Photography and Society in the 20th Century

Gretchen Garner. Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History and Science. Editor: Michael R Peres. 4th edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007.


It would be hard to imagine a technology that had more impact on 20th century life than photography: the automobile, the airplane, nuclear power, all of these were higher profile than photography, yet in day-to-day terms, photography was truly the most pervasive. Here the effect that photography has had on 20th century society will be discussed in four distinct areas: amateur photography (making everyone a photographer), advertising photography (creating desire in the public), journalistic/editorial photography (informing and entertaining the public), and documentary photography (recording the lives of real groups of people).


To imagine a social world before photography, we would have to think of a world without picture IDs; without portraits of ordinary people (or schoolchildren); one without pictures as souvenirs of travel; one without celebrity pictures; one without advertising photographs; one without X-rays or views of outer space; a world without views of foreign and exotic peoples; one without pictures of sports, wars, and disasters; and one in which the great masses of people had no way to visually document the important events of their lives.

Such a world is unimaginable to us now, and we have photography to thank for all these things: visual souvenirs, portraits of common folk as well as the famous, advertising pictures that have created desire in the public and educated them about all the products the new consumer culture has on offer, medical diagnostic tools, incredible views of exotic places and even of outer space, pictures of the world’s news, and most important, pictures of the events and intimate moments of one’s own life.

The technology of photography is part chemical, part optical, and dates from 1839. Soon after its simultaneous invention by William Henry Fox Talbot in England and Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre in France, photography was used to document foreign places of interest such as India, the Holy Land, and the American West. It was also used for portraits with photographs taken of kings, statesman, and theater or literary personalities.

During the 19th century, however, cameras were mainly in the hands of professionals or self-educated entrepreneurs who tried photography as a trade. Interestingly, photography has never required professional licensing or guild membership (with the exception of Talbot’s unsuccessful attempt to sell licenses early after his invention). In the mainstream, any tinker or businessman could buy the equipment, obtain the directions, and proceed. This openness of the medium made photographic practice rather free from the traditions that had grown up around painting or the various printmaking arts.

When pre-coated dry plates were introduced in 1878, the tedious and messy coating of glass plates in the darkroom (or dark tent, for photographers in the field) was eliminated, and when pre-coated photographic papers were made available, printing of photographs became much easier and more predictable. From this point on, photography could be practiced by hobbyists or amateurs (literally, lovers of the medium). Perhaps predictably, since most who had the leisure for such an advanced hobby were educated and sophisticated, they wanted to make photographs that looked like Art.

Amateur Photography

Thus, aspiring to art, the late 19th to early 20th century amateurs were interested in aping the artistic formulae they had learned from Whistler and the Tonalist painters of the time. To do this, soft-focus lenses, matte papers, and elaborate mounting and framing techniques were employed by the so-called Pictorialist photographers. Sometimes unusual emulsions would be hand-coated onto the printing papers, and often drawing or other handwork was introduced onto the images, either onto the negative or onto the print itself as if to say: This is not a mechanical art.

These Pictorialist amateurs formed themselves into societies and clubs. Clubs were formed in many European countries as well as the United States, and exchanges between their members were common. Magazines, such as American Amateur Photographer, kept the network of amateurs connected and provided technical information and news, as well as criticism. Many of the clubs sponsored journals, such as the New York Camera Club’s Camera Notes (edited by Alfred Stieglitz until the membership grew dissatisfied with him, whereupon he started his own publication, Camera Work, 1903-1917). In the clubs, annual and even monthly salon competitions were held, and these salons and clubs continued into the mid-20th century, eclipsed only when academic programs in fine art photography replaced them for the most part.

The Kodak

Meanwhile, late in the 19th century, a sense that amateur photography could be marketed to the masses was building. The first entrepreneur to be enormously successful at this challenge was George Eastman. Eastman’s company, the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company, had been in business since 1884 in Rochester, New York. His breakthrough product was the Kodak camera of 1888 (no special meaning to the invented word, Eastman just liked the letter K). The Kodak was a plain box camera with a reel of paper-backed emulsion. The lens was a wide-angle affair, the shutter simplicity itself, and the printed pictures were circular. The pictures were lively snapshots (a new word in the vocabulary). Kodak’s now-notorious advertising slogan was “You press the button, we do the rest.” This was an appeal to the masses, not to sophisticated amateurs.

