Do your own research into the work of the socially committed B&W photographers discussed so far, both British (Exit Photography Group, Chris Killip, Nick Danziger, Bill Brandt) and American (Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine). Was this social documentary work their prime focus? How does it fit with other work done by these photographers?
Make notes in your learning log or blog.
(Open College of the Arts, 2014: 34)
This exercise seems to repeat some of the work just previously done in this section, so I shall be just look at the photographers that I have not yet. I have commented on Chris Killip and Nick Danziger here, and the Exit Photography Group, and Bill Brandt on their appropriate links.
Jacob Riis (1849 – 1914)
Emigrating from Denmark to the United States of America in 1870, social documentary photographer Jacob Riis found work as a police reporter for the New York Tribune in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He began writing about the slums and illustrating his articles at first with found photographs, but later on with his own work. He was among a growing number of reformers who believed that environment was a determining factor in the increase in immorality, disease and crime. Seeing himself as a “tour guide” to the privileged class, he gave lectures and presented his photos in different formats (articles, lantern-slide shows, newspapers and magazines), to highlight and bring attention to the poor living conditions in the slums. His audience was mainly middle-class society who had no need to venture into the downtrodden areas of New York. His aim was to bring about reformation of the slum areas.
He would tour the slums at night and used magnesium flash powder to photograph the dark interior of the dwellings and also to surprise the inhabitants. ‘The harsh look of the sudden burst of intense white light and the shock registered on the faces of those photographed came to stand for candid and objective photography’ (Warner Marien, 2014: 204).
Fig. 1. Jacob Riis (1889) One of four peddlers who slept in the cellar of 11 Ludlow Street
Orvell states that “Riis used the camera as a perfect instrument for his own, and our curiosity about the cultural ‘other'” (Orvell, 2003: 72), thereby emphasising the difference between his subjects and us. Riis was not averse to staging his photographs either (children huddled together over a grate in the day time, pretending to be asleep).
Riis’s How the Other Half Lives was published in 1980 as a hybrid text, composed of eighteen plates which were line drawings and seventeen half-tone photographs. Early social documentary work was complex and inherently assumed moral and aesthetic superiority. Riis’s photographs offered the visual proof to authenticate the text. To us in this present time, Riis’s work may seem voyeuristic, but Riis was motivated by compassion and a real desire to effect social change.
Lewis Hine (1874 – 1940)
Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin Hine’s first job was in a furniture upholstery factory earning $4.00 per week. He held down several menial jobs and could therefore empathize with his subjects that he later photographed as he had first hand experience of their lives. Determined to break away from labouring work, Hine attended university courses and eventually became a teacher at the New York’s Ethicul Culture School. It was here that he learned photography at the school’s request and became the school’s photographer. Hine soon realised what a powerful medium photography is and made frequent use of it as an instructional aid in his curricula, accompanying students on field trips where the focus could be anything from nature study to economic life in the ports of New York. He made many photographs of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, New York.
Fig. 2. Lewis Hine (October, 1908) Carrying-in Boy at the Lehr, (15 years old) Glass Works, Grafton, W. Va. Has worked for several years. Works nine hours. Day shift one week, night shift next week. Gets $1.25 per day. Location: Grafton, West Virginia. National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
He was commissioned by the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) to document child labour in various industries (mills, factories, mines, fields and canneries) with the view to bring about legislation to reform industrial hiring practices. Hine frequently had to disguise himself in order to gain access to these locations. His approach to his subjects was quite different to that of Jacob Riis. Hine ‘tried to get the viewer to see a humanity shared with the subjects’ (Orvell, 2003: 75). He was more respectful of his subjects and ‘granted his subjects a beauty that was not generally accorded’ to them (Orvell, 2003: 75). Eventually government was persuaded by these photographs to bring about laws prohibiting child labor.
Lewis Hine created what he called the “photo story” which were published in journals and magazines. He employed a non-linear thread to his work linking ideas rather than sequential time flow, combining text (often captions obtained directly from his subjects) and image. He published frequently in The Pittsburgh Survey (1909 – 14). Hine was interested in photographing the everyday life that happened in the street, at work, in the home. He often posed his subjects so that they looked directly at the camera so that the viewer would have not choice but to look the subject in the eye – a confrontational tact which proved to be quite effective.
Hine also photographed the construction of the Empire Building, the relief mission of the Red Cross during WWI in France and the Balkans, as well as working conditions of women between 1920 and 1930.
Bill Brandt (1904 – 1983)
Brandt was born into an Anglo-German family in Hamburg and began his career as a portrait photographer in Vienna in 1927. After studying with Man Ray in Paris, Brandt settled in London and took up an anthropological form of documentary work. Two of Brandt’s photobooks, The English at Home (1936) and A Night in London (1938) examine life in Britain and its class system. He also contributed to magazines such as Lilliput, Picture Post and Harper’s Bazaar. Brandt’s work is often compared to that of Brassaï, sharing a similar narrative style and reference to Surrealism.
Although Brandt was commissioned to photograph the underground bomb shelters during WWII, I wouldn’t go so far as to include him in a “socially committed B&W photographers” category. His two earlier photobooks mentioned above drew attention to class distinction, but was there any reform or resolution resulting from that work, apart from making people aware? Brandt very often staged his scenes, using friends, family and staff. Says Kozloff of Brandt’s earlier work: ‘what we are viewing is a lurid stylist who substantiates his quasi-activist purpose with a scrutiny as forensic as that of police in detective fiction’ (Kozloff, 2007:129) After the war Brandt returned to portraiture work, landscape, surrealism and nudes, which make up the main body of his work.
For more in-depth discussion on Bill Brandt, please see this post.
Open College of the Arts (2014) Photography 2: Documentary-Fact and Fiction (Course Manual). Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.
Jacob Riis (s.d.) At: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/jacob-riis (Accessed on 12 June 2019)
Kozloff, M. (2007) The Theatre of the Face | Portrait Photography Since 1900. London: Phaidon Press Limited.
Lewis Hine | International Photography Hall of Fame (s.d.) At: http://iphf.org/inductees/lewis-hine/ (Accessed on 13 June 2019)
Orvell, M. (2003) American Photography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History. (4th ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing.
Williams, V. and Bright, S. (2007) How We Are | Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present. London: Tate Publishing.