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The Documentary Impulse

Thoughts on Stuart Franklin’s book, The Documentary Impulse

Edward Steichen, Self-Portrait
Man with a Glove, Tiziano

Photography vs Painting

Stuart Franklin believes that there isn’t much difference between photography and painting. The need to capture an event, i.e. to transfer an image onto a flat surface, is common to both disciplines. What he seems to overlook is how that need is triggered by the respective crafts.

A painter draws from imagination and memory — unless the painting is based on a staged act — whereas the photographer captures the reality as is, at once.

Of course, even the photographer can set up the photograph based on a staged set. I would assume that if that’s the case, then it’s not documentary photography anymore. Franklin doesn’t seem to agree:

Documentary is not something fixed in a moment, but a creative process full of contradictions about photography, documentary, reality, and truth.

(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, actually, the facts of the matter.

The partial understanding of the differences between photography and painting by Stuart Franklin becomes quite obvious in the following sentence:

The relationship between painting and photography is not as distant as it might seem for several reasons: the links to the camera obscura, the competing attempts at realism in its many guises, the duplicating of genres, and theatricality.

Photography and painting both share a desire to mimic reality, but if Franklin had a better understanding of the reasons behind that desire he would make no mention of such facts, or at least not for the reasons he claims.

And yet, the most confusing part of Franklin’s theory is the idea of truth in documentary photography. It seems that for him, the best condition for a photographer to capture something truthful is not the sheer reproduction of reality, but rather the mise en scène of a fantasy that lives in the photographer’s mind. Again, Franklin is obsessed with a romantic idea of art. Most likely, he never got past the 19th century’s mindset of painting. For him, both photography and painting strive for a depiction of reality and both have to rely on the artist’s imagination in order to create something pure and true, which is another topic altogether on its own.

What is even more confusing is that for him, approaching photography through the methodology he describes can truly exempt the photographer from propaganda and advertising, which to me is simply an oxymoron. How, something created following the author’s fantasy, can be closer to the actual event than the photographic medium when it is used to capture the reality at the very moment the event is happening?

Granted, the photograph is always a lie in that it doesn’t tell you anything from a narrative standpoint. It can only describe what something looks like, “to a camera”, to paraphrase Winogrand. But this lie I’m willing to accept, or at least discuss, over to any “artistic” interpretation of what the event might have looked like according to the author’s imagination. It’s far easier to set up propaganda through the power of the staged spectacle than the brutal exposure of a factual document.


When it comes to idealization (which Franklin calls Essentialism) he points out how following a preconceived idea of the subject matter can take the photographer to a denial of the reality which is thus traded for an idealization of what it once was (or is, in the photographer’s mind). This is an important point, a concern already expressed by Susan Sontag which I’m glad, and quite frankly at this point surprised, to read in Franklin’s book.

But I don’t agree with Franklin in regard to the criticism of Salgado’s photographs being too beautiful and over-composed. Franklin thinks that a nicely composed image doesn’t add any particular intention to the idea expressed, and we’re both on the same page here. But the problem with the Salgado critique is that if the image portrays an idea of what once was perfect, a perfect render can only reinforce that concept. In other words, photography, in this case, is used only to show what we lost, what it once was. Even more so in the case of a culture that went extinct, that it is not here anymore for us to document (or not as true anymore to its original nature), hence a case where the intervention of the photographer may be more legitimate.

Sebastião Salgado

In a sense, with the Salgado critique, it almost sounds as if Franklin is now rejecting his own assumption of photography that lives mainly in the photographer’s mind.

Despite Franklin’s belief that a documentary photograph can be engendered by pure imagination, he doesn’t save Ansel Adams from his critique. I say despite this, as we all know how Ansel Adams used to finish the photograph in the darkroom. A critique that makes absolute sense and which is, as with the refusal of a preconceived approach, a foundation of genuine documentary photography. What Franklin tells us about Ansel Adams is that he wanted to save Yosemite from mass tourism to preserve its true, genuine landscape, though Adams seems to forget that Yosemite’s landscape had been shaped by natives way before the claim he made of a landscape that needed to be saved to preserve its pure, untouched form. Thus, what Franklin underscores here is the responsibility of the photographer to deal with the entirety of the subject matter (in the Ansel Adams case, the land seems to be presented as a virgin, immaculate, landscape whereas that would appear to be far from the truth). By neglecting it, the photographer is denying the reality itself.


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