their extensive documentation of village life.

The partnership of David Octavius Hill with Robert Adamson, founder members of what is thought to be the first photographic studio in 1843, produced one of the earliest documentary projects to gain recognition. For the next four years (until Adamson's unexpected death in 1848) the two produced some 3,000 images documenting ordinary life in Scottish fishing villages, as well as landscapes and urban scenes from the adjoining region.

Philip Henry Delamotte's <i>The Crystal Palace</i> (1854) shows the innovative building reassembled in Sydenham, England.
Philip Henry Delamotte's The Crystal Palace (1854) shows the innovative building reassembled in Sydenham, England.

Other notable documentary projects in the 1850s included the early Egyptologist John Beasley Green's photographs of ancient ruins in Nubia, and Philip Delamotte's series of photographs of Joseph Paxton's innovative Crystal Palace being disassembled (and then reassembled in Sydenham, Southeast London) following London's Great Exhibition of 1851. In 1854, supported by Prince Albert, and the British Secretary of State for War, Roger Fenton undertook an early documentary project, as he became the first official war photographer of the Crimean War.

In America, meanwhile, the first well-known documentary project began in 1861 when Matthew Brady, a respected portraitist with a major studio in New York, took a team of photographers, including Timothy O'Sullivan, Alexander Gardner, and George N. Barnard, to the battle fields of the Civil War. After the end of the Civil War (in 1865) Sullivan, and other photographers including William Henry Jackson, began working for the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, creating the first comprehensive Conservation Documentary of the American West.

Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis's <i>Children sleeping in Mulberry Street</i> (1890) made a powerful statement about slum life, as it showed these three children sleeping on a grate.
Jacob Riis's Children sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890) made a powerful statement about slum life, as it showed these three children sleeping on a grate.

Also in America, the police reporter and journalist Jacob Riis turned to photography having read an 1887 report on the German Adolf Miethe and Johnannes Gaedicke's magnesium flash powder invention. The flash device made night-time photography possible while at the same time advancements in printing technology allowed for his images of slum life among the immigrant working classes to be published in newspapers and magazines. His two books, How the Other Half Lives (1890) and The Children of the Slums (1892), garnered wide public interest and critical acclaim and even initiated new social reform programs. Riis duly emerged as a pioneer of American Social Documentary photography and he embarked on a countrywide tour where his lectures, featuring lanternslide displays, helped create an expanding audience for the new photographic genre.

Eugène Atget

Eugène Atget's <i>La cour du Dragon (Paris Vie)</i> (1913) shows an inner courtyard in old Paris, dating back to medieval times.
Eugène Atget's La cour du Dragon (Paris Vie) (1913) shows an inner courtyard in old Paris, dating back to medieval times.

The Frenchman Eugène Atget had worked as an actor before turning his attentions to photography in the 1880s. Initially, he created images of objects, monuments, flowers, and landscapes which he called "documents". These he offered to artists as pictorial originals from which they could produce their own works. Atget changed direction in 1900 when a modernization campaign was launched in Paris. Called Haussmannization, after Baron Georges-Eugène Haussman who oversaw the project, the remodernization initiative saw the medieval streets and buildings of vieux Paris (old Paris) demolished and reshaped as public parks and wide city avenues. Documenting old Paris became Atget's life mission with his business card describing him as "Creator and Purveyor of a Collection of Photographic Views of Old Paris." Through thousands of images, he documented buildings, shops, fittings on doors and other decorative elements of the disappearing city.

Atget's mission was not to produce a social commentary but to use his camera rather to document what would be an otherwise forgotten Paris. He achieved the status of artist in the 1920s, however, when his work was championed by the prominent Surrealist photographer Man Ray. The American Berenice Abbott, who was working as Man Ray's darkroom assistant, was herself inspired by Atget's images. On returning to New York, she became a leading documentary photographer in her own right, while continuing to collect and promote Atget's work calling him an "urbanist historian [and] a Balzac of the camera." Atget's work, which elevated "pure" documentary to the realm of fine art in its formal and tonal qualities, influenced Walker Evans and other noted modern photographers.

Concepts and Trends

Social Documentary

Lewis Hine's <i>Breaker boys sort coal in at an anthracite coal breaker near South Pittston, Pennsylvania</i> (1911) was taken as part of his photographic work for the National Child Labor Committee.
Lewis Hine's Breaker boys sort coal in at an anthracite coal breaker near South Pittston, Pennsylvania (1911) was taken as part of his photographic work for the National Child Labor Committee.

