The Documentary Impulse


Stuart Franklin has good credentials as a documentary photographer. He is a member and past-president of Magnum and one of the photographers who recorded the ‘Tank Man’ incident in Tiananmen Square in 1989. That story makes the major part of essay 5 in The Documentary Impulse.

The Documentary Impulse (Franklin 2016) is a set of eight essays (plus introduction and afterword) by Stuart Franklin on various aspects of documentary photography. His definition of the term means

… the passion to record the moments we experience and wish to preserve, the things we witness and might want to reform, or simply the people, places and things we find remarkable (Franklin 2016,5)

The key words are (for me), ‘record’, ‘witness’, ‘preserve’ and ‘reform’. Every documentary photograph must do at least two of those things, or what’s the point? Franklin goes beyond the layman’s idea of documentary as non-fiction and adopts John Grierson’s phrase ‘creative treatment of actuality’, which appears to combine Ruskin’s concepts of ‘material truth’ and ‘moral truth’ (ibid, p6)

The first essay traces the pre-photographic documentary impulse from cave paintings, through Egyptian pyramid decorations to John Singer Sargent and the other war artists, followed by a potted history of photography.

The second essay, Lost Eden, looks at the reporting of so-called primitive tribes and peoples through time, which is partly informative and partly designed to reinforce Western feelings of ethnic superiority. It is interesting to view different reporters/photographers  approaches to the same peoples, some concealing modern influences – giving a romantic pre-lapsarian gloss – and others emphasising the changes that contact with ‘civilisation’ has wrought.

Other essays deal with war reporting, crusading for social change (Lewis Hine etc.) and the documentation of the routine of everyday life. The final essay deals with staging and manipulations and argues for a documentary impulse even in the fully-staged work of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall.

Overall, a readable and thought-provoking look at documentary and narrative. It will be useful for the OCA course, but worth reading in its own right.


Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon Press Ltd.


Part one – Reflections

Now that you’ve reached the end of Part One, reflect on what you’ve learned in your learning log or blog.

This is a personal reflection piece and, therefore, presented without formal references.

What was your idea of documentary photography before you worked on Part One? How would you now sum it up?

My working definition of ‘documentary’, assuming I had one at all, was influenced by seeing those films and TV programmes that are described as being documentaries. It would be glib to say, ‘Documentary is what David Attenborough does’ but it gives the general sense. A documentary is a piece of work which it presented as being factual, whether narrative or not, rather than fictitious. I had not seriously considered whether a documentary could be a work of art or not, but agree with a general consensus that some of the Attenborough/BBC wildlife projects, such as ‘Blue Planet’  are beautiful and wide-ranging enough to be considered as art.

The working definition creaks a bit when considered in the context of a still image; moving images have a strong tradition of fictional narrative and therefore need to see documentary as a separate category, while still photography is automatically seen as evidential, unless there is good reason not to – such as obviously-constructed digital images.

Family holiday snaps are non-fiction but I would not normally classify them as documentary. I think the distinction here is that there is no general public interest in what Uncle John did on the beach at Margate. A documentary image or series needs to have some sort of public interest or message, whether the public initially knows about it or not. Lewis Hine’s child labour images, or the later 20th-century famine images from Biafra or Ethiopia are examples of documentary work that has brought its subject to the public attention.

Pure record photography, such as may be found in catalogues, encyclopaedias etc. is non-fictional and in the public interest but is, for the most part not documentary. The distinction is not clear but I suspect it is related to ‘newsworthiness’

While a documentary project must be ‘true’ (or at least non-fictional), my Part One research has demonstrated that it need not be objective. Anybody trying to put across a message is going to let some subjectivity creep in, whether in-camera or elsewhere on the journey to publication. In responsible documentary work, the degree of objectivity or subjectivity should be stated or made obvious. Ultimately, it is for the viewer to judge the degree of objectivity and, therefore, the amount of credence to be placed in the work and the amount of influence it can be allowed to have.

What are the differences between documentary, reportage, photojournalism and art photography?

The first three terms, documentary, reportage and photojournalism seem to be used interchangeably. For me, ‘documentary’ is an overall term for news- or current-affairs- related non-fiction. ‘Reportage’ and ‘photojournalism’ sit within documentary. If there is a difference, then  suggest that it relates to the difference between ‘reporters’ and ‘journalists’ in the news media. Reporters give an ungarnished (subject to previous comments about objectivity) account of recent or unfolding events. Journalists gather material and present it as a ‘story’, whether analytical, campaigning or background.