The camera was purchased for $25 with a 100-exposure reel, and when the photos had all been taken, the whole thing was returned to the factory for development of the pictures and reloading of the camera for a modest fee. In its second year, 1889, the Kodak carried its emulsion on a transparent nitrocellulose support, introducing film to photography and eliminating the need for the delicate stripping of the emulsion from the original paper base. A variety of slightly more complex folding Kodaks (cameras with bellows that allowed more precise focusing) were added to the amateur lineup of equipment by Eastman. The folders, as they were called, were popular into the 1940s.

George Eastman realized early on that there was no existing need for his cameras. He had to create a need. Therefore, he invested heavily in advertising from the beginning. One of Eastman’s prescient views was that women must be targeted, because women were the most likely recorders of family events and of their children’s lives. From the early, rather saucy Kodak Girl to the mothers tenderly recording their offspring, women were seen as the largest potential amateur market for Kodak products—both cameras and films—and were pictured constantly in Kodak advertisements.

One of Kodak’s most notable advertising campaigns was the series of Colorama pictures—enormous back-lit color transparencies, 18 × 60 feet—that hung high at the end of Grand Central Station in New York. The Colorama campaign extended from 1950 to 1990 and concluded when the station was renovated. The depictions featured family (or couple) activities, with the amateur photographer the focus of attention—either with a snapshot camera, like the Instamatic, first marketed in 1963, or with an 8 mm movie camera. The Kodak scenes were always ones of middle-class happiness and social activity, with the exception of a few dramatic NASA photographs such as Colorama #284, Earthrise from the Moon, 1967.

In Europe no marketer reached the populace with Eastman’s success, yet the most important technical camera advances in the early decades of the century would happen there. These were more sophisticated cameras than the simple Kodak, adopted mostly by professionals and advanced amateurs.

The New Miniature Cameras

In 1924 the Ermanox camera was put on the market in Europe. This radical new instrument was very small, and it could be hidden in a vest for surreptitious shooting or held at eye level for quick framing and shooting. The Ermanox had a maximum f/2 lens (meaning a lens opening one-half of its focal length, quite a wide aperture), and could thus photograph in low-light situations. All this was almost revolutionary, but unfortunately, for its future, the Ermanox did not handle roll film. The truly revolutionary camera came along a year later in 1925 when the Leica was invented by Oscar Barnack. The Leica had the diminutive size of the Ermanox and a wide aperture on its excellent Leitz lenses, but, more important, used a length of 35 mm motion picture film. This allowed the sequential shooting of up to 36 exposures, instead of the single image taken in the Ermanox. The impact on professional, as well as amateur, photography was profound. Henri Cartier-Bresson was the most notable early practitioner with the Leica, but thousands of others—professionals and serious amateurs—soon followed.

Closely following the Leica came the Rolleiflex (1928), another German machine and also what was then called a miniature camera, although its negatives were 6 × 6 cm, and the camera was a twin-lens reflex held at waist level (now we call this a medium-format camera). Many imitations of both types of cameras ensued, several made by Kodak, and then the mix was enriched by the Japanese single lens reflex (SLR) cameras that came on the market in the 1950s (the pioneering Nikon was first marketed in 1948). These cameras also took 35 mm roll film, but the viewing and focusing mechanism, instead of a rangefinder, was a mirror/pentaprism that was more easily mastered for focusing by most amateur photographers. The Japanese SLRs were also more competitive in the amateur marketplace (many Korean War vets had also come home with these cameras).

Continuously, photography was made more accessible to the amateur. Even those who could not buy the Leica, the Rolleiflex, or the Nikon were able to buy knock-offs made by Kodak or other manufacturers like Ansco. At the same time, film was improving for amateurs. For example, Verichrome film, a wider-latitude black and white film, was introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1931, and in 1935 the still-unequaled Kodachrome color transparency film was introduced. It was followed in 1942 by Kodacolor film (color negative film, making color prints). These materials were used by professionals, but also were accessible to amateurs.


