Exercise: Making Sense of Documentary Photography

The Brief

Read the article ‘Making Sense of Documentary Photography’ by James Curtis.

Curtis contextualises the work of the FSA photographers within a tradition of early twentieth-century social documentary photography and touches on the issue of the FSA photographers’ methods and intentions. What is your view on this? Is there any sense in which the FSA photographers exploited their subjects?

(Open College of the Arts, 2014:45)

I found this 26 page essay a very easy (for a change!) and extremely interesting read.  The purpose of Curtis’s essay was to lay some foundations so that viewers could apply the same strategies in evaluating photographic evidence as is applied to written documents that are used for historical purposes. He briefly gives a short history of photographic technology – the evolution from the daguerrotype where subjects were required to remain motionless for minutes, to the ambrotype and tintype where reproductions onto paper were made possible.

Because of the long exposure times, all early documentary photography was staged. Mathew Brady had to content himself in making images of the aftermath of battles during the Civil War instead of photographing actual battles. Even Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine staged their photographs.

Curtis’s in-depth discussion into examining documentary photographs follows the following sequence.

  • Who took the photograph? It is always important to consider the historical context of the image as well as the photographer. What was the photographer’s intended message?
  • When and for whom was the photograph taken? The context of the photograph can be skewed according to various reform or political agendas. Very often photographs are used to illustrate biases.
  • How as the photograph taken? Where the subjects directed? A lot would depend on the type of cameras the photographers were using. If using a view camera, one could assume that the photograph was staged as a long exposure time would be required. This is something that I had not considered when viewing the FSA collection.
  • What can companion images tell us? Documentary photographers usually take more than one photograph of a scene and these “extra” photos very often give clues as to the photographer’s intention as well as providing other valuable visual clues that contribute to the background story which might not be evident in the final chosen image. The FSA photographers were required by government to hand in all photographs taken on their assignments so their thought processes and various “takes” are on public record.
  • How was the photograph presented? Photographers frequently add titles or captions to their photographs to direct the viewer’s attention to a particular aspect of the image or to drive home their intended message. Sometimes these titles or captions are deliberately ambiguous in order to convey an alternative ore prearranged message.

Now with a retrospective understanding of the limitations of using view cameras, I don’t think that the FSA photographers exploited their subjects. They all had a specific job to do and had to record the hardships that were happening across the country as a result of the Depression. If items had to be removed from a table to emphasize the message of scarcity, or a mother left out of a photograph (deliberately or by her choice?) in order to depict the hardships of a single parent (I am sure there were many single parent families during that time) to better put the overall narrative across to middle class America then their objectives were reached.

Where a problem might arise, is with the ambiguous captioning of some of the work. Arthur Rothstein’s captioning of the Gees Bend African-American community (who were already receiving government aid) comes to mind. Rothstein captions a few of the images stating that this community is living very primitively, yet surrounding photos show the women cooking on a stove, using sewing machines, attending church and children at school. Hardly primitive – struggling economically – most definitely.  Sometimes captioning deliberately implied meaning by omission of a fuller text but one cannot say that the scenes were falsified. I don’t feel that the subjects were exploited as they were probably all informed as to the reason why they were being photographed and probably all participated willingly in order to assist so that the financial aid promised could be forthcoming.


Curtis, J. (2003) Making Sense of Documentary Photography. At: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/photos/ (Accessed on 16 September 2019)

Open College of the Arts (2014) Photography 2: Documentary-Fact and Fiction (Course Manual). Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Research point: The FSA

The Brief:

We are to do research into the FSA project and the work of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White and Arthur Rothstein and others.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014:44)

