Historical developments in documentary photography.

Mission Heliographic
The French historic Monuments Commission was given the task of making an record of French medieval and Gothic buildings, many of which were in a state of disrepair following the French Revolution. The Commission chose to use the calotype process rather than the French invented daguerrotype as “ the calotype’s less sharply defined shapes and details and its evocative shadows more eloquently expressed nostalgia for the medieval past” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 52). Furthermore negatives could be made enabling numerous copies to be produced. However Hippolyte Baynard one of the 5 French photographers involved in the task created glass negatives which sadly, unlike the paper ones , have not survived.

Roger Fenton
Fenton was a British photographer and could be considered the first official war photographer. Following two previous unsuccessful attempts by photography units he went to the Crimea in 1855. Advances in technology made it much easier for Fenton to work in the field.Using the wet collodion process exposures were reduced to seconds not minutes and negatives were easy to print , however the plate still needed to be exposed and developed whilst wet. He additionally needed a travelling darkroom.

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In 1854, the year before his arrival , the Light Brigade suffered huge losses and newspaper reports were distressing. Back home “there was an urgent need of good news”  (Barfield , 2006, pg.15) ,  propaganda and censorship inevitably influence how, and what , is recorded. Most of Fenton’s images are inoffensive  showing daily life around the camp and  port area ,his sensitivity “may have derived from the instructions to the first , failed , government-sponsered photographic party , which was to bring back visual evidence that newspaper accounts of the war exaggerated the disease and starvation endured by the troops” ( Warner Marien 2010 pg.102). Fenton faced further difficulties “ he was a reporter and his job , a new one in photography , involved him in new problems. Predecessors had shown just how place looked;Fenton had the additional problem of showing what went on” (Jeffrey, 1981, pg. 50). However despite these obstacles one powerful image provoked a strong reaction.

Fenton’s famous staged photograph , Valley of the Shadow of Death , was taken in 1855, months after the Charge of the Light Brigade. Cannon balls have been scattered across the road “perhaps by Fenton and his staff , to create the impression that the battle had recently taken place” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 101) . Despite being manipulated and lacking any human subject the image symbolised the horror of war.

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Felice Beato 1860
Beato  documented the Crimean war , recording the fall of Sebastopol and the Indian Mutiny in 1857. He was the first Westerner to photograph in China , accompanying Anglo-French troops as he recorded the campaign by Western allies against the Chinese in the 2nd Opium War. Evidence suggests he staged scenes  , placing corpses in strategic positions, something he did in India. Following the murder of two British officers ,for which the attackers were beheaded , Beato re-created the execution scene. He continued to Japan recording both the land and its people as a commercial enterprise selling photographs to travellers.

Matthew Brady 1862
Brady was an Irish photographer who had built up a successful portrait studio in New York. Amongst his many famous clients was Abraham Lincoln, whose image he sold as prints. Along with a group of photographers he co-ordinated they documented the American Civil War. Using the collodion process action shots were not viable hence his images are static but do show the reality of war with bodies on the battlefield. He was the first photographer “to publish war images in sets and series” (Jeffrey, 1997 ,pg. 65).  Using temporary studios set up at the camps they produced Tintypes , or carte portraits, of soldiers to send home, in addition to producing more formal portraits of “the main protagonists , generals, and their associates” (Jeffrey, 1981,pg.54).

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Alexander Gardner 1863
Gardner , a former associate of Matthew Brady , used mis-en-scene to record Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter. The corpse was moved and his head adjusted to face the camera using a rifle as a prop  creating a poignant image. Interestingly “ the fact that Gardner did not  keep his arrangement of this scene a secret indicates that the public was willing to allow the photographer to construct a scene that was true in a larger sense than fidelity to visual fact” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 110 )

1909 Albert Kahn
Kahn, a wealthy banker and philanthropist , funded a challenging project to photograph people of the world , optimistically believing it would promote greater understanding between cultures. The invention of the autochrome process by the Lumiere brothers in 1904 made colour photography possible and easily accessible. Using the new technology photographers created an extensive archive of images , the Archives of the Planet,  spanning  22 years and over 50 countries. The period from 1909 to 1933 was a time of colossal world change ,the images captured world changing events , documenting people and places that would be transformed irrevocably. In 1931 following the Wall Street Crash Kahn lost his vast fortune and the project ended.

References / Bibliography

Barfield Thomas (editor) , (2006) . War Photography Images of Conflict from Frontline Photographers, Parragon , Bath , UK.

Dickie Chris , (2009) . Photography The 50 most influential photographers in the world, A & C Black , London , UK

Jeffrey Ian , (1981) . Photography A Concise History , Thames & Hudson , London , UK

Jeffrey Ian , (1997 ) .The Photo Book , Phaidon Press , London , UK

Warner Marien Mary . (2010 ) Photography:A Cultual History Third edition, Laurence King , London, UK






2 thoughts on “Historical developments in documentary photography.

    1. Judy Bach Post author

      Hi, you have raised a good point and something I should have considered . As they are screen shots of images found on the internet I felt ok using them but I now wonder whether to just use links for future posts- probably better to .



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