The documentary uses of Photography- part 1

If someone takes a look at the entry “documentary” as an adjective in Oxford Dictionary they will read:

  • 1 consisting of or based on official documents:                                                                documentary evidence of regular payments from the company
  • 2 using pictures or interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual report on a particular subject:                                                                                                                                                          a documentary programme about Manchester United

Respectively, “documentary” as a noun is defined as:

a film or television or radio programme that provides a factual report on a particular subject.

I chose to highlight in bold letters the words which appear to bare a special importance in the meaning of the word. It seems that the adjective “documentary” is connected with the terms of “reality”, “facts” and also with mediums that deal with the image (film, television).

The bond of Photography with reality was the principal cause for the long dispute about its artistic value during the early period of the photographic medium’s life and for a second long dispute about its capability for an “objective” representation of reality during the photographic medium’s mature age, and more recently, after the introduction of the digital methods of photo-manipulation.

The demand for “objectivity” appeared  already from the beginning of Photography’s history; at the time Photography was invented, art was undergoing a change in direction. The birth and growth of industry as well as the progress of natural sciences brought inevitably a new awareness of reality. Positivism saw nature in the new light of scientific precision and, as a consequence, objectivity became  one of the main objectives in many fields.

Even though the medium was initially blamed to be a “humble servant” of the Fine Arts (check Baudelaire’ s vicious attack to Photography in his review of the Salon of 1859), around the middle of the 19th century the Realists were the first who utilized it as a tool. Given the fact that their main assertion -and simultaneously their main argument against Romanticism- was that “one can only paint what one sees”, photography gave them the opportunity to broaden their powers of observation. Thereafter, photography became a vast memory bank from which painters, sculptors and architects would draw elements to regenerate their vision and feed their composition and imagination.

For example, Delacroix was among the first who adopted the practice of using photographs in order to be helped to his compositions.

Here you can see the real model for one of his famous Odalisques shot by his close friend Eugéne Durieu:

And here is the painting itself:


In the course of the history of Painting and Photography, there were also attempts of the younger art to imitate the older, which led to the creation of movements such as Pictorialism and of course this is ought to the artistic ambitions of the photographers. Photography as art though will be the subject of future posts. For the moment, a sample of pictorialistic photography could be seen in the work of Robert Demanchy, Brittany (1905):

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