Documentary Photography: a depiction of the real world by a photographer whose intent is to communicate something of importance -- to make a comment -- that will be understood by the viewer. (Documentary Photography 12)
When the camera was invented, photographers learned that they no longer needed oil paint and brushes to capture a scene or a person. On film, they could now record the life and times of the period in which they lived, either from a sense of mission or simply to leave an accurate version of their life and times for others.
While some photographers tried to make their pictures look like artwork with a soft focus, others began recognizing the stark impact and power that a photograph could have. The realism of a photograph could actually motivate, persuade, emote, inform. Matthew Brady was one of the first photographers who understood this power when he documented the realities of the Civil War. The harsh products of the camera went significantly beyond artwork in depicting the horror of this fratricidal war.
The photograph conveyed ideas beyond the two-dimensional, black-and-gray image of shadows and light. The scene before the lens was reality, but the photographer could make his camera's rendering of the scene generate another reality deeper and perhaps more important -- he could introduce comment." The primary goal of the documentary photograph was to convey the truth; the second objective was to communicate the photographer's comment on that truth (ibid 13)
Through the power of the camera, photographer Jacob Riis condemned the deplorable conditions in New York City at the end of the 19th Century. Riis was raised in Denmark in a large family that struggled to keep up with the cost of food and rent (Photographica World 4). However, from a young age he was concerned about the plight of others -- at 12 years old, he gave his scant Christmas money to a poorer family. This empathy for others shows repeatedly in his photographic work.
His passionate belief in their dignity and what was due them as human beings is embodied in his writings and photographs which show the struggle to survive under a brutal economic system: whole families laboring for pennies a day in tenement sweatshops; men and women seeking to dull their pain in saloons; the lowliness and savoir faire of gangs in their hideouts; children forced to live in the streets. (ibid)
At 21, Riis came to America in 1870 with the hope of making his fortune and winning the hand in marriage of a woman back home. However, he was shocked at what awaited him in New York City. Thousands of men and women were homeless and unemployed because of the terrible economy. For three years, even Riis suffered poverty and often was near starvation. One cold and rainy night as he sat by a river's edge, he thought of taking his life. It was at that moment, he writes in his autobiography, The Making of An American, that a stray dog "crept upon my knees and licked my face...and the love of the faithful little beast thawed the icicles in my heart." He vowed that some day he would fight injustice (Riis, 25)
That "some day" took several more years of poverty. Finally, in 1878, he started working for the New York Tribune as a police reporter in the worst area of slums and extreme poverty. For ten years, he used his words to describe the horrid environment that he confronted every day. He then learned about a new innovation: the magnesium flash for cameras.
He realized he now had a powerful new way to visualize the suffering of Americans, that "the darkest corner might be photographed that way" (ibid 55) The photographs he made were printed as half-tones or used as the basis for engravings to illustrate his newspaper articles and books. In 1890 he published his landmark work, How The Other Lives. Politician Theodore Roosevelt, who was moved by Riis' passion for justice, sought him out, and they became close friends.
Riis, Roosevelt, who became Governor of New York, and others who supported the cause, fought for housing laws that literally saved thousands of lives. People had been dying from disease because contractors refused to install sanitation pipes. In the sweltering heat of summer, babies died because there was no fresh air in the windowless inner apartments. Building codes were ignored and landlords built stairs of wood, turning these structures into fire traps. It was, Riis wrote, "premeditated murder as large-scale economic speculation" (ibid)
When Roosevelt became President of the United States, Riis never aspired for an appointment to office.
A to represent is not my business. To write is; I can do it much better and back up the other; so we are two for one. Not that I would be understood as being insensible of the real honor intended to be conferred by such tokens. I do not hold them lightly. I value the good opinion of my fellow-men for with it comes increased power to do things. But I would reserve the honors for those on whom they sit easy. They don't on me. I am not ornamental by nature" (ibid 60). So, although friend to a Roosevelt, Riis stayed in New York.
As a whole, Riis' work had a tremendous impact upon society. He, along with fellow progressive reformers, endeavored to persuade the government to take a more active role in helping the poor and protecting children from the abuses of the workplace. His efforts proved effective. In addition to several child-labor laws being passed, he contributed to the elimination of a notorious New York City slum called
Mulberry Bend and the establishment of the Tenement House Commission (ibid).
Riis' work still has influence, for there are reform-minded people who see that there is still a great deal of unnecessary poverty in our cities that needs to be addressed, and they turn to Riis' writings and pictures for inspiration (Emery 234).
Dorothea Lange also understood the power of the camera to instruct. She once said: "A camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera" (Lange i.). By photographing the plight of people during the Great Depression, she hoped that she could persuade those who had more resources to help those in greater need.
In 1929, Yale University economist Irving Fisher stated confidently: "The nation is marching along a permanently high plateau of prosperity" ((Pavanelli 8)Five days later, the bottom dropped out of the stock market and ushered in the Great Depression, the worst economic downturn in American history. President Herbert Hoover, underestimating the seriousness of the crisis, called it "a passing incident in our national lives," and assured Americans that it would be over in 60 days. How wrong he was.
The ensuing period ranked as the longest and worst period of high unemployment and low business activity in modern times. Banks, stores, and factories closed and left millions of Americans jobless, homeless, and penniless. Many people came to depend on the government or charity to provide them with food.
If the Depression was not bad enough, the country also experienced one of the worst droughts in its history, at the same time that it had misused the land through overgrazing. The drought hit first in the eastern part of the country in 1930. In 1931, it moved toward the west. By 1934 it had turned the Great Plains into a desert.
The Dust Bowl got its name on April 15, 1935, the day after Black Sunday. Robert Geiger, a reporter for the Associated Press, traveled through the region and wrote the following: "Three little words achingly familiar on a Western farmer's tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent -- if it rains." The term stuck, spreading to radio broadcasts and publications, in private letters and public speeches (Bonnifield).
Lange had a portrait business in San Francisco, but from her window she could see hundreds of men lined up for free food. She realized that her calling was not in studio photography but "documenting" or "teaching." For the next 30 years, she worked in the studio of life showing the miseries that men, women and children in America had to handle in order to survive (Sills 24).
One of Lange's strongest traits was her unobtrusiveness. She could photograph a migrant mother and her children in California without them being offended. She could capture the essence of the sharecroppers in Alabama without their feeling intruded upon. Part of this trait came from her childhood. Lange was born in New Jersey in 1895. When she was 12, her father abandoned his family including Lange and her brother (ibid).
Her mother supported the family as a librarian, and Lange would love to look at the pictures in the books brought home. She also spent hours gazing out the window, studying the people as they went by to their varied destinations. She…