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Social Documentary Photography

American Farmer OBAMA The Oxford Project The Americans A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005 by Annie Leibovitz
Through the Lens Wise Women Hollywood foto-rhetoric LIFE 100 events that shook the world Symbols of Ideal Life

See also: Photography and Art | Famous Photographers

Social Documentary Photography may be defined as the act of recording, with a camera, human beings in their natural (ie unposed) condition. I am attracted to social documentary photography because it deals with reality; revealing and making permanent every aspect of human nature.

This study considers three different but equally effective approaches: the everyday street scenes effortlessly elevated to works of art by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the darker side of city life portrayed by Weegee and the extremes of behaviour and emotion which surface during time of war as revealed by Don McCullin.

Henri Cartier-Bresson's pictures derive their effectiveness from capturing fragments of life at precisely the right instant. Time and again his work demonstrates his perceptive eye and instinctive response. His most famous collection of photographs were published under the title "The Decisive Moment" in 1952. The title expresses that elusive moment when the elements within a scene unite in a climax of effect. He describes it thus: "Perhaps someone suddenly walks into your range of view. You follow his progress through the view-finder. You wait and wait, and then finally you press the button - and you depart with the feeling (though you don't know why) that you've really got something."

Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 into a wealthy family in Canteloup, France. He initially trained as a painter and became acquainted with prominent artists and writers of the day, particularly those associated with the surrealist movement including Dali, Max Ernst and Jean Cocteau. He bought his first 35mm camera in Africa in 1931, finding an affinity with the immediacy of the medium he soon acquired his trademark Leica. The miniature size and speed of operation of this format allowed him to rapidly and unobtrusively record the rich pattern of life that he observed.

He co-founded the Magnum Agency in 1947 along with Robert Capa, George Rodger and David "Chim" Seymour. The aim of Magnum was to safeguard the moral and aesthetic freedom of its photographers allowing them independence from any single publication or editor, while retaining copyright of their work. Still in existence, Magnum photographers have covered some of the most significant events of the last half-century including the Vietnam War, the U.S. civil rights movement and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Its members have included Dorothea Lange, W. Eugene Smith, Eve Arnold, Sebastiao Salgado and Don McCullin.

Cartier-Bresson travelled extensively throughout Europe, Asia and America; spending time in India, Burma, China, Indonesia, the USSR, USA, Cuba, Mexico, Canada and Japan; in each location producing a unique insight into the culture and people. He never posed the people in his pictures and insists that his work is never cropped, believing it is impossible to create a good print from a bad negative by darkroom trickery.

Weegee made his name photographing the unglamorous side of New York in the '30s and '40s. Working mainly at night he specialised in recording crime, accident and death - blasting his subjects with close range flash from his pre-focussed Speed Graphic plate camera. His pictures have a characteristic look - harshly lit foreground subjects against dark, brooding backgrounds, freezing forever the secrets of the darkness his flashbulb has revealed for the briefest instant of time. It is difficult to imagine that someone could cope with the conditions and unsocial hours required to record the unsavoury aspects of American City life over so many years. Not only did Weegee cope, but he actually enjoyed being among the horrors; and in so doing produced a unique document and established a style which was personal and poignant.

Weegee's harsh, flashlit, monochrome images have influenced film makers and photographers alike. In contrast to Cartier-Bresson's unobtrusiveness he was obtrusive to the point of almost becoming a participant in the dramas he recorded, writing "I have no inhibitions and neither has my camera". He was usually unemotional about the subject matter of his pictures, during one low point of his career a New Jersey couple murdered the girl's mother with an axe; he travelled to New Jersey to get some shots of the guilty pair, of the case he says "The axe murder had saved my life. I guess that some must die that others may live." His fire pictures were however used by the Fire Department's Fire-Prevention Week campaign, and the car crash pictures led to improved road safety measures.

Weegee was born as Arthur Fellig in Zloczew, Austria (now Poland) in 1899. He came to America as a child when his family emigrated. The name Weegee (Ouija) came from his claimed supernatural powers of being in the right place at the right time. In reality his anticipation probably owed more to his being the only freelancer allowed to work out of Manhattan police headquarters and keeping his car radio tuned to police frequencies rather than any divine intervention. Weegee's career proper began as a darkroom technician for Acme Newspapers in 1923, occasionally being sent out on assignments, usually at night. He began freelancing in 1935 and produced his most characteristic work in the decade that followed.

