The 1930s and 1940s can be viewed as the era in which documentary was first defined and given recognition as an independent area of production. Perhaps the most prominent manifestation of documentary was the film movement of the 1930s, led by the producer and filmmaker John Grierson (1898–1972), who had coined the term ‘documentary’ in this context.
Grierson defined documentary as ‘the creative use of actuality’. His film Drifters (1929) was a significant departure from anything previously made by the British film industry. It was influenced by Modernist film practice, yet attempted to reintroduce social commentary into avant-garde film. As a producer, working for the official film units of the Empire Marketing Board and the General Post Office, Grierson brought together an extraordinary group of practitioners from various disciplines (among them Humphrey Jennings, Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden) and persuaded important figures from overseas (including Robert Flaherty and Alberto Cavalcanti) to work in Britain, giving the movement an international dimension.
William Coldstream, troubled by the inaccessibility of avant-garde painting to a general audience, turned briefly to filmmaking in 1934, working at the GPO Film Unit. When he returned to painting, it was with a new commitment to observational realism inspired by Grierson’s ideals. Coldstream also participated in Mass-Observation, the documentary project founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson with Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings. Mass-Observation sought to record working-class lives and experiences, but it was not a straightforward exercise; complex and sometimes contradictory in its motives and methods, it attracted artists on both sides of the Realist versus Surrealist debate.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, many of the artists and practitioners who had been involved in documentary projects during the 1930s were co-opted into official bodies for the creation of propaganda. Bill Brandt, Henry Moore and Humphrey Jennings created works in diverse media that defined the Home Front.