I recently finished reading The Documentary Impulse by Stuart Franklin. There were quite a few areas of the text which resonated with me and left me with food for thought regarding my own practice. Early in the book, Franklin notes that what drives him most as a photographer is curiosity, and I believe the same to be true of myself. It also seems that his viewpoints regarding both intimacy with the subject and ethical practices align with my own. I found The Documentary Impulse beneficial in that it expanded upon my own ideas regarding these factors of photography.
The idea of ‘intimacy over actuality’ is a reoccurring theme throughout the text. One of the earliest works to have the term ‘documentary’ applied to it was Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 feature-length film Nanook of the North. Scottish filmmaker John Grierson is stated to have been the first to use the term, referring to it as “a creative treatment of actuality” (Grierson in Franklin, 2016, p.6) Despite the fact that several scenes in Nanook of the North were staged, Grierson defended the work, asserting his belief that intimacy was more important than 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.” (Grierson in Franklin. 2016 P.7).
It seems that staging has existed within documentary since its inception. I have long considered this as one of the key differences between ‘photojournalism’ and ‘documentary photography’ in that it is much more readily excepted in the latter. Creating my own work, I combine both approaches, sometimes photographing events and scenes as they naturally unfold before me, other times giving my subjects limited directions. These directions, such as where to sit or which way to look, are always given under the belief that they are not far from a scene that could happen without my involvement. For example, I would never ask a person to wear a particular outfit, or be photographed in a location that is foreign to them, primarily to meet my own agenda. Franklin notes that portraiture is an area of documentary photography where such staging has long been expected and understood. Franklin quotes Italian photographer Paolo Verzone: “The staging is part of the creative process, not only by the [photography] industry but because all portraits in the history of mankind have been staged”, and “It’s the beauty of the portrait to be staged. There’s so much to invent in the photographic portrait” (Verone in Franklin. P. 175)
With regards to achieving intimacy with my subject matter, this has become an important factor of my practice over the past 2 years. This was initially driven by ethical concerns, believing that closeness with the communities I am photographing would better equip me to represent them in my work. As a by-product of this, I believe that the collaborative relationship that I have formed with those I am photographing has allowed me to make much more successful, compelling images.
‘The thinking around is different [today]… Photography is creating new narratives, ones less focused on the craft of making good photographs, more on telling stories that are meaningful.’ (Rubio in Franklin, 2016, p.176)
When I first began my project in Central Oregon, my work rightly received comparisons to road trip photography. At that time, akin to Stephen Shore’s work ‘American Surfaces’, I was well aware that I was just documenting surface impressions of the places I was visiting. In The Documentary Impulse, Franklin draws attention to Lee Friedlander’s recent work:
“Lee Friedlander’s photobook America By Car (2010) is a road trip through the United States with every image shot through car windows, the people and landscape viewed as they are customarily seen, as objects spotted whilst driving. Across two pages in the book we see a heard of cattle in Nebraska through one window, a small black bird in Death Valley, California through another. The landscape in both images appears the same: miniaturized, contained and framed within a discourse about car use.” (Franklin, 2016, p. 132)
The longer I spend with rural communities in the US, the more passionate I feel about creating images that are intimate and meaningful. I reject the notion that these areas are primarily to be driven through and to be viewed only through car windows. In Sara Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, the author speaks of the negative repercussions of using vocabulary such as ‘flyover country’ to describe the rural Midwestern states such as Kansas and Nebraska. It is my aim to represent working class communities in Oregon in a more complex way, and I will continue to build on the relationships I have formed here in order to gain greater intimacy with my subject matter.
Franklin, S. 2016. The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon.
Smarsh, S. 2018. Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. New York: Scribner