In 1947 Edwin Land introduced his instant Polaroid camera system. Its film/paper pack, as soon as the exposure was made, was pulled through rollers that released the chemicals that would develop the print. In a matter of seconds, the 4 × 5 print could be peeled from its negative, fixed with a saturated pad provided with the film pack, and enjoyed. Land invited many professionals to test his system, thus assuring a professional acceptance of Polaroid, but he also marketed the camera to amateurs. In 1963, color Polaroid material was introduced, and in 1973 the SX-70, the camera that had the most impact on amateur photographers, was put on the market. This oddly shaped little camera spit out square color images that developed right before the eyes, and it became a popular sensation. Although its technical problems (color balance and color stability) were formidable, the SX-70 was adopted by many.

As it had done with many other technical advances, Kodak came out with its own version of this camera, but this time Polaroid struck back in 1976 with a lawsuit against Kodak, suing for copyright infringement of their instant cameras. In 1985 Polaroid won their case against Kodak, and in 1991 Kodak paid Polaroid hundreds of millions. Such a big win did not save Polaroid, however, because the instantaneous possibilities of digital photography would make Polaroid’s niche of instant imagery obsolete. In 2001 Polaroid filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and the company’s heyday seemed to be over. Ansco, an earlier competitor of Kodak, had also won a multimillion dollar suit against the Yellow Giant, as Kodak has been called, in 1914. Kodak was able to absorb these challenges, and although it has had its ups and downs, Kodak now survives in better condition than the now-defunct Ansco or the hobbled Polaroid companies. Kodak, after abandoning the serious camera market when the Japanese had gained dominance, has now re-entered this arena with its digital cameras even as its film and paper markets diminish.

Photography without Film

Digital, or film-less, photography has now gained dominance over film photography, especially in the amateur market. In 1981 Sony pioneered the genre with its Mavica camera, but without the supporting environment of Photoshop (first marketed in 1989), computers in every home, and high-quality digital printers, it took many years for digital photography to really catch on. In 2003, however, digital camera sales surpassed film cameras, according to the Photo Marketing Association. Many photo labs who have not accommodated the digital world have succumbed to this new regime. Kodak announced in 2005 that it would cease production of its black and white printing papers, further sealing the fate of darkroom photography. Meanwhile, the new giants in photographic printing, like Epson and Hewlett-Packard, are thriving in this new world.

Amateur photography for the masses can be seen as a positive, democratic social phenomenon—making everyone a visual recorder of his own life—but likewise it is a successful, capitalist business phenomenon. Without the lure of fortunes to be made from millions of customers, it is unlikely that the businesses that have made such an impact would have entered the field.

Advertising Photography

Even as Kodak was using advertising to create a market for its cameras, films, and papers, the advertising industry itself turned increasingly to photography during the 20th century. Newspapers as well as the great number of popular magazines (especially in the pre-TV era) were the carriers of most of this print advertising.

The purpose of advertising was and is to create a desire for the new consumer products available to the public (sometimes advertisers call this education), and then, of course, to sell the products. Although drawings and painted illustrations were featured predominantly in ads during the early part of the century, gradually photography took over, and by the end of the 20th century virtually all visual advertising was photographic. Today, in the 21st century, digital photography has introduced the kinds of fantastic effects impossible in straight photography, further enriching the possibilities of advertising photography.

While half-tone reproductions of photographs had been possible since the 1880s, and magazines and newspapers regularly used them in their editorial pages, before World War I advertisers seldom did. The great shift happened in the 1920s and 1930s. By the mid-1930s photographs at least equaled hand-drawn illustrations in print advertising, and have only gained greater dominance since then.