Given that both trends developed almost simultaneously, the boundaries between "pure" Documentary (as evidenced, say, by Atget) and Social Documentary (as evidenced, say, by Jacob Riis) have often overlapped. The early work of Lewis Hines falls, however, comfortably within the realms of Social Documentary. In 1908, the National Child Labor Committee hired Hine to photograph child laborers in a variety of industrial locations throughout the United States. Hine's images played a major role in the 1916 Keating-Owen Act, one of the first laws to reform child labor. Later, his projects for the American Red Cross's relief efforts in Europe during and after World War I, and his 1930 documentation of the construction of the Empire State Building, expanded the range of photographic subjects considered of societal importance.

Arthur Rothstein's <i>Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma</i> (April 1936) shows the effects of the Dust Bowl in this image taken for the Farm Security Administration.
Arthur Rothstein's Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma (April 1936) shows the effects of the Dust Bowl in this image taken for the Farm Security Administration.

The severe impact of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl crisis of the 1930s led to the development of new relief programs, including roles for artists and photographers in the worst-affected communities. Roy Stryker, head of the Resettlement Administration (later, the Farm Security Administration (FSA)) hired leading photographers including Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Walker Evans to introduce, as he said, "America to Americans." The project resulted in over a quarter-of-a-million images that have gone down in history as a forceful record of ordinary (and otherwise anonymous) Americans marooned by rural poverty. Following the FSA initiative, Social Documentary became so established it developed its own sub-genres, such as the "Madonna and Child" trope, which showed an impoverished mother doing her best for her children. As art historian Wendy Kozol wrote, this trope became part of the "iconography of liberal reform."

As it evolved, Documentary Photography played a notable role in the development of national and historical archives. Institutions, including the Smithsonian Institution in America and the Société Française de photographie in France, subsequently housed and exhibited images depicting historical events, national crises and geological and geographic records.

Conservation Photography

Timothy O'Sullivan's <i>The Pyramid and Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada</i> (1867) was taken for the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel.
Timothy O'Sullivan's The Pyramid and Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada (1867) was taken for the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel.

Conservation Photography uses a documentary approach in photographing nature and landscapes, usually with the goal of advocating the work of preservation and conservation in the natural environment. It originated in the 1860s when, following the Civil War, the US government-sponsored geological surveys that used photographic documentation of the remote landscapes of the west. In 1864 Carleton Watkin's photographs of Yosemite, undertaken for the California State Geological Survey, played a primary role in establishing Yosemite National Park in the national consciousness. Similarly, Timothy O'Sullivan's photographs for the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel played a leading role in establishing the importance of the natural landscape and wildlife and habitat conservation. In 1867 Eadweard Muybridge gained renown for his photographs of Yosemite and, later, the barren territories of Alaska and (later still) the lighthouses along the West Coast.

The conservation mission was complemented by the painterly arts with the English-born painter and illustrator Thomas Moran using his dramatic images (inspired by J.M.W. Turner) of canyons, hot springs, and geysers to help promote Yellowstone National Park in the public's consciousness. In 1871 he had been invited to join F. V. Hayden's geological expedition to Yellowstone where he worked closely with the photographer William H. Jackson. This was followed in 1873 when he joined John Wesley Powell's expedition to the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, and in 1874 when, with Hayden once more, he visited the newly discovered Mount of the Holy Cross in Colorado.

The 20th century brought a renewed interest in conserving the environment, particularly during Theodore Roosevelt's administration as he established 150 National Forests and 18 U.S. National Monuments. Ansel Adams' images of Yosemite and other natural environments made him not only a leading modern photographer but also the leading influence upon Conservation Photography and the wilderness movement. In the 21st century, Conservation Photography has reflected global ecological and environment concerns, as seen in Sebastião Salgado's Genesis (2004-12) collection. In 2005 Cristina Mittermeier founded the International League of Conservation Photographers at the World Wilderness Congress, establishing both the term Conservation Photography and its parameters as a photographic discipline.

