Early Social Documentary

To Do

What moved or motivated the photographer to get hold of his or her camera and get involved?
Where did it start? What was its purpose?

Many of the early practitioners of documentary photography remain quite famous today within visual culture for the way that they contributed to the development of film and cinema.

Early Social Documentary

Note was not ‘objective’ – long shutter speeds meant was empty. Often moved objects for better effects.

United States

Alfred Steiglitz

Roger Fenton

Matthew Brady

Jacob Riis

Lewis Hine

The FSA project

In 1935 the Farm Security Administration (FSA) project was set up to document the experiences of peasant farmers and sharecroppers and rural poverty in the Mid West of America. Led by Roy Stryker and funded by the US government, the project’s team of 17 photographers produced some 80,000 images from 1935–44. Some of these images were made available via newspapers and magazines to a target audience of middle-class city dwellers to help justify the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal, an economic programme designed to transform America’s economy in the wake of the Great Depression.

The FSA project saw the social documentary genre, with its enquiring insight, recording for posterity and mission to elicit change, begin to cross over into photojournalism or editorial photography. The paid commissioned photographer began to emerge, as opposed to the independent and individually motivated social documentarist. The emerging genre photographer may have had an altruistic motivation but needed the pay to make it happen.

Prominent amongst the FSA project’s image-makers were Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks, the first black American photographer to work for Life magazine.


Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–79)

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853–1941)

 Henry Peach Robinson (1830–1901)


Henri Cartier Bresson

Magnum Photos

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