‘Art photography’ is a slippery concept which I have still not fully grasped. Partly, it is a function of external context – something on a gallery wall is more easily accepted as ‘art’ than the same image on an inside page of a newspaper. I do not see ‘art’ as necessarily distinct from ‘documentary’, but could construct a Venn diagram showing the two terms as overlapping circles. Some images are ‘art’, some are ‘documentary’, a few are both and (probably) most are neither.




Exercise – The Real and the Digital

We are invited to read an extract (pp73-75) from Derrick Price’s chapter ‘Surveyors and Surveyed’ in Liz Wells’ Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition, 2009). The extract, ‘The real and the digital’ is available as a student resource on the OCA website, which is fortunate because it does not exist in my 2nd edition (2000) copy. I had intended to insert the word ‘unsurprisingly’ in the previous sentence but I note from the equivalent section of Stephen Bulls’ ‘Photography’, ‘Digital debates: Revolution or evolution’ (Bull 2010, pp20-23) that wide critical examination of digital photography began around 1990

Price notes the contemporary emergence of new types of digital media and raises  sets of questions about the nature of photography, the photographic image and its connection with reality. Bull sees two stages in the debates about digital imaging: the first, in the early to mid-1990s was about the apparent changes brought about by digital technologies and whether (to paraphrase Delaroche) ‘from today, photography is dead!’ – the second stage was a recognition that manipulation of images had existed from the earliest days of photography; although the questions remain, they are not exclusively about digital photography.

I briefly examined ways that photography could be seen to lie in a posting in my EYV blog. Apart from the section on retouching, none were specifically Photoshop-related.

I find it interesting that the debate about the extent to which photographs can be manipulated and new realities created has come full circle. In the camera club world, and in the Royal Photographic Society ARPS assessment process, there is debate about the difference between ‘pictorial’ and ‘creative’ images. In the RPS, the Visual Art assessment category was briefly split into Pictorial and Creative categories (Pictorial images being derived from a single file without extensive manipulation, Creative being more manipulated or composited) which have now merged back into a single Fine Art category. This mirrors the early 20th century revolt by Edward Weston, Berenice Abbott and others against the Pictorialists such as Henry Peach Robinson, Oscar Rejlander and Julia Margaret Cameron. The argument can be followed through essays by Robinson, Abbott, Weston and others in Trachtenberg (2005). I am amused to see that the word ‘pictorial’ has changed sides at some time between the historical and present debates. My own view is that a lot of words could have been saved if we recognised that ‘photography’ and ‘digital imaging’ are two different activities.

Digital imaging does not have to start with photography at all. Price notes that photorealistic images can be created ‘from scratch’ on the computer. However, digital imaging does not have a sole claim to photorealism, which seems to have been the aim of at least one branch of airbrush-artwork from the 1990s onward (see image below) and ‘airbrushing’ was once a technique for manipulating photographic images, before Photoshop.

Price is concerned that this ability to create and manipulate images might destroy photography’s claim to show things as they are, and to raise doubts about documentary and photojournalism which rely on claims of objectivity and realism. Bull’s view, citing Geoffrey Batchen, is that every photograph involves some form of manipulation, even if it occurs in-camera with framing, use of flash or selection of shutter speed and aperture (therefore depth of field). ‘To Batchen digitally manipulated photographs do what photography has always done: depict the world as an altered version of itself.’ (Bull 2010, 23) By this reading, digital photography is not a revolution, simply a stage in the continuing evolution of photography.


Bull, S. (2010). Photography. London: Routledge.

Trachtenberg, A. (2005). Classic essays on photography. 1st ed. New Haven: Leete’s Island Books.

Wells, L.(ed) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge

Exercise – composite image

This image is titled “We’re back!” and is a creation in Photoshop, composited from three originals, assembled using layers and layer masks (which are more tweakable than using the eraser tool.)

Morgan fantasy

Working from the background layer upward:

The background layer is the churchyard outside Stokesay Castle in Shropshire. I applied a radial blur centred on the position of the car.

The smoke behind the car is entirely artificial, created using the ‘clouds’ filter.

The two skulls are cut out from an image taken in the ossuary in the crypt of St Leonard’s church in Hythe, Kent. This image was shot on medium-format FP4, which was partially responsible for the decision to apply a mono treatment to the whole composite.

The Morgan 3-wheeler is in a motor museum in Rolvenden, Kent. It was in a  garage, surrounded by clutter. The intricate cutting-out required, including suspension members and brake hoses, was the most time-consuming part of the exercise. I used mid-grey in the layer mask to make the aeroscreens semi-transparent and reveal the skulls. The original number plate was blacked out.