Photo-Essay

During the 1930s, leading large format magazines such as Life (founded 1936) and Look (founded 1937) promoted the so-called photo-essays. Even those magazines whose interest in photography had been purely perfunctory began including photo-essays. The photo-essay offered an in depth photographic narrative that typically focused on societal issues. Walker Evan's photo-essays were regularly published in Fortune between 1934 and 1965, and in 1945 he became photographic editor for the magazine, taking on the additional tasks of design layout and copy editing. A potent combination of photograph and written story, Evans's photo-essays became exemplars of a genre that would remain popular with the public well into the 1950s.

However, following World War II, many documentary photographers, including Robert Frank, William Klein, Diane Arbus, W. Eugene Smith, and Mary Ellen Mark, began to rebel against the limitations of photo-essays and the format of illustrated magazines. Following a dispute about the publication of his photographs, Smith left Life and turned to documentary with his images of Minamata in the later 1960s which depicted the residents of the Japanese fishing village who had been severely effected by mercury poisoning. By the 1970s, and largely due to the rise of television as a documentary media, a number of leading magazines had ceased publication, and documentary photographers turned to book publication or gallery exhibitions. Indeed, by the end of the decade art galleries routinely exhibited Documentary Photography, which was typically presented in the photo-essay format, alongside fine art.

New Documents

Seen as a revitalization and new interpretation of Documentary Photography, "New Documents" (less well known as "Social Landscape") photography appeared in 1966 with the George Eastman House's exhibition "Toward a Social Landscape". The genre was properly announced by New York Museum of Modern Art's "New Documents" exhibition of 1967 (hence the name). John Szarkowski, curator of "New Documents," said of the photographers - Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Danny Lyon, and Bruce Davidson - that their "aim has been not to reform life," as was the goal of Social Documentary, "but to know it." Szarkowski argued that the group's "work betrays sympathy - almost affection - for the imperfections and the frailties of society" and that the photographers on display approached "the real world, in spite of its terrors, as the source of all wonder and fascination and value." The "New Documents" approach welcomed mundane subject matter while abandoning Social Documentary's "objective" stance in favor of a self-conscious awareness of the photographer's presence, resulting in often alienated, disconcerting, or unsettling images.

The individual photographers drew upon various influences: Robert Frank and Walker Evans influenced Friedlander, Winogrand was trained in Alexey Brodovitch's Design Workshops (where the motto was "astonish me"), and Arbus studied with Lisette Model. While the works were published in magazines, a notable trend amongst the "New Documents" group was the photographic book that focused on a series of related images, as seen, for instance, in Friedlander's Work from the Same House (with Jim Dine) (1969) and Self-Portrait (1970). Other photographers associated with the group extended the "New Documents" approach to other subjects. Robert Adams's photographs depicted the outdoor landscape and the topography of the suburbs, while William Eggleston's debut exhibition in 1976 led to him being acclaimed as a pioneer of color documentary photography. Associated primarily, however, with the famous sixties exhibition, "New Documents" has been assimilated into Street Photography, and while there remains a strong lineage to Documentary Photography, the boundary lines become blurred given that Street Photography tends to favor spontaneity over planning in its pursuit of the artistic "moment".

Ethnographic Photography

John Beasly Green's <i>Médinet-Habou, Palais de Ramsès Méïamoun, Entrée de La Seconde Cour</i> (1854) shows the Palace of Ramses Meïamoun, Entrance of the Second Court in Egypt.
John Beasly Green's Médinet-Habou, Palais de Ramsès Méïamoun, Entrée de La Seconde Cour (1854) shows the Palace of Ramses Meïamoun, Entrance of the Second Court in Egypt.

Developing from the earliest days of Documentary Photography, and especially John Beasley Green's photographs of ancient ruins in Nubia in the 1850s, Ethnographic Photography takes its name from the anthropological term "ethnography," the scientific research of specific cultures. In the 19th century, photographers would often travel to remote parts of the world to bring back (or send back in the form of a post card) images of other cultures and peoples for the European public. This popular practice created a kind of photographic tourism. Green's approach was however informed by his work as an Egyptologist, and his images of the ruins and the people of Nubia were valued as scientific records.

This photograph <i>A Dancer of the Cafes</i> from a 1916 issue of National Geographic Magazine depicts an Algerian dancer.
This photograph A Dancer of the Cafes from a 1916 issue of National Geographic Magazine depicts an Algerian dancer.