Before WWI advertisements were generally reliant on copy to sell their products, which were often quite lengthy texts by modern standards. But after the war, a new attitude took hold. Some hopeful idealists saw advertising clients as modern society’s new art patrons, the new Medicis, as it were, and felt there was no reason why the very best artistic talent should not be used in advertising. The advertising agencies hired art directors to manage this visual side of the work, and in 1920, The New York Art Directors’ Club was founded to encourage advertising art by holding exhibitions and lectures.

European Modernism/American Realism

In Europe, which had been most disrupted by WWI, new artistic styles like Cubism, photomontage, and even photograms were translated to successful effect in photographic advertisements and posters. In America advertising photographers generally practiced a more realistic style, albeit often with dramatic lighting and extreme close-ups. Edward Steichen was the most prominent example of these new advertising artist-photographers.

In the first decade of the century, Steichen had been a famous Pictorialist photographer, partner, and talent scout for art photography impresario Alfred Stieglitz. But after the War (in which he served as an aerial photographer), Steichen changed directions. When he returned to the United States in 1923 he began a career not only as a successful fashion and portrait photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair, but he opened his own commercial studio to produce advertising photographs as well. Stieglitz disdained his new direction, maintaining that artistic and commercial work were irreconcilable, but Steichen made a great success of both. The two men never reconciled. Later, of course, Steichen served again as a military photographer in World War II, and then in 1947 became the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where his most famous exhibition was the vastly popular The Family of Man in 1955.

Other prominent early advertising photographers in the United States (whose work is now held by art museums) include Paul Outerbridge, Gordon Coster, John F. Collins, Alfred Cheney Johnston, Victor Keppler, Lejaren à Hiller, Nickolas Muray, Anton Bruehl, and Grancel Fitz.

The question whether the new patrons of art, the advertising clients, actually did encourage true Art is one that cannot be answered in the affirmative unless the pictures are removed from their intended purpose and somewhat cynically understood. Although Steichen may have created a fresh and striking image of cross-lighted Camel cigarettes and Fitz a wonderful view of sophisticates observing a new Chevrolet, the overriding ethos of the pictures was to sell the cigarettes and the cars.

And for that, no amount of glamorizing or fantasy was too much; in other words, these pictures did not partake of the highest modernist photographic value, truth. The people seem always content and upper class (there is never any sign of the Depression), and nondescript products are rendered as stunning, abstract, modernist designs or else not rendered at all, as in the case of the Chevrolet ad, where class atmosphere was the only thing pictured.

This truth about advertising photography—that it does not necessarily describe the truth—is understood now by one and all (including savvy consumers), yet commercial photography has continued to attract talent, and enormous amounts of money continually change hands in this field. After mid-century, any number of artistic giants gained prominence in advertising (Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Bert Stern, Henry Wolf, and Hiro, among others) as advertising gave a kind of stylistic license to photographic exploration. Especially as large photographs came to dominate advertisements late in the century, the sheer impact of the photographs demonstrate the creativity alive within advertising.

How well has photographic advertising worked? There is no truly objective answer to this question, but suffice it to say that increased desire for and consumption of goods bears tribute to the effectiveness of vivid and alluring advertising photography. Corporations with a product to sell, and brands looking for image identity, have continued to use photography to sell themselves to the public, continuing to believe in the 1930 ad copy by the Photographers’ Association of America, headlined: “SELL MORE … with photographs.”

Journalistic/Editorial Photography

As advertising photography has opened a Pandora’s box of desires for the products consumers can buy, so has editorial photography opened the treasure chest of information the public can know and know in a visual, not just verbal, sense.

People love pictures. Text without pictures is boring to the mass audience. Drawings and engravings had been used in newspapers and magazines for as long as the technology had allowed, and in 1880 that technology expanded to include half-tone reproductions of photographs (the mechanical rendering of continuous tone photographs into larger and smaller dots of ink on the page).

Photographs soon became a staple of the daily paper. The development of the wirephoto, scanned photographs beamed across telegraph and telephone wires, also sped up the worldwide dissemination of news pictures. The Associated Press pioneered its AP Wirephoto, sending pictures to its member networks beginning on January 1, 1935. In terms of quality, rotogravure sections (higher quality printing devoted solely to pictures) were a feature of Sunday papers up until the introduction of the Sunday supplement magazines, mostly in color, that are familiar today.

