The American Document: New Visions in Documentary Photography 1931-1976

The American Document: New Visions in Documentary Photography 1931-1976 presents a series of significant works of 20th century American documentary photography by some of the most important photographers working in the documentary tradition including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus.

The tradition of American documentary photography of the 20th century is marked by two significant moments, first in the 1930s and 1940s with the socially and politically motivated ‘New Deal’ photography and second in the 1960s and 1970s which saw a group of photographers shift away from the social documentary tradition towards a new definition of the document. The exhibition illustrates these markedly different approaches to the genre and medium of photography and the shift in use of the photograph as evidence.

Following the Wall Street Crash in 1929 a number of departments were founded under the government of Franklin D. Roosevelt and its ‘New Deal’ Policies. The Farm Security Administration (FSA), initially created as the Resettlement Administration (RA), in 1935 focused on the rehabilitation of rural Mid-West America. Under the direction of economist and official, Roy Stryker, the FSA employed photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott and Arthur Rothstein to document aid relief-programmes and the lives of sharecroppers to garner social, political and economic support for government policies.

Established photographers prior to working with the FSA, the group brought the artistic influence of Modernism to bear on documentary photography, using this approach to frame evidence of social and economic plight throughout the Depression era. Evans’ portrait, Allie Mae Burroughs (1936), for example, frames its subject against a closely cropped background, juxtaposing the geometric forms of the wooden cladding with the weary and lined face of Allie Mae. Similarly, Dorothea Lange’s photographs, which frequently focused on the figure of the sharecropper, presents her subjects from innovative viewpoints, sculpting the body into expressive forms. The work of the FSA photographers, four of whom are represented in this exhibition, was integral to shaping the image of the Depression era for the American public as well as cementing the humanist approach to social documentary photography.

In the 1960s a new kind of documentary photography emerged which represented a radical break from this documentary tradition. Photographers including Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus, shifted away from the universal humanist qualities of their predecessors towards a photographic style which focused on their own personal experiences with their urban environment. Their aim was to document quotidian life with a new kind of vision, one that was unique to the camera. In 1967 influential director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, John Szarkowski held an exhibition titled ‘New Documents’ featuring the work of all three photographers. The exhibition has been historicised as an important marker of this shift towards a new vision with Szarkowski stating ‘their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it’.

The cacophonous street scenes of Winogrand document his personal encounters and reactions to street life from unconventional points of view, while Friedlander’s slightly more composed photographs project the artist into the photograph through his reflection and shadow. Though stylistically distinct in many ways, the documentary photographers of the 1960s and 1970s shared an immediate, ‘snapshot’ approach to their work, capturing scenes with a fascination for the peculiarities of camera vision.

This shift towards a new vision of the American documentary tradition had a lasting influence on the genre particularly in relation to street photography and the recognition of documentary photography as a subjective vision unique to the camera.


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