Photography: The Key Concepts David Bate

While I was working through landscape course, a book I regularly referred to because of its concise and yet stimulating prose on photography, caught my eye again. The book was aptly named Photography: The Key Concepts by David Bate and I found I had skipped the chapter entitled ‘Documentary and Story-telling’ while mainly focussing instead on the chapter ‘In the Landscape’. Therefore I have been closely reading the documentary chapter amongst others and here are some of my notes for the documentary chapter.

The chapter ‘Documentary and Story-telling’ I discovered started with an overview of Documentary’s history within photography. This was very useful for me when getting my head around its attributes at the time the genre’s name was coined and its subsequent years.

Use/ownership of social documents featured heavily in this history with both sides being outlined by Bate – from editors of magazines having full control over what was done with the images to ‘auteur’ photographers who published their own photo books and controlled the layout themselves.

The inherent indexicality photographs possessed, as the technological advancements increased ‘the sense of immediacy and spontaneity’, helped make the photographs ‘intrinsically ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’’. – (Bate, 2009). This ‘democratic vision’ of informing other ordinary people of each other’s societies through picture, sounds and text was the overriding, optimistic tie in documentary before the second world war took place.

The conflict between photographs as documents (some kind of evidence) and social documentary (where photographs depicted real world and real people in it recording social experience) which Bate described interested me greatly. The same complication had been in my mind for some time (ever since trying to define documentary) . Therefore when I read: ‘it would be wrong to confuse the value of a photograph in the court of law with the affective value of social documentary pictures on a more general public.’ – (Bate,2009), I began to understand the difference. Here, I observed that they were two different kinds of pictures affecting their target audiences in totally different ways. On the one hand there was a photograph or set of photographs functioning apparently solely to inform fact. For example an as sharply in focus and highly detailed a picture of an object with as little aesthetics as possible. As Bate alludes to this could be any photograph as any photograph can be a document. The above example was just the ideal kind of photograph as a document.

On the other hand there was social documentary and although this may have seemed by many at the time to be objective in some shape or form, the photographer invariably affected the viewer’s feelings towards the scene through their framing choices etc. For example a photograph like ‘Migrant Mother’ by Dorothea Lange (1936) taken in the ‘real world’ to bring about social reform was tightly framed and captured at a specific timing to get the famous expression on the mother’s face. The various styles of social documentary were subjective too because of what they were trying to convey. Grouping them or separating them in the sub genres of documentary classifications was problematic because the photographic styles used to affect the public target audience were not definitive.

This realisation of the difference between document and documentary was good to finally grasp. However, it did make me wonder if there could be a possible middle ground between these objective and subjective approaches. My mind wandered to the work of August Sander, mentioned in the next part of the chapter.



Bate, D. (2009). Photography: The Key Concepts. 1st ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Lange, D. (1936). Migrant Mother. [Photograph].

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