Founded in 1888 in Washington D. C., The National Geographic Society launched its National Geographic Magazine. Originally a scholarly journal created for its 165 charter members, in 1905 it expanded its photographic content with the intention of attracting a wider public audience. The magazine's photography focused on particular regions, cultures, tribal peoples, and civilizations and played an important role in establishing Ethnographic Documentary as a genre in its own right. The trend was further influenced by the Farm Security Administration's (FSA) photographs documenting rural poverty that affected entire communities and extended over generations, and by the British Mass Observation project, founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrison, journalist Charles Madge, and the filmmaker Humphrey Jennings.

Arthur Rothstein was the first photographer appointed by the FSA, a project that was meant to build support for the social reforms of the Roosevelt Administration. He documented the devastating effects of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, a phenomenon caused by a combination of a severe drought and over farming, that lasted eight years and devastated livestock and crops. Described as a social research project and employing as many as 500 volunteers - or "observers" - Mass Observation created "weather-maps of public feeling." The project included documentary photographs from John Hinde, Humphrey Spender, and Michael Wickham and was described as "purely informational and not meant to be artistic in any way." The founders hoped to provide for the British public an "anthropology of ourselves" and the project ran into the mid-1960s and was revived subsequently in 1981.

In the 1960s, meanwhile, art theorist Hal Foster argued that Performance Art, and other emerging trends that broke down the barrier between artist and audience and the definition of institutional space, had moved art toward visual ethnography. Documentary projects of particular communities were often viewed in anthropological terms. However, Foster's argument was that Performance Art directly involved the audience to an extent that they were no longer passive bystanders, and art duly crossed over into the field of anthropology. Artworks like Jeremy Deller's The Battle of Orgreave (2001), in which the artist organized a re-enactment (featuring 800 "re-enactors" and 200 former miners) of a conflict during the 1984 miners' strike, show how the artist works with the community to "recover" its hidden or suppressed history.

War Documentary

Roger Fenton's <i>Valley of the Shadow of Death</i> (1855), showing cannonballs scattered on a dirt road, captured the feeling of war and its losses for his Victorian audience
Roger Fenton's Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855), showing cannonballs scattered on a dirt road, captured the feeling of war and its losses for his Victorian audience

War Documentary is thought to have begun in 1848 when John McCosh took photographs of the Second Anglo-Sikh War. McCosh had served as a surgeon in the Bengal Army and went on to document the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. In 1854 both Károly Szathmáry Papp, an Austro-Hungarian artist, and the British photographer Roger Fenton, documented the Crimean War. Fenton, with the endorsement of leading members of the British Royal Family and the British government, became the first Official War Photographer. Given that camera technology still required long exposure times (and therefore could not capture live action) Fenton's images focused on British soldiers and their armaments and encampments. Battle scenes that included dead bodies and/or casualties were considered unseemly and not appropriate for public tastes. Fenton's work was nevertheless credited not only for its impact on War Photography but on the early development of Photojournalism.

Timothy O'Sullivan <i>A Harvest of Death</i> (negative July 4, 1863; print 1866) shows the dead on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Timothy O'Sullivan A Harvest of Death (negative July 4, 1863; print 1866) shows the dead on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

In 1861 Matthew Brady undertook his own project to photograph the American Civil War, hiring a team of photographers that included Timothy O'Sullivan and Alexander Gardner. Brady, at the time the most famous photographic portraitist in the country, turned his attention from his studio in New York to document the war for virtually the whole of its duration. His team's images of battlefields, often strewn with the dead of both sides, of military encampments, and of grueling conditions, were juxtaposed with portraits of leading politicians and military leaders. His 1862 New York exhibition "The Dead of Antietam" was the first time the realities of war and death were seen by the general public and it was greeted with great acclaim.

The early part of the 20th century saw the emergence of small portable cameras capable of capturing action scenes and using film stock that could be developed at the photographer's leisure. This technological development led to extensive photography of World War I as soldiers took the Vest Pocket Kodak to the war front (even though a number of countries, including Britain, forbade the practice). As photographic historian Bodo von Dewitz noted, "After 1916, there were strict rules of what to show and what not. But the pictures from the front, sent by soldiers to their families, could not be controlled that much," resulting, albeit inadvertently, in the most authentic documentation of the war. Governments and their military began appointing official photographers like Ernest Brooks, the first appointed photographer in Great Britain, though Brooks's recreated scenes and faked images played a role in the British government's establishing the "Propaganda of the Facts" to ban staged images in 1916.