Following publication of his most famous book, "Naked City", in 1945 Weegee attempted to produce more "artistic" pictures including experimentation with distorting mirrors, after a short period as society photographer for Vogue he moved to Hollywood in 1947. In addition to serving as technical consultant on a number of productions (including Kubrick's Dr Strangelove) he also made a number of films himself, as well as acting several cameo roles. His influence may be seen in the so-called Film Noir of the 1940s-50s which feature the same harsh lighting and dark backgrounds found in his stills.

In the introduction to Weegee's autobiography, Bruce Downes writes "Weegee has gone direct to life, to the tragedies as they occurred, and his pictures move us deeply. But they are not all tragedy and suffering. There is plenty of humour and social satire" He is believed to have been the inspiration for the 1992 film "Public Eye".

Don McCullin has spent his most of his career living dangerously on the front line of the world's war zones, photographing all aspects of human conflict and sharing the dangers and emotions of those directly involved. His work frequently portrays subjects poised at the very brink of life and death.

McCullin was born in 1935 and grew up in the tough Finsbury Park district of London. The unhappy experiences of wartime evacuation coupled with the premature death of his father left the young McCullin with feelings of resentment which were perhaps to influence his later work. He bought his first camera, a Rolleicord, while serving in the film unit of the RAF. It was this camera that provided McCullin with his big break. A picture of a local street gang (the Guvnors) posing in the ruins of a bomb damaged house was published by the Observer following the fatal stabbing of a policeman in the area.

After this initial success McCullin began to receive offers of photographic work, he bought a Pentax and began freelancing. A series of pictures of the Berlin Wall crisis secured a contract with the Observer recording contemporary Britain. Even these early pictures portray the more pessimistic side of humanity, showing the effects of poverty and the dark industrial northern landscapes. McCullin's first taste of war came in 1964 when the Observer sent him to cover the Civil War in Cyprus. On seeing his first victim of war McCullin writes "I thought, It is bad, but it's not too bad for me to bear". McCullin had found his vocation.

Over the coming two decades McCullin would be in the thick of most of the world's trouble spots - including the Congo, Vietnam, Cambodia, Biafra, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East. The power of his pictures relies solely on the emotions evoked by the subject matter. McCullin showed things as they were without need for gimmick or effects. He admits to a tendency to print dark in keeping with the sombre nature of his work.

McCullin is a complex character and may be likened to the first World War poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who expressed the horror and futility of War while displaying extreme personal bravery on the front line of the battlefield. McCullin was frequently shocked and ashamed by what he witnessed; on Hue (Vietnam) he wrote "It certainly made me ashamed of what human beings are capable of doing to each other." He was however compelled to continue making the world aware of the inhumanities he witnessed, of Biafra he says "I was ravaged and confused by this war as never before, and could see not the smallest justification for it. Or for my presence here - unless it was to remind people, through my pictures, of the futility of all wars".

The so-called Swinging 60's were McCullin's era, indeed he was used as the role model for Antonioni's archetypal 60's photographer in the film "Blow Up". But McCullin's workplace was far removed from the trendy Chelsea studio and his photographs serve as a reminder that the optimism associated with that decade was far from universal. McCullin has undoubtedly been affected by his experiences and now lives in a remote part of Somerset, surrounded by negatives and memories. He takes landscapes on a 5x4" Linhof as well as printing in his darkroom which he describes as a "torture chamber". His feelings are summed up by the title of his 1994 book "Sleeping With Ghosts".

The social documentary photographers of the twentieth century have ensured the old adage "out of sight out of mind" can no longer be taken for granted by providing us with the opportunity to see the world through their eyes. They leave future historians with an unprecedented legacy of material showing what the life of this century was really like.

Cartier-Bresson, Henri: The Decisive Moment; A Mexican Notebook
Weegee by Weegee (autobiography). Weegee Photofile: pub Thames and Hudson.
McCullin, Don: Unreasonable Behaviour; Sleeping With Ghosts

See also: Photography and Art | Famous Photographers


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