Tate Liverpool Fourth floor galleries
3 February – 23 April 2006
The exhibition charts the development of documentary and features work by artists and practitioners such as John Grierson, William Coldstream, Humphrey Spender, Bill Brandt, John Bratby, Lucian Freud, Martin Parr, Isaac Julien, Jeremy Deller, Tactia Dean and Gillian Wearing. It is divided into four chronological sections spanning the greater part of the last century. These sections question the nature, extent and definition of documentary. Although the focus is on fine art, film and photography, the exhibition also covers television documentary and docudrama, reality TV, poetry and literature, sociology and social anthropology.
The term ‘documentary’ is far from straightforward or ‘neutral’ and its influence on visual culture has been complex and profound. Britain pioneered the development of the documentary form; the filmmaker and producer John Grierson, who coined the term and is widely regarded as the father of documentary, defined documentary as ‘the creative use of actuality’. Artists have been involved in the development of documentary practice from the very beginning, and this in turn has had a significant impact upon the visual arts in Britain.
Because of the strength of the documentary tradition in Britain, the exhibition has a national bias, focusing on artists, filmmakers, sociologists, writers and their associates working in this country. Since much of the work addresses national identity, the representation of British society and the construction of a national culture and self-image, a subsidiary theme is the portrayal of Britain and Britishness. National identity was a key concern of early documentary practitioners, including Grierson, but also of many later artists and filmmakers whose work has a bearing in this field.
Documentary continues to be an area where new forms or structures are created, such as the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach. In turn these inspire and transform the language employed by artists, who adapt these techniques to their own ends. This groundbreaking exhibition presents documentary realism as a defining influence on visual culture in Britain, both an established form for artists to respond against but also an area of radical innovation in its own right.