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.


Don McCullin – Unreasonable Behaviour

Sir Donald McCullin CBE HonFRPS is probably Britain’s greatest living documentary photographer. Known mainly as a war photographer, he has also covered poverty in Britain and abroad and the famines in Biafra (man-made) and Ethiopia (natural). In recent decades, he has reinvented himself as a landscape photographer, but that postdates this autobiography, first published in 1992. I read the 2002 edition, unchanged apart from a single-page preface.

The writing style is very direct and unflinching in its detail. This is not the work of a man showing off his education and erudition (McCullin is dyslexic and left school aged 15, on the death of his father) but one who has seen the worst that mankind can dish out and is trying to make sense of it for the general reader.

The early chapters cover his childhood in Finsbury Park, one of the poorer and rougher areas of London at the time, as a war child and occasional evacuee. He speaks first-hand of poverty and street gangs. He buys a camera during National Service, and afterward photographs Finsbury Park life and the street gangs. In 1959 a member of one of the gangs was arrested for killing a policeman and the Observer used one of McCullin’s photographs of the gang. An illustrious  career is started, with commissions to record poverty and street life elsewhere in Britain.

The main part of the book, however, deals with McCullin’s documentary work in pretty much every international trouble spot from the raising of the Berlin Wall, up to but not including the Falklands (McCullin is bitter about being excluded – too independent to toe the official propaganda line), in the Middle East, Vietnam, Africa and South America. He spent time in Idi Amin’s jail and has been wounded and caught malaria, in the course of pursuing his  stories.

In the context of this course (Context and Narrative) it is interesting to see how McCullin builds up his philosophy of what photojournalism and documentary mean to him. He pursues an individual course, even when on a commission, independently and honestly showing us what he sees. He deals with the question of voyeurism by concentrating on the ‘ordinary people’, civilians caught up in the horror, ‘other ranks’ soldiers etc. and bringing their story to the fore, and to the attention of readers (starvation in Biafra, for instance)

In the latter part of the book, it is clear that the work is taking its toll, and McCullin also charts the changing attitudes of newspaper owners and editors, looking for softer ‘lifestyle’ stories rather than the uncomfortable dramas he is used to recording. In the final chapters, he is obviously at a low ebb with rejection from the Falklands and the death of his first wife. The book was originally written as a form of therapy and ends on a low note. The 2002 preface tells us of a general upturn and his taking up landscape work.

I see that there has been a 2015 update, written to celebrate McCullin’s 80th birthday. It is on my Amazon wish-list.


McCullin, D. (2002) Unreasonable Behaviour London: Random House


Smith’s Country Doctor

A man carrying a leather bag walks through long grass. There are flowers at the left and an unpainted picket fence at the right of the image; we understand that he is visiting a house in a rural (possibly remote) area. He is wearing a jacket, tie and hat and appears professional, but used to making visits rather than working in an office. The bag suggests (and the essay title confirms) that he is a doctor. He is frowning, eyes slightly downcast and appears tired. The sky forming the background is stormy, reflected in the rather heavy overall tones of the image.

This is the opening image of W. Eugene Smith’s classic 1948 photo essay for Life magazine which ran over 11 pages of the magazine, arranged as a title page and five double-page spreads. 27 original images (plus 11 that were not published) can be found on the Time website (Cosgrove 2012) but stripped of their original captions and text (the website captions refer to Smith’s involvement). The compound image below (Steinfl 2014) shows the layout and headlines but the text cannot be read.

The essay results from Smith spending 23 days following Dr. Ernest Ceriani, the sole physician in a town of 2000 people in rural Colorado. Ceriani is presented as hard-working, dedicated and caring in the tradition of a professional ‘serving a community’. He is seen at a variety of tasks from routine examinations through to significant surgery (an amputation). We see the very human interactions with his community, particularly his patients and their relatives.

The narrative is well presented. We have a title page introducing Ceriani, with the image described above, followed by a double-page spread showing the range of work that he covers. The next three spreads give us four sub-plots with serious incidents (two accidents, an amputation for gangrene and a death by heart attack), followed by a summary spread and the final image of Ceriani gowned after a 2AM surgery with a cup of coffee and a 2000-yard stare.

The website images are engaging but lacked context so I was pleased to find the overall layout, presented by Steinfl, which demonstrate the importance of editing and page design to present this narrative in a magazine context.