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was established by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, under the direction of Roy Stryker in 1935 to provide photos that would support Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. The project was funded by the Federal government and became one of the world’s most important documentary projects. Participating photographers were: Esther Bubley, John Collier Jr., Marjory Collins, Jack Delano, Sheldon Dick, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Howard Lieberman, Edwin Locke, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Edwin Rosskam, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, and Marion Post Wolcott. Stryker provided the photographers with shooting directives and sent them across the country to record America at work. The FSA archive amounted to about 165,000 prints, 265,000 negatives and 1,600 colour slides and is probably one of the largest photographic collections.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange, possibly one of the more famous FSA photographers, is best known for her Migrant Mother image which became one of the most reproduced photographs in photography’s history. I decided to use one of her lesser known images for my posting. Lange began her photographic career as a portrait photographer, but became  more interested in using her camera to document conditions in order to effect social change. Upon the recommendation of Paul Taylor, who would become her husband, she began to work for the California State Emergency Relief Administration in 1935. This agency was transferred to the Resettlement Administration (RA), which was a government agency that had been formed to raise public awareness of the struggling farmers as a result of the Depression and to provide financial aid to them. The RA later became the FSA. Lange travelled through California, the Southwest, and the South documenting the plight of the farmers. She would often include quotes from her subjects or her own observations in her reports that accompanied her photographs.

(Fig. 1. ‘Cleanliness.’ Southern California. Oklahoma refugees camping in Imperial Valley, California 1935)


Walker Evans

Walker Evans was born in 1903 in St. Louis, Missouri and was intent on becoming a writer after a stint of living in Paris and writing short stories, but upon returning to New York, he turned to photography “to bring the strategies of literature—lyricism, irony, incisive description, and narrative structure into the medium of photography” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004).

Walker Evans is probably the best known FSA photographer and was the progenitor of the documentary tradition in the USA. The Met describes Evans’ work as follows: “Evans had the extraordinary ability to see the present as if it were already the past, and to translate that knowledge and historically inflected vision into an enduring art” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004). He not only photographed the people, but was fascinated by advertisements, objects, bedrooms and architecture and edges of industrial landscape.

Unlike the other FSA photographers, Evans didn’t really stick to his shooting directives or adhere to the political agenda of the FSA. He refused to allow politics to influence his work. He wanted to show American life as it was and his photographs reveal the respect with which he treated his subjects, while at the same time remaining impersonal.  In 1936 Evans took a leave of absence from the FSA and toured the South with James Agee, their collaborative work emerging in the form of the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The photographs in this book highlight the difficulties of the Depression, and are quite intimate. His photographs were not from the 1930s were not only of historical interest, but also of cultural importance as well.

He was adamant that he was making documents and not art and “sought to avoid any obvious presence as author in his photographs” (Liesbrock, 2015).

(Fig. 2. Bud Fields in his cotton patch. Hale County, Alabama 1936)

Arthur Rothstein

Arthur Rothstein was the son of Jewish immigrants and grew up in New York. He was the first photographer who was hired by Roy Stryker at the RA. He had to learn to drive in order to take up the job. He is most famous for the iconic Dust Bowl image below, taken in Boise City, Oklahoma. He had stopped to take a few photographs of farmer Art Coble and his two little sons who were erecting fencing posts, and was about to get back into his car, he turned and noticed that a wind had picked up and the farmer and his sons were walking towards the homestead braced into the wind. He made only one photograph and it became one of the most iconic photos of the 20th century. After leaving the FSA, Rothstein took up a position with Look magazine remaining there until 1971 and ultimately serving as director of photography.

(Fig. 3. Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma 1936)

Jack Delano

I have been a fan of Jack Delano’s photography since I began my studies at the OCA. He often uses scale to emphasis his subjects’ strength of character as can be seen in the image below and also in this post where I blogged about his work. By shooting Mr Lyman from below, Delano has elevated his subject’s emotional status. Although the viewer can see that times are hard for Mr Lyman (torn and patched shirt), he has a proud, resolute bearing as he looks out towards the future. His horse, on the other hand, is the epitome of weariness and dejection. Its eyes are lack lustre and its head hangs low under the weight of his master’s arm. One probably tends to forget that it was not only the farmers and sharecroppers who suffered during the Depression, but the animals as well. Delano was born in 1914 as Jacob Ovcharov in the Ukraine and took the name of Jack (after the boxer Jack Dempsey) and Delano from a school friend. He studied music and photography/graphic arts at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia and was assigned to photograph the eastern seaboard and Puerto Rico for the FSA. He later settled permanently in Puerto Rico.

