Documentary Photography (Henri Cartier-Bresson)

What is Documentary Photography?

We have so naturalised the idea of documentary as residing within particular texts, forms and traditions ( as being immanet to texts ), that those marginal forms – drama documentary, staged reconstructions and the like – are fiercely fought over. It is, perhaps, more useful to pursue questions of the production of documentary: the characteristic forms that were used to make ‘documents’ of this kind. Stott’s notion that documentary ‘imposes meaning’ at a single stroke, before which the spectator is speechless and disarmed, fractures into the examination of particular forms within their institutional and historical settings; clusters of social, cultural, political and technological changes which together creat the ‘meaning’ of documentary.

But it is a meaning that is constantly changing, for, while the documentary gaze was anchored in facts and validated particular kinds of enquiry, the practice of documentary was and is problematic.

In photography, a series of conventions and practices evolved to mark ‘documentary’ from other kind of work.

These included, for example, printing the whole of the image with a black border around it to demonstrate that everything the camera recorded was shown to the vievew. At another time, scenes lit by flash were deemed illegitimate, as only the natural light that fell o the scene should be used. A kind of rudimentary technical ethic of documentary work emerged which ‘guaranteed’ the authenticity of the photograph.

Henri Cartier-Bresson
Gestapo Informer, Dessau, Germany, 1945

Documentary photography, too, took considerable pains to control the nature of a scene without making any obvious changes to it. Thus, the celebrated photographer Hendri Cartier-Bresson lay in wait for all the messy contingency of the world to compose itself into an image which he judged to be both productive of visual information and aesthetically pleasing.

This he called ‘the decisive moment’, a formal flash of time when all the right elements were in place before the scene fell back into its quotidian disorder. 

/ Photography: A Critical Introduction, p90 /

The dramatic focus of Gestapo Informer is the relationship between the three central people – the collaborator, and official, and a furious accuser. The official is dispassionate, the accused bows her head, and the accuser grimaces. This dynamic triangle of characters gives the image structure and focus. The background is formed of three more triangles, made up of faces from the crowd. Within this crowd of onlookers is a man wearing the striped uniform of a concentration camp prisoner. This figure draws viewers’ attention to the far left edge of the frame and provides contextual information.

“I craved to seize the whole essence… of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.” Henri Cartier-Bresson

/ What Makes Great Photography, p75 /


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