The new registration number, RIP1, was applied using the text tool.

The decision to make a contrasty monochrome conversion was partially dictated by the skulls being monochrome already, partly by a desire to avoid colour-matching and partly because it fitted the overall feel of the image.

Finally, I applied noise layer overall to integrate the slightly different noise levels of three different images, shot with three different cameras.

Exercise – Public Order

Sarah Pickering describes herself on her website as ‘ a London based, British artist interested in fakes, tests, hierarchy, sci-fi, explosions, photography and gunfire’. The photo series ‘Public Order’ is about fakes but in a context that indirectly references explosions and gunfire.

The course notes have already explained the premise of the series, but I have tried to view the images as if coming to them afresh.

At a quick first reading, these are views of buildings and streets, but they look odd, with no roof or eaves details. The station turnstiles are just lumps of concrete and everything is constructed in grey concrete blockwork – very rarely seen as an external finish in the UK. Intrigued and looking closer, we see that many of the ‘buildings’ are simply flat facades and we realise that they are supported by steel frameworks. In some images, we see that some higher-level walls are of painted plywood.

At a second reading, then, perhaps this is a film or stage set, which would explain the sterile appearance and lack of people. But this explanation is also unsatisfactory because of the unconvincing surface finishes. Some kind of drama is played out here, but not for public display. Detail touches, roadblocks, derelict vehicles, piles of tyres, and scorch marks on the walls suggest that some sort of violence either occurs or is simulated.

The C&N course notes and various reviewers tell us something that Pickering doesn’t (at least, not on her website ( These images are police training grounds, environments set up for practicing for real-life emergencies, riot control etc. In her Vimeo interview for the Aperture Foundation (Vimeo 2010) she tells us that she started off photographing riot-control exercises but realised that the empty images had more power, what she describes as a ‘sense of latent violence’. I appreciate being allowed to use my imagination, although Pickering tells us that the police were initially disappointed about it. The depersonalised treatment gives at least an appearance of objectivity.

The series is good documentary because it brings the viewers’ attention to aspects of policing that we may not have considered. Of course the police need training in crowd-control and riot-control techniques – it would be dangerous to rely on on-the-job training and it is vital to practice alternative tactics. We now have some idea of how it is done, if not where. We are reminded that policing is about more than detecting crime.


Kuball, L. (2010). Explosions, Fires, and Public Order Special book review. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Mar. 2017].

Pickering, S. (n.d.). Public Order. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Mar. 2017].

Vimeo. (2010). Sarah Pickering on Public Order & Explosion series: Excerpt. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Mar. 2017].

Research point – Sectarian Murder

Paul Seawright grew up in Belfast during the period euphemistically called ‘The Troubles’. During 1987/8 he made a series of images based on visits to murder sites or body-dump sites from the sectarian killings of the early 1970s. Seawright did not give them a title but reviewers always refer to them as the ‘Sectarian Murder’ series (Kelly, quoted in (n.d.))

Each work in the series is a combination of image and text. The image is a colour view of the site from a low viewpoint, as if giving a victim’s-eye view. Lighting is a controlled combination of daylight and obvious fill-flash, mimicking the lighting of a scene-of-crime officer’s photograph. The text is precis’ed from contemporary news reports of the murder, edited to exclude the victim’s name or any indication of his religion.

The text goes beyond simple captioning; it is essential to the understanding of the image which would be meaningless and rather banal without it. Taken together, particularly if seen as a group, there is a powerful message giving the viewer some insight of what it was like to live through the period. In removing any reference to the religion of the victim (which was the defining characteristic in what was essentially a tribal conflict) Seawright emphasises that these were innocent bystanders caught up in something terrible.

How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?

This quotation from the course notes begs the question of whether there are boundaries between documentary and art, or any other genres of photography. I do not believe the terms ‘documentary’ and ‘art’ are mutually exclusive. Meyerowitz’s Ground Zero images, for instance, fall into both genres.

Documentary photography has (or, in my opinion, should have) characteristics of factual accuracy, objectivity and explanation. Its natural home is the newspaper or magazine. Characterisation as art implies acceptance of the work by ‘the art-world’ on whatever criteria; its natural home may be the gallery wall. Publication in book form is, perhaps, a halfway house.

