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].

What Makes a Document

My answer, after reading through (all!) the replies and the post to What makes a document? is that a document is a piece (or series) of media from which the viewer can infer an actual event took place, however trivial this event may seem. The more context this piece of media has, the more a document it becomes. I don’t believe time and context are mutually exclusive as Stan Dickinson points out in the third reply. Photographs can be ambiguous and when there are several potential contexts for the photograph, complications arise about what the photograph is documenting. This usually happens over time, like with both of Jose’s examples.

You could say every photograph is a document (because a photograph is indexical to the world around us and so some sort of event took place).
This statement has been nicely summed up by others including Selina Wallace’s post conclusion with: ‘a photograph is an imprint of reality, and thus gives information about reality, and for this reason alone, should qualify it the definition of a document’ and John Walker’s post conclusion: ’[the image] will always be a document of the day and time the shutter clicked’.

However, some photographs in my eyes are more of a document than others. This could be because of the content of the photograph, how much time has passed since it was produced as well as forms of context like supporting media for the document being apparent which aid the photograph and whether it appears in a series of photographs.
By following the link above it is possible to find my response to the question: ‘What Makes a Document?’ along with many other answers by other OCA students.

What is Documentary?

Documentary would be, in my preconceptions, the act of story-telling, whether it be through pictures or video footage of something from ‘real-life’. However, there is also the literal translation of making a document of something.

While listening to Miranda Gavin talking about documentary being categorised, she suggests perhaps the need for new terms and language to be used when describing documentary, instead of older ones like photojournalism and reportage. One reason for this would be the new ways people are approaching documentary in order to keep their work fresh, especially as digital accessibility has become so prevalent. I agreed with Gavin that photojournalism and reportage were quite old terms when digital was relatively new and I also realised the line between art and documentary was becoming more and more blurred in photographic practice. Factors like technological advancements as well as the influx of the female gender into documentary practice contribute to this blurring. The difficulty of categorising work which falls into both art and documentary while also often being creative, as Gavin discusses, is why the different groups merge into each other a lot. Therefore I would say Gavin’s viewpoint for new terms for documentary could be an astute suggestion in an age when technology in the form of digital has made the boundaries of documentary less defined.

Although digital accessibility change is mostly positive, Gavin did raise questions about the market for documentary, where there are more documentary photographers but less editors publishing physically so if online services are utilised, making sure the photographer has some control over editorial integrity is key.