(Fig. 4. Mr. Andrew Lyman, Polish FSA (Farm Security Administration) client and tobacco farmer near Windsor Locks, Connecticut 1940)


International Center of Photography (s.d.) Arthur Rothstein. At: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/arthur-rothstein?all/all/all/all/0 (Accessed on 16 September 2019)

Jack Delano Photographer | All About Photo (s.d.) At: https://www.all-about-photo.com/photographers/photographer/642/jack-delano (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Library of Congress (s.d.) Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives – FSA and OWI Photographers – A Portrait Sampler – Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (Library of Congress). At: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/sampler.html (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Liesbrock, H. (2015) ‘‘A Surgeon operating on the fluid body of time’: The Historiography and Poetry of Walker Evans’ In: Walker Evans: Depth of Field. London: Prestal Publishing Ltd.  pp.19–29

MOMA (s.d.) Dorothea Lange, American, 1895 – 1965. At: https://www.moma.org/artists/3373 (Accessed on 16 September 2019)

Open College of the Arts (2014) Photography 2: Documentary-Fact and Fiction (Course Manual). Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

PBS (s.d.) Arthur Rothstein | THE DUST BOWL. At: https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/bios/arthur-rothstein/ (Accessed on 16 September 2019a)

PBS (s.d.) Dorothea Lange | THE DUST BOWL. At: https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/bios/dorothea-lange/ (Accessed on 16 September 2019b)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2004) ‘Department of Photographs. “Walker Evans (1903–1975)”‘ At: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/evan/hd_evan.htm (Accessed on 16 September 2019


List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Lange, D. (1935) ‘Cleanliness.’ Southern California. Oklahoma refugees camping in Imperial Valley, California. [1 negative : nitrate ; 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches or smaller.] At: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017759584/ (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Figure 2. Evans, W. (1936) Bud Fields in his cotton patch. Hale County, Alabama. [1 negative : nitrate ; 8 x 10 inches or smaller.] At: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017762310/ (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Figure 3. Rothstein, A. (1936) Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma. [1 negative ; 8 x 10 inches or smaller. 1 photographic print ; 8 x 10 in.] At: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017760335/ (Accessed on 16 September 2019)

Figure 4. Delano, J. (1940) Mr. Andrew Lyman, Polish FSA (Farm Security Administration) client and tobacco farmer near Windsor Locks, Connecticut. [1 negative : nitrate ; 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches or smaller.] At: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017791885/ (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Research Point: Humphrey Spender’s Worktown

The Brief:

Briefly reflect in your learning log on Humphrey Spender’s documentary style and the themes of Worktown, with particular emphasis on the ethics and purpose of the project.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014:43)

The Mass Observation project was initially begun by Tom Harrisson, Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge (all products of public school) in 1937 as a long term anthropological study into the lives of the “ordinary” people. It “sought to bridge the gap between how the media represented public opinion and what ordinary people actually felt and thought” (Jones, 2012). Observers, or citizen journalists were recruited from the general populace and issued directives on what to observe and record.

It initially focused on Bolton (named ‘Worktown’ by Tom Harrisson), but during WWII was enlisted or co-opted by the Ministry of Information in order to better gauge public morale and the effectiveness of various public campaigns. It was also a platform for artists from various disciplines to come together collaboratively. The general population of Bolton was monitored closely, the observers paying particular attention to daily activities, habits, gestures and even clothing and conversations. Some of the subjects covered were shouts and gestures from motorists, facial hair, bathroom behaviour, life during the Blitz. Needless to say that once the general population became aware of the project, it didn’t go down too well as Humphrey Spender, photographer stated: “We were called spies, pryers, mass-eavesdroppers, nosey parkers, peeping-toms, lopers, snoopers, envelop-steamers, keyhole artists, sex maniacs, sissies, society playboys” (Bolton Library and Museum Services, s.d.).

Spender’s work involved recording people’s activities and lifestyles, according to the Mass Observation’s mandate, rather than appearances as in August Sander’s and Richard Avedon’s projects. It rather reminds me more of the Survival Programmes by Exit Photography Group. Spender came from a privileged background and often felt like a foreigner in Bolton, so he developed means of taking photographs “unseen”, just as Walker Evans did on the subway, by using a hidden camera or shooting from the waist. His personal objective was to try and take truthful photos.