In the last quarter of the century most newspapers made the transition to color printing for photographs on their news pages, led by the successful and colorful USA Today. Even the staid The New York Times made the transition to front page color in the 1990s. The Wall Street Journal remains the only holdout among the major papers.

The Magazines

As important as newspapers were, the greatest mass vehicles for photographs in the 20th century were actually the picture magazines. With higher quality printing and coated paper, and less need for daily, topical news, the magazines had the liberty to present more features and greater variety in their coverage. And in a world before television, the weekly magazines were literally readers’ windows on the world, eagerly devoured and subtly creating a common visual culture.

Magazines were a staple of early 20th century culture, as Berenice Abbott’s 1935 photograph of a newsstand demonstrates, but covers and major illustrations were usually drawn or painted. Fashion and celebrity photographs, to be sure, were already being published in magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair, but when Life came on the scene on November 23, 1936, America had its first completely photographic general interest magazine.

LIFE and the Picture Magazines

America did not lead the way, however, with picture magazines. The pioneer had been the Illustrated London News, and in the 1920s, the European picture magazines, particularly the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (BIZ), and in France, Vu, took the lead. So when publisher Henry Luce and his favorite photographer, Margaret Bourke-White, went on a European pilgrimage, they were looking for already existing models for the yet-to-be-born Life.

The prospectus for Life spelled out the challenge, and especially the visual emphasis, the new magazine would have:

To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things—machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work—his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.

To see, above all, was the mission of Life. At its initial newsstand price of 10 cents, it was irresistible. The magazine encouraged many superb photojournalists, such as W. Eugene Smith, especially in the development of photo-essays, whole stories that would be told visually, in contrast to the single images for which most newspaper photographers were known.

When Life was released on November 23, 1936, it began a hugely popular run that did not pause until 1972, when the impact of television (including lost advertising revenue for the magazine, as well as diminished interest in a weekly news magazine) caused Life’s demise. Although it has had monthly, annual, and semi-annual format revivals since then, Life has never regained the central position in American culture that it had between 1936 and 1972. Another picture magazine that met a similar fate was Look, also closing down in 1972.

In the era of television, beginning mid-century, the general interest magazines like Life and Look lost their grip on the imagination of the public. But since then, magazines that appeal to special interests, particular lifestyles, and celebrity culture have continued strong in the market, all of them featuring photography (now exclusively in color) in their pages. Today’s magazine giants include the fashion magazines like Vogue, the lifestyle magazines like Martha Stewart Living, and the celebrity magazines like People. Any number of more specialized publications fit niche readerships: men, women, hobbyists, and enthusiasts of all kinds.

War Coverage

The news in the 20th century was as visual as it was textual. Every 20th century war—from World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, to Desert Storm, and many smaller, often guerilla, wars in between—was covered photographically. Some well-known journalists such as W. Eugene Smith, David Douglas Duncan, Larry Burrows, and Susan Meiselas, for example, have become best known for their war photography. Life magazine came on the scene in late 1936 with World War II on the not-too-distant horizon. Life’s coverage of that war in both the European and Asian theaters was thorough, and many of the visual icons we all remember from WWII were first published there. Excellent war coverage was a strong element of Life’s success.

The kind of hopeful early idealism that held that if people could just see the devastation of war, they would stop it (W. Eugene Smith, for one, hoped his photographs would have this effect). Sadly this has not been realized. The thrill of violence in picture form continues as a staple, and it seems to titillate as much as it horrifies the public. Nevertheless, censorship of war pictures is currently a strategy of the U.S. government and its coalition forces fighting in the present Iraq conflict. In this war initial policies forbade press pictures of draped coffins, so that readers at home would not think of the inevitable—death—in relation to this war. Such was the government’s thinking, but it seems that the public has become well aware of the price of death that American soldiers are paying, as numbers of casualties and deaths have risen and support for the war has declined. In another effort to control journalists and photographers in the current Iraq conflict, the policy of embedding them within defined military companies has limited their freedom to look for their own news.