Seawright discusses his work (he does not specifically refer to Sectarian Murder) in in interview on the Imperial war Museum channel of Vimeo (Seawright (n.d.)) in which he draws a distinction between journalism and art photography. He describes his work as art and sees the distinction in terms of how quickly a piece ‘gives up its meaning’ or how much work the viewer has to do to understand the narrative of the piece. In his view, if a piece is too explicit then it becomes journalism; if it is too ambiguous then it is meaningless. The ‘holy grail’ is a piece that gives up its meaning, but slowly. The viewer has to work for understanding but will achieve it.

Viewing this video has helped me with my own queries about the nature of art. My new working-definition distinction has four cases. If a piece has no meaning, it is neither art nor journalism, merely an image. If it has alleged meaning but is impossible to understand, then it is obscurantism rather than art. If it has meaning that is explicit, it is journalism. If it has meaning that the viewer must work for (but can extract) then it is art. Simplistic, I know, and it will need tweaking for genres other than documentary, but it is a good start.

Sectarian Murders may not be strictly documentary (or journalistic) but stands at one remove from documentary. We are not seeing the murders or their immediate aftermath. Seawright was working 15 years after the event, so we see the site subject to whatever changes have occurred in the intervening period, and sanitised by the effluxion of time. It is the text that brings the meaning back – or brings new meaning. These are images for the gallery wall (and have been exhibited over 20 times since 1988 (Seawright 2013)) and, therefore have to be considered as art rather than journalism.

If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?

This is a wider question than the first one, but still makes the unchallenged assumption that there is a difference between documentary and art. As noted above, I do not consider the two as mutually exclusive.

The narrative does not change. The context does. Viewing a piece as an artwork rather than as documentary does not change its intrinsic meaning, but will affect the nature of the consideration that a viewer gives to it.

References (n.d.). Paul Seawright. Sectarian Murder (1988) – Hyman Collection. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Mar. 2017].

Seawright, P. (n.d.). Sectarian Murder. [online] Paul Seawright. Available at: [Accessed 25 Mar. 2017].

Seawright, P. (2013). Catalyst: Paul Seawright. [online] Vimeo. Available at: [Accessed 25 Mar. 2017].

Research point – Street

Street photography is remarkably difficult to define. While much of it takes place on the street, a flick through Howarth and McLaren (2011) shows ‘street’ images taken in parks, on beaches and at an airfield. Most ‘street’ images are about people, but where does that leave Melanie Einzig’s ‘Teletransport’ (ibid, p60) or Matt Stuart’s peacock skip (ibid p188 and back cover). According to Richard Bram, ‘Good street photography is like good pornography; you can’t really describe it but you know it when you see it’ (ibid p234). The masters of the genre make it look easy, so there are an awful lot of people out there clicking away at random and claiming to be ‘street photographers’. (‘Readers’ Wives’ rather than Playboy, perhaps). The street images that I most enjoy have an element of humour, mystery or recognition.


Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt (1913-2009) was a New York street photographer, active from 1938. Influenced by Cartier-Bresson and a friend of Walker Evans, she started in the monochrome tradition, mainly photographing children playing, but moved into dye-transfer colour through the 1960s to the ’80s. Her style is very much ‘street theatre’ and her observation and use of colour enhance the images from that period.

Joel Meyerowitz

I have already encountered Meyerowitz once in this blog, with his haunting images of Ground Zero that David Campany considered too beautiful.

Meyerowitz began shooting monochrome street photography in the 1960s, adopted colour ‘permanently’ in 1972 (4 years before Eggleston’s MoMA exhibition)  and uses both 35mm (Leica) and 8×10 large-format cameras for street, portrait and landscape work (Wikipedia 2017-1).  He is very clear about his reasons for shooting colour; in addition to being slower and more contemplative (25ASA as opposed to 1000ASA which was how he rated his mono film) he sees it as a way of capturing a wider sense of the experiences of real life (Kim n.d.-2)


A color photograph gives you a chance to study and remember how things look and feel in color. It enables you to have feelings along the full wavelength of the spectrum, to retrieve emotions that were perhaps bred in you from infancy—from the warmth and pinkness of your mother’s breast, the loving brown of you puppy’s face, and the friendly yellow of your pudding. Color is always part of experience. Grass is green, not gray; flesh is color, not gray. Black and white is a very cultivated response. (Meyerowitz, quoted by Kim)

Paul Graham

Graham is described by Wikipedia (2017-2) as an English fine-art and documentary photographer, and has a string of awards and images to his name. However, I either don’t like or don’t understand his work ( 2017) which appears, to me, to fall into the ‘random clicking’ category.