Spender’s work for the Mass Observation project was categorised (most probably by the Bolton Museum) according to the list below and be seen at: https://boltonworktown.co.uk/photo-collection:

  • Blackpool
  • Ceremonies
  • Graffiti
  • Industry
  • Leisure
  • Observers
  • Politics
  • Pub
  • Religion
  • Shopping
  • Sport
  • Street
  • Work
  • Ashington

Sean O’Hagan (2013) reports that Spender’s photographs were mainly used for statistical purposes – as a visual record from which various kinds of information could be extracted. Spender’s photos do fit the documentary genre. We the viewers are informed and witness life as it was prior and during the WWII years.

Ethically I don’t find too much of a problem with the way the project started out. The recruited observers were unpaid volunteers, but as soon as the government got involved in the project, the focus and purpose changed. Granted it was in a time of war, so one could argue that national security was the main concern. Drawing, painting and taking photographs of people in the public is definitely less intrusive than eavesdropping on people’s conversations.  Once government gets involved in projects such as these, it becomes an issue of “Big Brother is Watching You”, to my mind.

Now in 2019 we have a similar world-wide project happening in social media. Everyone is a citizen journalist and everyone with a cell phone is recording every aspect of their lives and sharing each moment almost instantaneously with the rest of the world, not to mention surveillance cameras on street corners, traffic lights to monitor the public. Now we don’t even bother with the ethics of this type of continual surveillance. It is just accepted.



Bolton Library and Museum Services (s.d.) Mass Observation | Bolton Worktown. At: https://boltonworktown.co.uk/about/mass-observation (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Cook, W. (2017) BBC Arts – BBC Arts – Mass Observation: The amazing 80-year experiment to record our daily lives. At: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/153xTC0n1H0JssCqdTx8w1M/mass-observation-the-amazing-80-year-experiment-to-record-our-daily-lives (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Jones, B. (2012) Mass Observation 75 years on: the extraordinary in the everyday. At: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/apr/19/mass-observation-75-years (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

O’Hagan, S. (2013) The way we were: Mass Observation at the Photographers’ Gallery | Art and design | The Guardian. At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jul/21/mass-observation-photographers-gallery (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Open College of the Arts (2014) Photography 2: Documentary-Fact and Fiction (Course Manual). Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Spender, H. (s.d.) Photo collection | Bolton Worktown. At: https://boltonworktown.co.uk/photo-collection (Accessed on 13 September 2019)

Exercise: ‘In the American East: Richard Avedon Incorporated’


Read ‘In the American East’ by Richard Bolton (in Bolton, 1992, pp. 262-283) and write a 200-word reflective commentary on its relevance to documentary practice.

Then look at the work of Charlotte Oestervang in Appalachia (Foto8, V6N1, June 2006, pp. 58-9).

(Open College of the Arts, 2014:42)

Bolton begins his lengthy essay with a short economics lesson focusing on unemployment in the USA due to jobs going offshore, the labour classes struggling with unemployment and government’s lack of commitment to creating employment at that time (1992, or earlier). The postindustrial age led to the information age as we experience it today, although at the time of writing, I’m sure Bolton had no idea to what extent his words would turn out to be quite prophetic. Speaking of communication and the control that big corporations have over the media, he states: “Communication has become infused with the powerful and fascinating effects of advertising. These effects not only sell products; they also threaten to overwhelm substantive discourse entirely, affecting the content of everything from news broadcasts to presidential elections” (Bolton, 1992:262). Just think who owns the TV stations in the US and see how the news is controlled, or manipulated these days!

Bolton then introduces the reader to Avedon’s five-year project “In the American West” which involved photographing ‘the marginal and dispossessed citizens of the West … who work at uncelebrated jobs … often ignored and overlooked’ (Bolton, 1992:263) and proceeds to discuss how Avedon refashioned the marginalized class and causes us to re-evaluate our concept of labour. Avedon photographed his subjects for this project “studio-style” against a white seamless backdrop, in the shadows with a narrow depth of field using an 8 x 10 camera. The white backdrop served to remove the subjects from any context and the 8 x 10 camera served to exaggerate any abnormalities or idiosyncrasies that the subject may have had.