Cosgrove, B. (2012). W. Eugene Smith’s Landmark Portrait: ‘Country Doctor’. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Apr. 2017].

Steinfl, A. (2014). Country Doctor, Eugene Smith for Life Magazine. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 3 Apr. 2017].

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 – 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 – 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].

Aftermath photography

This posting is inspired by the course notes, pp28-30 and David Campany’s 2003 essay ‘Safety in Numbness’ (online at Campany 2017). Campany starts with Joel Meyerowitz’s photography of ‘Ground Zero’ in the aftermath of the September 2001 attack on, and collapse of, the World Trade Centre to comment on what what he calls ‘Late Photography’.

Actually, it is at one further remove; Campany comments on a Channel 4 video report on Meyerowitz photographing (as official photographer with exclusive access) the aftermath and clear-up of the event.  Meyerowitz spent 9 months at Ground Zero photographing with an 8×10 view camera and many of his images are surprisingly beautiful, which Campany appears to regard as a problem as it decontextualises the document from the event.

I disagree with Campany. As an occasional view camera user myself I know that this type of photography brings about a considered and close relationship between the photographer and the scene, in a way that ‘spray and pray’ with a DSLR simply cannot manage. A considered and reverential approach is entirely appropriate to this subject and the scale of the tragedy.

Of course, there were the news photographs and video of the events as they unfolded, including the second impact captured on live TV,as was the collapse of both towers but that was all too raw to assimilate. The immediate images and Meyerowitz’s aftermath images serve two different purposes; a point which I will return to.

Campany discusses the history of news images which, for him, occurs in three phases up to the time of his writing. I believe there is a fourth phase, post-2003.

The early history is exemplified by Fenton’s Crimean War and Brady’s American Civil war images. As noted in the course notes, these do not show the fighting itself but the prelude (staged portraits and groups) and the aftermath; see Fenton’s ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ and Brady’s ‘The Dead of Antietam’ as examples. The reason is simple practicality; before 1871, both photographers would have been using wet collodion plates and the middle of a battlefield is no place for a darkroom cart.

We enter Campany’s second phase with the advent of dry plates, then celluloid film and, more particularly the Leica and its 35mm cousins. With portable cameras, photographers such as Robert Capa and Nick Ut were able to take photographs in the middle of the action. Distribution was not immediate as photographs had to be transported physically to the newsroom and newspapers had to be transported to the point of sale. Still photographs were, therefore, ‘immediate enough’.

The third phase starts with the spread of television to the point that it took over as the primary news medium, coupled with electronic and satellite communication allowing news (especially images) to travel from camera to viewer in minutes. This picks up Company’s second thread – the relationship between still and moving images. Newspapers require still images; television works best with moving images. Campany sees the moving image as more immediate, and stills more contemplative and suited to aftermath. My take on this is that a moving image says, “This is happening now” while a still says “This has happened”.

There is a clear parallel between the two periods of aftermath photography in the Paul Seawright image, ‘Valley’ shown in the course notes. The similarity with Roger Fenton’s valley is obvious.

Safety in Numbness was written in 2003 when digital cameras were in their infancy, the internet was still a toy for academics and computer hobbyists, and the cameraphone had not been invented. Since that time, I believe a fourth period in photojournalism is occurring fuelled by the rise of social media and citizen journalism. Images of unfolding news stories, particularly disasters and terrorist attacks, can be around the world on Twitter or Facebook before the conventional media networks can mobilise. This has an upside in immediacy but a downside in compromising objectivity and in the out-and-out ‘fake news’ currently being debated. Although both still and moving images can be transmitted in this way, bandwidth considerations mean that stills are currently preferred.

Returning to Meyerowitz’s aftermath still images of Grand Zero, compared with the video images of broadcast media as the attacks, fire and collapse occurred, I am reminded of Susan Sontag’s comparison of moving and still images (1979,18), ‘Television is a stream of under selected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.’ The viewer can decide the order of viewing and spend as much time as he/she needs with each image. The aftermath image and Sontag’s concept of memento mori appear ideally suited to each other.


Campany, D. (2017). Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’. [online] David Campany. Available at: [Accessed 9 Mar. 2017].

Sontag, S. (1979). On photography. London, United Kingdom: Penguin, [1979].