Research into the historical developments in documentary photography

As a preliminary step in my research I looked into the world and work of John Grierson. : ‘Dear John Grierson: a postscript to the story of film’ (rough cut).

I found this narration by Mark cousins paying homage to Grierson moving and informative. His basic argument in the presentation points to not identifying documentary narrowly within a mono-genre approach. Grierson, having coined the term documentary, curiously appears to have opened the theme with quite a broad understanding of what he meant by the term with reference to visual culture.

In 1957 Grierson (founder of the documentary film movement) took the existing discipline into television for the first time presenting his three hundred and fifty part series This wonderful world. As this happened, within the world of documentary and television an ongoing discussion in post-war Britain was appearing in relation to ‘cultural uplift’ and education through the medium (Fox, 2013) [1]. This by modern standards, apart from Drama and the ongoing documentary movement, does seem somewhat like the idea of Benidorm from the Spanish Franco administration point of view being a cultural centre of cross fertilisation for Europeans rather than a hedonistic holiday resort for the British.

"The problems . . . it seeks to clarify are problems common to every land. The understandings . . . it seeks to create are understandings demanded by all men. The imagination . . . it seeks to fire is an imagination necessary to the whole world if human progress is to be orderly and concerted..." (Fox, 2013) [2]

Within this quote one can see the earnestness to which the origins of documentary wanted to change the world by sharing information and informing the public of cultures and events that were outside of their normal frame of reference. In effect in my opnion, it may be questionable wether this really has taken place or at least created any lasting changes within society. There were high hopes to create a ‘peaceful global citizenship’ that would lead to perhaps a new way of being in the world post world war (Fox, 2013) [3]

Each major documentarian of the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries contributed in significant ways to what the canon of early documentary achieved and was recognised for. Next, not following the chronology of the chart we will look at Albert Khan (1869-1940) not least of all because of his significant contribution to documentary in terms of portraiture. I am personally struck by the soft quality of the autochrome lumiere process that he employed that was common at that time. Khan was a wealthy banker and in a sense portrays the elitist model of the documentary practitioner that had resources to purse photography in terms of time, equipment and economic means. One of the remarkable qualities in the portraits of Khan is that some of them seem modern even though they were shot a century ago. ([4]. Khan commissioned many of his works as an archivist interested in collecting and documenting races and places of the world in the form of portraiture. Often made in groups, his photos were sometimes shot using a photographer who doubled up as his chauffeur. As in keeping with the ethos of documentary it appears that Khan was keen to educate in an attempt to raise cultural awareness.

Khan photo of Mongolian tribe: [5]

Reflection point

Till now I have been looking at the early documentary tradition that seems to of aimed at a pure presentation of facts and truths objectively existent in the world. When I think about this area, I perceive a certain conflict within myself about exactly what this means. In trying to understand that contemporary artists challenge the notion of truth through the image, I find it difficult to come to a single conclusion about the theme. In discussing this with my tutor on the first meet I asked the question: ‘if we are looking at such a variety of ways of discussing documentary photography and see that the diversity of this field mergers into other genres why do we continue to call it documentary at all?’.

Perhaps this question needs to be further explored. Maybe the question is not the right one. However, it strikes me as curious that we are perhaps working more with linguistics than anything else. Given that all visual representations are a document in some sense, perhaps we should coin another term for describing what we want to talk about?

The mission Héliographique images of french architecture provided early documentary evidence of the existence of such realities in a way that was prior to the development of photographic manipulation practices. These images, not unlike those of the Brechers in their pursuit of infrastructure seemed principally about a process of recording facts.

(see below example of images from the Mission Héliographique collection)

Then coming into later phases of the documentary tradition we have the works of the likes of Riis, Hine, and Lange. As such these photographers were following in a traditional sense the desire to inform and improve the plight of people that were caught up in the poverty cycle. It is this period of photography that contemporary photographers find themselves questioning the methods of and styles of interpretation and critiquing the validity of objective truth through the still image (Bright, 2011:158) [5].


1. Fox, Jo. From Documentary Film to Television Documentaries: John Grierson and This Wonderful World (2013) [online] [accessed October 2019]

2. Fox, Jo. From Documentary Film to Television Documentaries: John Grierson and This Wonderful World (2013) [online] [accessed October 2019]

3. Fox, Jo. From Documentary Film to Television Documentaries: John Grierson and This Wonderful World (2013) [online] [accessed October 2019]

4. Khan website: [online] [accessed October 2019]

5. Bright, S. Art photography now (2011:158) Thames and Hudson

Published by Truevisionphotography

I'm a student photographer studying through the OCA a UK based arts university. I'm in the foundation year of my studies and enjoying it immensely. I'm also a yoga teacher and co-founder of Bodhiyoga a buddhism based yoga teacher training program that runs in the UK and Spain each year. As a photographer I'm interested in all forms of fine art. I find the arts really important in my life. I love nature and aim to be in the outdoors as much as I can. Generally I think that all the different strands of my life are flowing to towards self development in the greatest sense of the term. The arts, buddhist practice yoga and meditation are all tools to that end. I feel committed to communication the these values in the world both through the visual arts as well as teaching.

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