It is argued that Avedon’s photographs boiled down to solipsism (the view or theory that the self is all that can be know to exist) and that Avedon was creating stereotypes of the American West, as Gilman states “… we construct stereotypes to control our fears of the unknown–the Other” (Bolton, 1992:266).

I do have to admit that when I was first exposed to Avedon’s “In the American West” project a number of years ago when I was doing a documentary course at one of Vancouver’s local photography schools, I was quite appalled and taken aback at the ugliness of the photos and was quite concerned that such odd looking people were being taken advantage of. Given that the role of documentary is to make the viewer an eyewitness and to educate/inform, what exactly is Avedon trying to convey to the viewer? Is he implying that the American West consists of a sampling of his subjects, that this is who you will find in the American West? He has removed his subjects from any contextual background so apart from the captions we know nothing or can glean nothing about these people except what Avedon is letting us see, for he is waiting for the right moment, for that certain expression to cross the subject’s face before he presses the shutter button. Could it be that these types of subjects or photos were a cathartic release from the high fashion photography that Avedon was famous for, as they do negate the world of fashion. Whatever his reasons, this project does not educate or inform the viewer, nor is the viewer an eyewitness to an event so it is art photography, pure and simple.

On the other hand, Charlotte Oestervang’s Appalachian project does provide context. We see her subjects in their everyday surroundings and can envision their lives and hardships. Her work is less pretentious than Avedon’s and the subjects maintain a level of dignity and her work depicts a specific community in the Appalachia. So it ticks all the documentary boxes.



Bolton, R. (1992) ‘In the America East: Richard Avedon Incorporated’ In: Bolton, R. (ed.) The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.  pp.261–283.

Oestervang, C. (s.d.) The Appalachian Trail / Eastern Kentucky | Charlotte Oestervang Photography. At: http://www.oestervang.dk/photos/The%20Appalachian%20Trail%20–slash–%20Eastern%20Kentucky/ (Accessed on 13 September 2019)

Open College of the Arts (2014) Photography 2: Documentary-Fact and Fiction (Course Manual). Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Solipsism | Definition of Solipsism at Dictionary.com (s.d.) At: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/solipsism?s=t (Accessed on 13 September 2019)

August Sander – Seven-Category System

August Sander’s categorization system is a strange and interesting one. The list is broken down as follows:

  1. The farmer
  2. The skilled tradesman
  3. The woman
  4. Classes and Professions
    • The Clergyman
    • The Teacher and Educator
    • The Businessman
    • The Doctor and the Pharmacist
  5. The Artists
  6. The City
    • Circus people
    • Gypsies
    • Transients
    • City youth
    • Persecuted Jewish citizens, foreign workers and political prisoners
  7. The Last People
    • The sick, old and frail
    • People with physical and mental handicaps

Why would he place the farmer at the top of the list and the white collar professions mid-way in the hierarchy? I believe he was biased towards the farmer as being the most important on the list as he was born in a farming community and probably understood how crucial the farmer was to the livelihood of people living in cities and rural communities. His personal bias, I think, extends to the second category as his father was a carpenter, and would fall into this category. Interestingly “The Woman” category is placed above that of the white collar professions, but if one looks at the captions of the photographs in this category, the woman is referred to as an appendage of the man’s profession, e.g. The Innkeeper and His Wife. This appendage-like status of a woman is something that has just recently disappeared as I can remember seeing envelopes addressed to “Mr and Mrs Jack Smith” when I was quite young. Sander was probably quite bold in categorizing “The Woman” above the “Classes and Professions” for that time, but conceded to society’s norm with the captioning of those photographs. The last two categories, as it would later transpire during the Nazi regime, were the groups of people who were first targeted by the Nazis for the concentration camps. Did the Nazis borrow Sander’s classification system for their own purposes even though they forced an end to his project and destroyed many of his negatives?

In contrast Zed Nelson’s work focused on dying professions/ways of life. With the advent of computers and other modern technology, various trades/ways of life have become almost extinct. Mechanization has taken the place of the labourer. Such a classification system that August Sander used would be extremely frowned upon in today’s politically correct environment.



