Photo Notes – Elizabeth McCausland

I have compiled some of my notes relating to Elizabeth McCausland’s notes found in her ‘Documentary Photograhy’ Photo Notes (1939).

The discoveries I made after reading her notes answered some questions I had regarding documentary. Although I didn’t agree with all she had to say (finding some of it showing age compared to nowadays), there were some interesting statements I found thought-provoking.


  • McCausland routinely encourages the use of objective photography rather than subjective, seeing the world as a better place with photography being used in this way. An example of this encouragement for objective photography is: ‘documentary photography, an application of photography direct and realistic, dedicated to the chronicling of the external world.’ – (McCausland, 1939). This is in comparison to the ‘pattern of sterility, of ideas which could not reproduce themselves’  found in the pictorialists for example – before they turned their energy ‘to newer and more objective purposes’ – (McCausland, 1939).
  • In the same breath, McCausland, while seeing favour in concentrating on reality, hints at negative associations – the ‘sober chronicling of the external world’- (McCausland, 1939).
  • McCausland praises the virtues of ‘new’ documentary photography. ‘Old’ photography in the form of ‘pretty pictures’ for her have been explored, while instead documentary photographers should embrace photographing ‘life’.
  • She believes that documenting the external world, the world of human beings, is honest endeavour and time better spent than photographing ‘the inner ebb and flow of consciousness’ – (McCausland, 1939).
  • McCausland, acknowledging photography’s indexicality, calls for a ‘documentary ideal’.
  • Her ‘documentary ideal’ would be: work that ‘must have meaning, content, must communicate and must speak to an audience.’ – (McCausland, 1939). The work should be carried out by a photographer who is objective in all aspects of their work. Basically that through working in a way such that the photographer is almost invisible, without personality, the target audience becomes more aware of the real world, whether it is a positive or negative view on the world.
I found Paragraph 4 in particular very interesting. She admits the camera can and most often does lie but doesn’t see the interpretation every photographer imposes on each scene they photograph by their framing of the scene. I would agree admittedly more should be done to photograph the negative, less photographed parts of life rather than just ‘the wide miles of America and its mountain ranges’ – McCausland, 1939). However, even if life were to be photographed unbiasedly the work would still remain subjective due to framing. This presents why I found some of these statements McCausland makes a bit outdated. When all McCausland urges documentary photographers to partake in has been accomplished then what now? People have become desensitised to ‘social horrors such as war’ and regardless of whether the photographer has the intention of providing an objective response to this world it is invariably subjective. For me the reason it is subjective is because the photography partaken is biased income way or form and the resultant images are in some way an interpretation based on the photographer’s own schemas concerning the world around them. There were however, certain aspects of these Photo Notes I found very useful including the idea the external world consisting primarily of human beings suggesting that anything ‘worthy’ of a camera’s attention should be based around people. This observation doesn’t mean I will follow some of McCausland’s suggestions but her assumption that: ‘Actually there is no limit to the world of external reality the photographer may record.’ – McCausland, 1939) was of particular interest to me at this stage of the course. The reason for this was that a lot of my work so far had been limited to ‘the inner ebb and flow of consciousness’ – McCausland, 1939) and so, particularly for Assignment 2 of Documentary, it might be beneficial for me to photograph other people more.

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