Research · Looking at work of socially committed black and white photographers

Research into black and white socially engaged photography


Explore and research the major black and white documentary photographers and see if these documentary works were their principle work. Include the British documentary photographers of the ‘exit group’ Brandt and the American photographers Hine and Riis.

Starting with the exit group, I looked into each individual member. There were changes in personnel within the ‘exit’ collective starting with the primary members: Nicholas Battye and Diane Olson and Paul Trevors. Paul was the main organiser of the group and so it seems the visionary. Their mission was to explore the social situation of inner city poverty throughout Britain. Their quest was to highlight this to the public in order to create social reform. From their point of view inner city poverty was endemic, intolerable and would lead to serious social breakdown if not checked and corrected (photoworks:

Taking a socialist stance, the photographers decided not to credit themselves in the photo book as they saw their mission as a collective not an independent enterprise. Within the group Nick Danzinger did not relate to himself primarily as a photographer but rather a writer and spiritual seeker. The path of photography for him was a phase in his journey. The other two within the group identified more readily as photographers. One assumes that the sense of mission that they felt went beyond only taking photographs per se, but was more oriented to social change and the wake up of the populace.

Bill Brandt had a strong inclination towards the surrealist art of the time and practiced primarily in that genre. He came from a well to do family. His brother and some other members regularly participated in what we would now call staged photography posing as criminals and the like. There is a doubt in my mind that Brandt really was primarily a documentarian. It has been suggested that his photos were more fantastical rather than documentary oriented or with a critical inclination (Kozloff, 2007) [1].

Brandt had assisted Man Ray and been and introduced to the work of Atget earlier in the century. These influences, one feels, are quite clearly drawn out in his work. It has been pointed out that there is a glaring contradiction in the work of Brandt. He, from a well to do family did not really understand the class divide experientially and ‘consumed’ the status that he enjoyed perhaps without second thought to the trials of the people that he photographed. This criticism is easy to believe I feel as Brandt had a privileged view and in a sense a view not shared by many during his time. (Kozloff, 2007) [2]. Therefore from a personal perspective I find it difficult to think of Brandt as a concerned observer, but more of a curiosity shop photographer who liked to look at ‘other’. His main skill as a photographer I believe was in artistry and fantasy. 

Image by Brandt that would not be considered documentary:

Hine and Riis were documentary photographers and engaged in a more socially active role with their work. Hine and Riis saw things somewhat differently in that one appeared to hold the responsibility for social ills to internal forces that had to do with the individuals. Hine on the other hand, placed the issues more on the social political scene and corruption within governments. Hine often used the background to his subjects to highlight the story that he was trying to tell. With the background often out of focus, he would use a realist approach but with soft lighting (Kosloff, 2007) [3].

Hine was spoken of as a man who created a “human photojournalism” that departed from the established pictorial tradition at the time (Koetzle, 2005) [4]. Hine therefore was heralded as a true socially engaged photographer with empathetic leanings towards his subjects. Although Hine was not impartial to setting up a scene, his aims evidently was to engage the viewer to see what it was that he was trying to communicate rather than simply aesthetic effect. 



  1. Kosloff, M. The theatre of the face (portrait photography since 1900) (2007:127-129) Phaidon.
  2. Kosloff, M. The theatre of the face (portrait photography since 1900) (2007:127-129) Phaidon.
  3. Kosloff, M. The theatre of the face (portrait photography since 1900) (2007) Phaidon.
  4. Koetzle, H.M. Photo Icons, the story behind the pictures (2005:126-127) Taschen.


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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