Life is documented daily, whether in newspaper photographs of world events, in feature magazines of faraway places and in photo albums of family snapshots. Essentially, all photography is a documentary of whatever is being photographed for whatever reason. However, traditionally, the mention of documentary photography brings up familiar images from a few twentieth century photographers, such as Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Roy Stryker, Arthur Rothstein and Dorothy Lange, whose photographs have not only documented culture but has become a part of the culture itself.
Photographs are often regarded by historians as a critical form of documentary evidence that enable past events to come to life, as if looking in a mirror (History Pp). "Public and scholarly faith in the realism of the photographic image is grounded in a belief that a photograph is a mechanical reproduction of reality" (History Pp). Susan Sontag once said, "Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it" (History Pp).
Photographs first appeared in the United States in 1839 and became quickly popular by the country's growing metropolitan areas (History Pp). America's first photographic image was the silver-plated, mirror-like object called a daguerreotype, named after its inventor Louis Daguerre (History Pp). This process was complicated and time consuming, a single daguerreotype plate might take as long as thirty minutes (History Pp). Moreover, exposure of the plate in the camera required subjects to remain motionless for several additional minutes in case the final image was blurred beyond recognition (History Pp). Due to these technological demands, early photographers rarely strayed far from their urban studios, where daguerreotypes were exposed, developed, and exhibited (History Pp). "Because early photographs were unique images, the only way to make and distribute inexpensive copies was through print processes such as lithography and engraving, where the photographic image was drawn by an artist" (History Pp).
Photography's popularity fostered myriad experiments, all of which were aimed at making the entire photographic process cheaper, faster, and more portable, such as the introduction of ambrotypes and tintypes that made possible the reproduction of paper prints from the photographic negative and consequently a wider circulation of images (History Pp). By the Civil War, the daguerreotype and its descendents had become part of middle-class consumer culture (History Pp). Documentary photography developed during this period and was often consigned by art critics to the realm of journalism, an association that persists to this day (History Pp). "This consignment implied that documentary photographers were mere recorders, skilled technicians to be sure, but passive observers of the social scene and definitely not artists," a characterization accepted by documentary photographers in order to "burnish the perceived realism in their imagery," posing instead as fact gathers and denying having aesthetic or political agendas (History Pp).
However, early practitioners of documentary photography, such as Matthew Brady, had no choice by to order the subject matter that fell within their photographic frame (History Pp). Therefore, due to long exposure time, Brady and other photographers could not capture soldiers in action during the Civil War, and had to be content with taking pictures of the bloated remains on the battlefields (History Pp). "In the aftermath of the 1863 battle of Gettysburg, photographer Alexander Gardner ordered that one of the fallen bodies be dragged forty yards and propped in a rocky corner," resulting in the image, 'Rebel Sharpshooter in Devil's Den,' a photograph that still commands attention despite the recent discovery of the photographer's manipulation (History Pp).
By the end of the Civil War, photography had reached the West, where government and corporate sponsorship helped William Henry Jackson become one of the country's most prolific and adventurous photographers (History Pp). Jackson's images were of monumental proportions such as the famous photograph of Colorado's Mt. Of the Holy Cross (History Pp). Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, two urban photographers, began to explore the inner city and thereby established documentary photography as a tool of social reform (History Pp). Riis, a Danish immigrant and police reported for the New York Tribune, is still revered for his late nineteenth century expose of tenement conditions in New York City's Lower East Side as is Lewis Hine for his pictorial of working men and women and as a crusader against child labor during the progressive period (History Pp). Both men shocked their contemporaries with dramatic images showing the human consequences of unchecked urban growth and industrial excess (History Pp). By the last decade of the nineteenth century, new processes allowed photographs to be inexpensively reproduced in newspapers, magazines, and books, thus, increasing the dissemination of documentary images (History Pp). Prior to the turn of the twentieth century, pictures of the working poor were limited to portraits taken in studios, so the sensational impact of Riis's and Hine's work was no accidental by-product but rather the very essence of the photographic fieldwork (History Pp).
Heir to the work of Riis and Hine, the Farm Security Administration Photographic Project, 1935-1942, "quickly surpassed the combined output of these two pioneers and is now recognized as the most famous of America's documentary projects" (History Pp). Beginning under the Resettlement Administration in 1935 and the Farm Security Administration, FSA, in 1937, a group of "about twenty men and women worked under the supervision of Roy E. Stryker to create a pictorial record of the impact of the Great Depression on the nation, primarily on rural Americans" (History Pp). Photography historian Alan Trachtenberg has noted that this project "was perhaps the greatest collective effort...in the history of photography to mobilize resources to create a cumulative picture of a place and time" (History Pp). Many of the thousands of photographs taken by the FSA photographers were distributed by the agency to newspapers and magazines to build support for the rural programs of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal (History Pp). FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein once said, "It was our job to document the problems of the Depression so that we could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them" (History Pp).
FSA photographers criss-crossed the country to document the plight of the Dust Bowl refugees, the southern sharecroppers, the migrant agricultural workers, and the Japanese-Americans bound for internment camps in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor (History Pp). According to Stryker, FSA's vast pictorial undertaking endeavored to introduce "Americans to America," namely the middle-class Americans who lived in cities far from the locales depicted in the images and who comprised the majority of the readers of the newspapers and magazines in which the FSA pictures were reproduced (History Pp). Under Stryker's directorship, the FSA photography unit employed a number of the finest photographers in America, including Walker Evans, Carl Mydans, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, and Dorothy Lange (FDR Pp). The work of these photographers embodied a tension between the desire to document what was taking place and the desire to influence what was being done (FDR Pp). The photographers had to walk a fine line between objective neutrality and subjective engagement, framing, lighting, and cropping images to achieve a desired effect (FDR Pp). Some critics believed that the FSA photographers went too far, "What you've got are not photographers...they're a bunch of sociologists with camera," however, others defended the work as "pure record, not propaganda" (FDR Pp).
Of all the images taken during the FSA's era, Dorothy Lange's "Migrant Mother" is perhaps the most famous photograph taken during the Depression (FDR Pp). This photograph, taken in California of a migrant woman and her children, was the defining picture of Lange's career (Dorothy Pp). It illustrates the suffering, poverty, misery, but also the strength and determination of people during one of the worst eras in American history (Dorothy Pp). Taken in 1936, "Migrant Mother" is one of the most reproduced pieces in American history (Dorothy Pp). In the February 1960 issue of Popular Photography, Lange recalled, saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet.
I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction.
A did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed.
She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food.
There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her and so she helped me.
There was a sort of equality about it" (Dorothy Pp).
Lange documented the change on the home front, especially the ethnic groups and workers uprooted by the World War II (Women Pp). When President Roosevelt ordered the relocation of Japanese-Americans to armed camps, the War Relocation Authority hired Lange to photograph Japanese neighborhoods, processing centers, and camp facilities (Women Pp).