With the invention of the hand-held Leica 35 mm camera in 1925, War Documentary became gradually subsumed into Photojournalism. Robert Capa, who made his name by photographing the Spanish Civil War, became one of the most famous war photographers, his images presented in the leading magazines of the day. Other noted photojournalists/war documentarians included Agusti Centelles, W. Eugene Smith, Alfred Eisenstaedt, and Margaret Bourke-White.

Documentary Film

Early films, as exemplified by the likes of Auguste and Louis Lumière, ran at less than a minute long. These "one reelers" were called "actualities" since the movie camera simply recorded an actual event (such as the demolition of a wall); the novelty of photographic images that moved being enough to captivate audiences. It is thought that Documentary Film was first defined as a genre by Boleslaw Matuszewski, a French speaking Polish film archivist who followed his 1896 films of surgical procedures with Une nouvelle source de l'histoire (A New Source of History) and La photographie animée (Animated photography), both exhibited in 1898.

During the first decades of the twentieth century travelogue films, (or "scenics") and city symphony films came into their own. Travelogues depicted exotic locales and peoples, as seen In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), or more meditative views, as in the earlier Moscow Clad in Snow (1909). As film critic Pamela Hutchinson described them, the city symphony films adopted an avant-gardist approach to documentary. Devoid of characters and plot, the films' "structure [was] borrowed from the movements and motifs of orchestral symphonies or the hours of the day, rather than the dynamics of narrative pacing." A pioneering example of the city symphony approach can be found in Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler's Manhatta (1921). Though the city symphony film declined in the 1930s, the avant-gardist influence continued in films such as Luis Buñuel's Las Hurdes: Tierra sin Pan (Las Hurdes: Earth without Bread) (1933) which brought a surrealist sensibility to an ethnographic documentary focused on a poverty-stricken region in Spain. An early feature-length documentary, Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922), was so successful it established Documentary Film as a commercially viable genre. Though presenting itself as an ethnographic record of the Inuit, the film included staged scenes of an unrelated "family" for dramatic effect, which for some commentators, undermined its authenticity.

Moving into the 1930s, both political film and propaganda film employed documentary with an ideological agenda. Allied with Social Documentary, political films portrayed social issues with a call to political reform, as seen, for instance, in Henri Storck and Joris Ivens's Misère au Borinage (Poverty in the Borinage) (1934). Depicting impoverished coal miners on strike during the Great Depression, the film's opening title read: "Crisis in the Capitalist World. Factories are closed down, abandoned. Millions of proletarians are hungry!" By way of contrast, propaganda films were government sponsored, as seen in the notorious examples of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia 1 - Festival of Nations and Olympia 2 - Festival of Beauty (1938). Commissioned by Adolf Hitler, and seen by many aesthetes as important artistic achievements (if nothing else), the films' documentation of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress and the summer Olympics of 1936, respectively, were a blatant celebration of Nazi power and ideology.

Documentary Realism, Cinéma Vérité, and Free Cinema

Following World War II, documentary's connection to propaganda led to critical analysis and debate. Italian Neorealism, a film movement based upon the universal values of humanism, informed the development of a commercial film style in Italy known as Documentary Realism. Focusing on ordinary people living in Nazi occupied or post-war Italy, the genre was brought to full fruition by Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945), a film combining several stories of Romans active in the resistance. Two months after the Nazis had been forced to evacuate the city, the director began filming, using an improvisatory approach to both narrative and photographic technique. Though he hired two professional actors (Aldo Fabrizi and Anna Magnani), the rest of the cast were ordinary Italians. Subsequent filmmakers, including Vittorio De Sica's well-known The Bicycle Thieves (1948) worked with nonprofessional casts. De Sica's film, which tells the humble story of a man searching the backstreets and markets of Rome for his stolen bicycle (which he needs for work as a billposter), was further defined by long shots, the use of the handheld camera, a loose narrative structure, and a lack of narrative closure.

Neorealism was championed by André Bazin, a French film critic and theorist, who cofounded the influential journal Cahiers du Cinéma (Notebooks on Cinema) in 1951. He felt the camera should be treated as "a window on reality" and argued in favor of depictions of an objective reality where the director became "invisible" and did not manipulate the audience through excessive editing. His ideas were hugely influential on subsequent filmmakers, and by the 1960s cinéma vérité (truthful cinema), led by the French anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch, and the critic Edgar Morin, emerged in France through Rouch and Morin's Chronicle of a Summer (1960).