Also, no end of trouble has ensued from the outrageous amateur images that a few American soldiers made of their torture of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The scandals that erupted when the pictures became public have borne witness to the continuing power of photographs, whether professional or amateur.

Other News and Technologies

Sports events and celebrities, natural disasters, great artists, entertainers, fashion, and food were also made visible to the daily reader of the paper or the weekly reader of the news magazines in the 20th century. Many photojournalists in the first half of the century continued to use their Speed Graphics when photographing news or celebrity features, but gradually the 35 mm camera became standard equipment after mid-century, and photographers armed themselves also with repeatable electronic flash units instead of the one-use flashbulbs that earlier had been standard.

The electronic flash was invented by Professor Harold Edgerton at MIT in 1931, but it took some years for the handy, small units that fit onto a camera hot shoe to become common. These automatic units (with a sensor that could shut off the brief flash when the right amount of light was received by the subject) were pioneered by companies like Vivitar in the late 1970s with its Vivitar 283 and the development of its Thyristor light-measuring circuitry.

Today, most photojournalists have quit their film cameras in favor of digital cameras gaining added speed from sending their pictures back to editors via the Internet, with no delays for film shipment, film development, or printing. Because their cameras record everything in color (but that color can be transformed to black and white with the click of a computer button), color is generally used in magazines and on the front pages of newspapers, while black and white may be used inside. Color, it is thought, is more appealing to the public, with an added level of realism.

National Geographic

The continual success of fashion and celebrity magazines throughout the 20th century has been noted already, and another, in a class by itself, was the monthly National Geographic. This magazine showed pictures of far-away locales and cultures that were exotic to the readers, and brought them to life in vivid, beautifully printed color photographs. Less dependent on topical stories than the weekly Life, it positioned itself as an educational journal of geography, and its subscribers as members of the National Geographic Society. This, and the increasingly lavish color printing of its photographs, has ensured its viability.

The National Geographic had printed photographs since 1895, and was an early pioneer of color, reproducing more than 1500 autochromes (an early type of color transparency) between 1921 and 1930. In 1936, when Kodachrome film became available, it became the standard film for the eventually all-color magazine.

National Geographic has continued to evolve in the kinds of stories it presents, as the exotic world seems to have been thoroughly explored. More stories today are about explorations of science, weather, and medicine, but the coverage is always strongly photographic, and the magazine continues to be hugely popular.

Printed photographs thus have played an enormous role in educating and informing the 20th century public, as well as entertaining them.

Documentary Photography

There is a final branch of photography directly related to popular social life, and that is documentary photography. Documentary projects generally focus on social reality and human life, informed by the strong feelings of the photographer. They are photographs with a point of view, focusing not just on events, but on the daily texture of life of their subjects. Many reformist projects in the earlier years of the 20th century were documents of disadvantaged social groups in dire straits, poverty, and cultural alienation. But projects toward the end of the century have tended to be more personal to the photographers, sometimes documenting the photographer’s own social group and concerns.

Reformist Photography

While documentary projects have not always appealed to a mass audience, they have played an important role in changing perceptions and sometimes even in influencing legislation. Lewis Hine said about his photographic efforts that he wanted to show both what should be appreciated but also what should be changed. And indeed, his documentary coverage of child labor in the first decade of the century was effective evidence used in the development of child labor laws in the United States. And his later documentary coverage of workers constructing the Empire State Building (1930-1931) turned these little-known men into 20th century heroes. Hine followed Jacob Riis, who similarly tried to reveal the deplorable living conditions in the tenements of New York in his book, How the Other Half Lives(1890).