Bruce Gilden

Gilden is another photographer whose street images I cannot like. His style is up close and aggressive, often adding flash. The images exhibited at the ‘Strange and Familiar’ exhibition last year (picture below) are grotesque and those chosen by Howarth and McLaren (2011, 54-59) are , with one exception (p55), distorting or ill-composed, stripping the subject of dignity without adding any story.

Strange And Familiar: Britain As Revealed By International Photographers, Curated By Martin Parr

Joel Sternfeld

Sternfeld is another photographer who moved from 35mm to fine-art 8×10 large format. He is now better known for documentary and landscape work, but started as a street photographer. (Kim n.d.-1). Many of his images have elements of story and of mystery – he likes to leave them open to interpretation. For instance the image below (one of his best known) shows a firefighter buying pumpkins from a farm stall while his colleagues tackle a blaze. The apparent dereliction of duty would be explained if Sternfeld had told us that this was a training exercise not a real emergency, but that would make the image more ‘ordinary’.

Sternfeld takes the view that it is OK for a viewer to place his own interpretation on an image; after all, the photographer has already done so:

Photography has always been capable of manipulation. Even more subtle and more invidious is the fact that any time you put a frame to the world, it’s an interpretation. I could get my camera and point it at two people and not point it at the homeless third person to the right of the frame, or not include the murder that’s going on to the left of the frame… There’s an infinite number of ways you can do this: photographs have always been authored (Sternfeld quoted by Kim)



Martin Parr

I learned to appreciate street photography through a growing appreciation of Martin Parr (which may explain my expectations of the genre). Parr is a street and documentary photographer who has worked exclusively in colour since 1986. His characteristic style has highly saturated colour and often uses flash to inject a sense of unreality and put the viewer off balance.

I would describe Parr as an amateur social anthropologist with an eye for detail and a sharp sense of humour. His images, whether of people or of still-life details always tell a story and often produce a stab of recognition. As the Magnum Photos profile puts it:

Martin Parr sensitises our subconscious – and once we’ve seen his photographs, we keep on discovering these images over and over again in our daily lives and recognising ourselves within them. The humour in these photographs makes us laugh at ourselves, with a sense of recognition and release.

(Weski 2014)

Research questions


Colour become part of documentary photography since the pioneers or the early 1970s. Meyerowitz, in particular (quoted above), is emphatic about its importance to the overall experience. It is now the majority format, as seen by flicking through Howarth & McLaren (2011) for instance.

Monochrome street photography is generally high-contrast and uses fast films (often uprated) to freeze movement and, incidentally, to inject a sense of gritty realism. The images are about shapes and geometry. Colour images (even when highly saturated, such as Parr’s) seem to be gentler and more contemplative. Both styles have their adherents and uses. There are images, such as HCB’s ‘Behind the Gare St Lazare’ that would not work in colour and others, such as Matt Stuart’s peacock skip, for which it is essential.


The question asked is “Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work)?”. The problem I have is that I have not spotted the connection with surrealism at all. I understand surrealism as an art movement ‘purporting to express the subconscious mind by images etc. in sequences or associations such as may occur in dreams’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary). This appears, to me, to be the antithesis of street photography which is based on a close observation of reality.

Irony and national values

It is a national stereotype (and caricature) that irony is part of the British national character and pretty much unknown in America. For one example, see Odone (2001). As with most stereotypes, it is based on just enough truth to be impossible to debunk, but is nowhere near a universal truth.

There does appear to be a difference between British and American street photography, with the American version being more serious and ‘in your face’ (literally in the case of Bruce Gilden) and the British more satirical or ironic (Martin Parr). However, there are counter-examples such as Sternfeld’s pumpkin-buying firefighter.

References (n.d.). Helen Levitt. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].

Howarth, S. and McLaren, S. (2011). Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson.

Kim, E. (n.d.). 6 Lessons Joel Sternfeld Has Taught Me About Street Photography. [online] Eric Kim. Available at: [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].

Kim, E. (n.d.). 12 Lessons Joel Meyerowitz Has Taught Me About Street Photography. [online] Eric Kim. Available at: [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].

Luhring Augustine. (2017). Joel Sternfeld – Artists. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].

Odone, C. (2001). Comment: Anne Robinson has exposed America’s irony deficiency. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017]. (2017). Paul Graham Photography Archive. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].

The Telegraph. (2009). Obituary – Helen Levitt. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].

Weski, T. (2014). Martin Parr Profile. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].

Wikipedia. (2017). Joel Meyerowitz. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].

Wikipedia. (2017). Paul Graham (photographer). [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].