Estrin, J. (2016) A New Look at August Sander’s ‘People of the Twentieth Century’. At: https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/a-new-look-at-august-sanders-people-of-the-twentieth-century/ (Accessed on 30 July 2019)

Lane, A. (2003) ‘Faces in the Crowd’ 3 February 2003 [online] At: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/02/10/faces-in-the-crowd (Accessed on 10 September 2019)

Sloan, S.F. et al. (2002) ‘SFMOMA Presents Most Comprehensive U.S. Showing Ever of August Sander’s Monumental Photographic Survey, People of the 20th Century’ At: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/asander_sfmoma.pdf (Accessed on 10 September 2019)

The Extraordinary Photos of German Photographer August Sander – Flashbak (s.d.) At: https://flashbak.com/the-extraordinary-photos-of-german-photographer-august-sander-410620/ (Accessed on 30 July 2019)

B&W portraits as a documentary strategy

While Daniel Meadows documented  ‘the “English people”, especially those whose quality of life he believed to be under threat’ (Lane, 2011: 157), Zed Nelson documented a dying way of life. Occupations and leisure pursuits that are fast disappearing such as miners, fishermen, boxer, war veterans and shipbuilders have been captured by Nelson. Nelson created studios in situ at the various locales and photographed his subjects in a controlled environment: the miners as they emerged from the mine shaft after working long shifts, looking tired; the fishermen as they came off their boats after a catch.

The photographs, apart from being an historical record of bygone industries and leisure pursuits, are imbued with nostalgia. The photographs have an old quality about them and one can easily mistake them for having been made in the early 1900s instead of around 1990. The political overtones lie heavy on these images. Modernisation is doing away with certain ways of life. New generations will have to look elsewhere for jobs and not follow in the footsteps of their ancestors.

And then we have the war veterans. Sadly for many of them, Nelson’s photograph may very well be the last ever taken of them in their uniforms/medals. Do we have enough photographs of the brave men and women who fought in WWI and WWII for us to remember them? Probably not.

In a similar manner, Irving Penn has created portraits of tradesmen and women that we hardly ever see these days: the charwoman, road sweeper, the milkman. Taken in 1950 in studio, Penn has photographed all his subjects with dignity. The photos are all full frontal and the subjects look directly at the photographer/viewer. Again Penn’s photographs serve as a record of those particular trades in that epoch.


Getty Center Exhibitions (2009) Irving Penn: Small Trades. At: http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/penn/ (Accessed on 30 July 2019)

Lane, G. (2011) ‘“The Photographer as Recorder”: Daniel Meadows, Records, Discourse and Tradition in 1970s England’ In: Photographies 4 (2) pp.157–173.

Morrison, B. (2011) ‘Goodbye to all that | Zed Nelson’ In: The Guardian 12 March 2011 [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2011/mar/12/goodbye-to-all-that-zed-nelson-photographs (Accessed on 30 July 2019)

Exercise: Daniel Meadows


Listen to Daniel Meadows talking about his work, then read the essay ‘The Photogrpher as Recorder’ by Guy Lane.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014: 40)

For some reason the Vimeo link provided in the course manual comes up as ‘not found’. Luckily I think I have managed to find the same video on Youtube by looking at the full reference given in Jan Foray’s write up and doing a google search (thanks Jan!).

Daniel Meadows doesn’t like to think of himself as a photographer. He prefers to call himself a documentarist, and uses different tools, as well as photography to express himself.

Having led a very sheltered life – boarding school at an all boys school – very limited exposure to the opposite sex or to other cultures, Meadows toured the country in a double-decker bus after graduating from art school, running his Free Studio. His reason for running a free studio was to meet people and hear their stories. He quickly realised that his photographic interests didn’t lie in advertising photography, but his work centred around ordinary people and that engagement played a huge role in his work. He saw himself as a mediator for other people’s stories.

As he progressed he picked up new skills and ran digital story telling workshops using technology that was easy for people to learn. The stories were all in the first person, briefly scripted and the people making them tended to use photographs to tell their stories. Visual histories began to emerge.

