The famed documentary photographer and former president of Magnum Photos Stuart Franklin’s new Phaidon book The Documentary Impulse couldn't be coming at a more appropriate time. In our age of near-constant documentation (think Snapchat and Instagram), the status of documentary photography is complicated and challenged by this proliferation of new media. As a kind of counterweight to these trends, Franklin's book surveys and analyzes the history of documentary photography and film with the depth and wit that comes with a lifetime of thought, research, and firsthand experience. To ease ourselves into an understanding of the drive to record the world around us, we've excerpted a section from Franklin's introduction below.
The documentary impulse underlies an aspect of human self-representation that began thousands of years ago, long before the invention of film or photography and centuries before astronomers, and later artists, used the camera obscura to plot the heavens or trace perspective. This book, however, focuses largely on documentary photography, from the first traces of light captured on mirror-like surfaces of iodized silver to today’s dazzling Internet projections or vast “tableau” installations in major museums.
But just what is documentary? The Scottish filmmaker John Grierson used the term in reference to a film by Robert J. Flaherty, when Grierson spoke of a “creative treatment of actuality.” It is this essentially flawed definition that this book reflects, considering documentary not as something fixed in a moment but as a creative process full of contradictions about photography, documentary, reality, and truth. The nineteenth-century critic John Ruskin elaborated on the distinction between “moral truth” and “material truth” in his discussion of J.M.W. Turner’s efforts to paint what he felt emotionally, in preference to or as well as what a camera might have recorded. Ruskin felt the “truth of impression” to be more important than “material truth.” In the documentary impulse, two species of “fact” exist side by side: one is coolly objective and the other is fraught, diverse, and emotive; one figurative, the other abstract; one prosaic, the other poetic; one factual, the other romantic.
For someone more accustomed to images, words can be confusing. Take the terms photography, propaganda and documentary, all of which relate in different ways to the documentary impulse and all of which describe activities that predate the names. “Photography” (derived from the Greek for “drawing with light”) was first practiced in 1839 yet describes a process dating to before the Renaissance, when artists began using the camera obscura to draw scenes from life projected onto a plane surface, enabling the artist to envisage space through linear perspective. “Propaganda,” whose original meaning referred to a committee of Catholic cardinals responsible for propagating the faith overseas, evolved into the modern pejorative term in the wake of emergent nineteenth-century communism. The mode of persuasion to which it refers today, however, is a practice thousands of years old.
As for “documentary,” although Grierson first used the term in Britain in 1926, the French word documentaire had already been in use for some time to describe serious films about travel and exploration and in the United States the term was applied to factual filmmaking as far back as 1911. Grierson, however, lent it new meaning. He first met Flaherty in New York in 1925, after Flaherty had made one of the earliest feature-length documentary films, Nanook of the North (1922). The film tells the story of an Inuk family’s struggle for survival in the frozen wastes of northern Quebec. It was Flaherty’s second film, Moana (1926), a poetic record of Polynesian life, that Grierson described as having “documentary value”—bringing the term “documentary” back to life.
Notwithstanding the fact that several scenes in Flaherty’s films were staged—notably a walrus hunt in Nanook—Grierson’s idea of documentary asserted the importance of intimacy over actuality: “Intimacy with the fact of the matter is therefore the distinguishing mark of documentary, and it is not greatly important how this is achieved.” Further developing his idea, Grierson later claimed that the Hollywood version of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath was as valuable a documentary artifact as the recording of an actual event: “Many films shot on location and face to face with the actual are much less documentary in the true sense than The Grapes of Wrath.” Grierson accepted that staged filmed events, fiction, and—by extension—paintings, relief-carvings and so forth were as valid as photographs in revealing intimate knowledge of actuality, the facts of the matter.
Photography has no special status in this generalized search for truth. It stands alongside painting, sculpture, film, fiction, or any diarized account. But what photography can contribute in a way other artistic and literary works cannot is its serendipitous take on life, its surrealistic freshness of vision—effortlessly revealing surprising juxtapositions and, as the writer Max Kozloff has suggested, scenes “that could not have been imagined.”