In Britain, meanwhile, Tony Richardson, Lorenza Mazzetti, Karel Reisz, and Lindsay Anderson founded the Free Cinema movement with the premier of three short documentary films in 1956. Wanting films to be free of both propaganda and the constraints of the commercial film industry, the documentaries, such as Anderson's O Dreamland (1953) were cheaply made using 16 millimeter black and white film stock. The group, who focused on the daily travails of post-war working class communities, favored hand held cameras and rejected all notions of linear narration.

Later Developments - After Documentary Photography

Documentary Photography was challenged in the early 1970s by the dominance of television media with its capacity for live documentation, the closure of leading photo-essay magazines, and postmodernist approaches to art marking. As photographic critic Mark Durden remarked, "from the 1970s onwards, documentary faced a concerted effort to displace its importance. As photography was taken up and used by Conceptual artists, its documentary form was often subject to parody and critique" as seen, for instance, in Sherrie Levine's After Walker Evans series (1981).

Much of the critique of documentary revolved around issues of authorship, appropriation, and was informed by the post-modern awareness that even the earlier documentary projects had been informed by the photographer's perspective, often reflecting cultural values. Though Documentary Photography continued, it tended to do so with a post-modern sensibility, sometimes adopting an ethnographic approach to the communities photographed as seen in Don McCullin's scenes of the urban strife in marginalized neighborhoods, or John Ranard's images of the boxing world in The Brutal Aesthetic (1987). Ranard subsequently went on to photograph the world of Russian prisons in Forty Pounds of Salt (1995) while Puerto-Rican Manuel Rivera-Ortiz documented rural village life in images like Tobacco Harvesting, Valle de Viñales, Cuba (2002). Graciela Iturbide lived among indigenous peoples in remote areas of Mexico, as she documented their way of life, and Sebastião Salgado has become celebrated for his images of workers in Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age (1993), following by his documentation of global migration, The Children: Refugees and Migrant (2000) and Migrations (2000).

Most Important Art

Zoom imageDocumentary Photography Famous Art

Bandits' Roost, 59 1/2 Mulberry Street (1888)

Artist: Jacob Riis
This photograph depicts an alley in a slum located in what was called "The Bend," a notorious neighborhood between Mulberry, Baxter, Bayard, and Park Streets in New York. Riis said of the The Bend that "Abuse is the normal condition...murder its everyday crop."

Here, two men on the right seem to guard the entrance to "the Bend" while the man leaning on the club only heightens the sense of menace. Behind them, another man casually perches on a staircase railing (possibly the gang leader) while three other figures cluster on the opposite staircase. All the men are turned to face down the camera. Adding to the general mood of urban despondency, a woman and a child lean out of windows in the building on the right, while in background, clothing hangs on lines strung along the alley. Overall, a sense of crowded poverty and desperate circumstances becomes the backdrop for Riis's foreboding portrait of the Mulberry Street "bandits".

Raised in Denmark, Riis arrived in New York in 1870. By 1877 he had begun working as a police reporter for The New York Tribune. A year later, after reading about the invention of magnesium flash powder, which made night photography possible, Riis took up photography. He began visiting the slums at night, where, accompanied by his two assistants and a policeman, he sometimes startled the residents with the abrupt flash of his camera. As Bonnie Yochelson wrote, his images "captured what had never been seen before in a photograph [while they] retain their power today because the harsh light and haphazard compositions convey the chaos of living in poverty."

Influenced by the progressive social reform movements that had initially emerged in the mid-1800s with Felix Adler's founding of the Society for Ethical Culture, Riis published his photographs, along with accompanying text, in How the Other Half Lives (1890). The groundbreaking work, documenting the poverty of urban immigrants, spurred legislative reform and became thus a seminal work of Social Documentary photography. Yet, while his images captured the reality of slum life, Riis also perpetuated many of the stereotypical views of the era. As contemporary curator Daniel Czitrom wrote, "I've always been struck by the tension between the empathy and sympathy that's powerfully depicted in many of those images, and the kind of stereotypes, racial language, that he uses in the text. There's a tension between the text and the photographs. Today, no one really reads Riis anymore, and yet the photographs remain incredibly moving."
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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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