Roy Stryker, director of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Depression, organized a federally subsidized documentary project (1935-1943) of a scope never seen before, or since. Stryker was proud to state that the FSA project introduced Americans to America. His large staff of photographers were sent around the country to record the plight of Americans suffering from the Depression, and the pictures were distributed to many papers and magazines, including Life. There, in the magazine pages, mostly middle-class readers were brought face to face with the kind of hardships suffered by less visible and less privileged Americans. While the reformist purpose of the photographs was less evident than their overwhelming appeal to human sympathy, the project as a whole was a public relations effort of an agency of President Franklin Roosevelt’s government, an effort to popularize his agricultural reforms. Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, and Arthur Rothstein were a few of the important photographers employed by the FSA. These photographs are now in the Library of Congress, and many have entered the iconic imaginations of Americans.

Other impressive 20th century documentary projects include Edward S. Curtis’ massive documentation of the North American Indian, which was published in 20 volumes between 1907 and 1930, and in Germany a rather similar project by August Sander, conceived after World War I, which he called “People of the Twentieth Century,” that he intended to publish in a series of 45 portfolios. Because of Nazi persecution much of Sander’s work was destroyed, but some of his pictures had been in circulation and a large compendium, titled August Sander: Citizens of the Twentieth Century, was published in 1986. Sander photographed with an almost clinical neutrality. He believed the physiognomy of his subjects, posed very simply, would tell the story.

Sander’s work has influenced many documentarists whose work is similarly evasive or neutral in terms of viewpoint; for example, Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street (1970), rather affect-less pictures of the so-called “most crowded block” in New York. Yet other strong documentarists have continued in the sympathetic, reformist mode: Sebastião Salgado in his mammoth study Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age (1997); Eugene Richards in Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue(1994); Mary Ellen Mark in her Streetwise (1988), and Donna Ferrato in Living With the Enemy (1991). However, tendency toward more neutral viewpoints (as in Davidson) or more personal subjects has been the late-century trend.

The Family of Man

In mid-century, in the midst of the Cold War, Edward Steichen conceived and developed a hugely popular exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art called The Family of Man. The show was visited by thousands in New York in 1955 and by millions more at its many tour sites around the world (the international tour was sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency).

Steichen wanted to create an exhibition about the similarity of human culture all over the world, and to do so he solicited photographs worldwide, which he edited down to certain themes he had pre-determined. Most of the 500+ prints that ended up in the show were pictures in the documentary tradition. Unfortunately for the individual visions of the participating photographers, their own viewpoints were diminished in Steichen’s grand scheme, based on his editorial vision and selection of single images. Nevertheless, most viewers seemed to appreciate Steichen’s vision of the one-ness of mankind, and documentary photography (even though this was not a documentary project per se) was showcased in a very public, international forum. The Family of Man catalog is still in print and popular, 50 years after the exhibition.

Personal Documentary

After mid-century, and after the uneasy critical reception of The Family of Man (despite its popular success), much documentary style photography turned in a more personal direction, and has been less appreciated (or even accessible) by the general public. The first notable project in this direction was Swiss photographer Robert Frank’s The Americans (published in France in 1958 and in the United States in 1959). Not really a sympathetic portrait of Americans, not even a credible survey of American life, the book was a personal, melancholy (if not downright negative) view of Frank’s adopted land. Critical reception was mixed, but in hindsight one can see the importance Frank’s book had in turning documentary away from reformist or celebratory modes.

Several photographers began exploring their own social groups late in the century. For example, Bill Owens, in his Suburbia (1973) documented the very place where he lived with his young family, in suburban California, and British photographer Tony Ray-Jones offered a light-hearted spoof of his fellow countrymen at play, in A Day Off (1974). Larry Clark documented the drug culture he inhabited in Tulsa (1971). More recent examples of the genre include Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home (1992), Sally Mann’s Immediate Family (1992), and even Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986).

Later, even more personal documentaries have given up, one might say, any kind of connection with a wide public, so they don’t need to be mentioned here. Such pictures are generally exhibited in art galleries and published by specialized art publishers and don’t reach a broad magazine or newspaper audience. And the general trend, toward the personal instead of the public and has made documentary less engaging to the general public. However, in its glory days in the first half of the 20th century documentary played a socially significant role in the culture by introducing its viewers to fellow humans whose lives they would have never glimpsed otherwise.