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.