Documentary photography in Art and History
I have spent the last fifteen years documenting people and places that I encounter in my daily life. Most of the places I photograph go un-noticed by most people. They’re the kind of places that one drives by every day for 20 years and never pays any attention to. The people that I photograph are friends and family, and many others are strangers that I meet while out with a camera. They’re ordinary people, not wealthy, or powerful, or famous. Not important at all, really.
Why photograph unimportant people and places that no one notices? Is weathered wood really that interesting? I am one semester away from my Masters Degree in History, but I have been a lifelong student of History, and it drives my work. It is important to preserve for history the memory of these places’ existence, and the ‘unimportant’ people often have a fascinating story to tell.
Although documentary photography has a long and important history as fine art, I am often asked why documentary photography is exhibited in galleries and museums. They’re just ‘snapshots’ or ‘record shots’, right? The compositional formalism evident in much of this work is diametrically opposed to the aesthetic of the snapshot, and I would suggest that there is no such thing as a ‘record shot’.
Put simply, photographs tell the ‘truth’ that the photographer wants you to believe. An example is Robert Frank’s work, which he published as The Americans, made the United States in the 1950s look like a narrow minded, bigoted, intellectually dark place. Another photographer might have portrayed the American people quite differently. Frank didn’t lie, at least not directly. The things that he photographed were real; he didn’t arrange them or set up the scenes. Those who disliked his portrayal of the United States accused him of lying by omission. By ignoring, in his work, the positive aspects of life in 1950s America, he was able to project his own beliefs on the subject of The Americans.
All photographers, amateur and professional, do this. We filter reality through our personal experiences, political leanings, religious beliefs, and prejudices. It is this filtering of reality, the ability to shape the portrayal of our subject by choosing what to include and what to omit, that makes it art.
Art is important to history. Our knowledge of much of history comes from the paintings, drawings, sculptures, and other art by those who lived in the long-gone past. Art tells us how people centuries ago dressed, what kind of houses they lived in, what they ate, how they played. Photography has assumed that role since its invention in the early 19th Century. By the end of the 19th Century, the process had been simplified to the point that photography could be done by people untrained in art and unschooled in the technical aspects of photography. The millions of snapshots made by ordinary people over the last 100 years have been and will be valuable to historians for their portrayal of the lives of the forgotten masses whose names are not important enough to be recorded in the history books.
Many of the places that I have photographed over the years are now gone. My photographs will ensure that they will be remembered. As a historian, I wonder at the things that I have seen and photographed.
I wonder why someone would leave fifteen dolls in an abandoned house in northwest Allen County, Indiana. The dolls were once some child’s toys. No child would leave behind her dolls. Why did this happen? Why was the house filled with children’s books about Christmas? Why did they leave a studio portrait of a nine-month old baby in the piles of trash that covered the floor of the house full of dolls? The baby girl in the photo would be about eighteen years old today, according the information written on the back of the picture. That house, too, was demolished. The men who tore it down probably had no idea that it had been full of old dolls, full of some family’s memories.
One day, while driving through rural southeast Allen County, Indiana, I saw an abandoned house. I stopped to photograph it. As I walked around the house to see what interesting things there were to photograph, I came upon an old man in a plastic patio chair behind the house, with a kitten on his lap. He told me that his name was Richard Youse, and that he was eighty-seven years old. He had lived in the house since his parents bought it in the 1920s. Richard had never married, so he never left the house he grew up in. He continued to farm his family’s land after his parents died, and he lived alone with his 15 cats. I visited him several times over the next couple of years, and eventually his family put him in a nursing home. When he died in 2005, his house was demolished. Today, only the old windmill that stood behind his house remains. His nearest neighbor was half a mile away; he lived out in the middle of nowhere and probably would have been forgotten when he died. That would have been a loss to the world, because he had lived an interesting life that deserved to be remembered.
I documented these people and places, and many more, and they will not be forgotten. Documentary photography is vitally important as an art form that protects the memory of people and places in a world that is constantly changing.
Written for the Leica Users Group 2011 Yearbook