Meadows feels that it is important to do these things because it is all about power. The ordinary people in the street “live in awe of people who live on the TV screen” and feel that time is slipping by without addressing the issues that we would like to talk about. After all not everyone is madly concerned about high end politics or affairs on the other side of the world. Very often what goes on in one’s own village is of more importance. Meadows states that if one can make one’s own media then the power has shifted. I found this a very interesting point and quite profound. Perhaps we don’t always realise that we do actually have a voice and the means to use it.

The Photographer as Recorder”: Daniel Meadows, Records, Discourse and Tradition in 1970s England

For the second part of this exercise we are to read G. Lane’s The Photographer as Recorder”: Daniel Meadows, Records, Discourse and Tradition in 1970s England. In this journal article Lane discusses Daniel Meadows’ The Bus Statement.  Lane tackles the work in three sections: the first deals with representation of the English photographic practise and its history. The second discusses the relationships that exist between documentary practices, modernity and the idea of a national identity. Finally Lane deals with the document’s function and distribution.

Drawing inspiration from Michel Foucault’s The Archeology of Knowledge, Lane unpacks his theories quite succinctly. When Daniel Meadows embarked upon his Omnibus project he was working outside any photographic mould that existed at that time. His work reflected something new – there was a youthful element to the way he worked and also that ran as a theme through his work. His advertising pamphlet also reflected this. By photographing himself full length, full-faced in front of the bus dressed in a trendy jacket his potential subjects could see what type of record he wished to make. The object of Meadows Free Photographic Omnibus survey was to create a historical record of English life ‘especially those whose quality of life … were under threat’ (Lane, 2011:157) as according to Meadows no such survey had been created since that of Sir Benjamin Stone.

The importance of this seminal photographic work is borne out by the fact that a copy of the Bus Statement now resides in the archives of the Arts Council at the V&A Museum as evidence of changes that were happening in photographic practise at that time. Other benefits that arose from Meadows’s work was that new types of photographic courses were being offered at colleges, galleries geared for photographic work were opened, e.g. the Photographer’s Gallery and discursive spaces were created in the Creative Camera and Album magazines. Meadows received funding from the Arts Council for his project, but he also raised sponsorships from private enterprises. As a result of this, private companies saw this type of sponsorship as further means of furthering their public relations in the community.

Daniel Meadows’s project was a contemporary debate – he identified issues such as social change, over-population, pollution, and urban modernisation.

‘Meadows’ apparent fears can be identified as part of a broader discursive shift
within the history of documentary practice, occupying a moment when anxieties “come
less from disturbances associated with class than from beliefs about race and gender, or the fear of ecological disaster”’ (Lane, 2011:170). Has anything really changed since the 1970s? Aren’t most news stories these days about some or other race or gender issue/war or the latest ecological disaster (climate change)?

Meadows’s Omnibus Project was a “record of life in England”. But was it really? Didn’t Meadows concentrate mainly on the working class segment of the population? How then, can this be a record of life in England when portions of the population are missing? How can one propose to offer an idea of national identity when not all classes are represented?

Lane concludes his essay by stating that it is the absence of tradition that unites the three themes previously mentioned. However, by photographing certain calendrical events such as the annual summer holiday in Blackpool, the Derby and a Conker festival, Meadows was anchoring a definition of Englishness, which in turn reveals his desire for stability, continuity and tradition at a time when national identity was brought into sharp question.

I’ll close with a final quote from Guy Lane. A statement that has been prickling my brain and giving me some food for thought.

“Tradition … is in reality made, in an unceasing activity of selection, revision, and outright invention, whose function is to defend identity against the threat of heterogeneity, discontinuity, and contradiction” (Lane, 2011:172).



Daniel Meadows: Early Photographic Works. (2011) Directed by National Science and Media Museum At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PL0A41FCC3DBFE9641&v=-KCuapO2xAc (Accessed on 6 July 2019)

Lane, G. (2011) ‘“The Photographer as Recorder”: Daniel Meadows, Records, Discourse and Tradition in 1970s England’ In: Photographies 4 (2) pp.157–173.

Open College of the Arts (2014) Photography 2: Documentary-Fact and Fiction (Course Manual). Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Victoria and Albert Museum (s.d.) Sir Benjamin Stone & the National Photographic Record Association. At: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/sir-benjamin-stone-and-the-NPRA/ (Accessed on 30 July 2019)