Art Term

Documentary photography

Documentary photography is a style of photography that provides a straightforward and accurate representation of people, places, objects and events, and is often used in reportage

Nan Goldin, ‘Greer and Robert on the bed, NYC’ 1982
Nan Goldin
Greer and Robert on the bed, NYC 1982
© Nan Goldin

Until the mid-twentieth century, documentary photography was a vital way of bearing witness to world events: from shoot-from-the-hip photographs of the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa to the considered portraits of poor farmers by Dorothea Lange.

social documentary photography

During this period the tradition of documentary photography was reinvented. Artists began to see the camera as a tool for social change, using it to shed light on injustice, inequality and the sidelined aspects of society. However, social documentary photography is often a subjective art and not all photographers in this category intend their images to aid the bettering of society.

Lisette Model’s close-up views of people on the streets of Paris, New York and the French Riviera were often taken without the subjects’ awareness or permission. From 1949 onwards, Robert Frank started to take pictures which reflected his search for artistic freedom, shooting stories which revolutionised the expressive potential of the medium.

Contemporary artists

With the rise of television and digital technology there was less demand for published photography and it began to go into decline but has since found a new audience in art galleries and museums. Putting these works in a gallery setting places the work at the centre of a debate surrounding the power of photography and the photographer’s motivations. Their work raises questions of the documentary role of the photograph today and offers alternative ways of seeing, recording and understanding the events and situations that shape the world in which we live.

Documenting war

Documenting society and cities

Explore this term

Tate Etc

The aesthetics of documentary

Mark Cousins

‘Documentary is intrinsically aesthetic,’ argues Mark Cousins, ‘it is as much about shots and cuts, structure and rhythm as fiction ...

Tate Etc

Documents for the world: Tate Modern New Displays I

Simon Baker , Boris Mikhailov and Mitch Epstein

The documentary photograph has a history as old as the art itself, but recent practitioners from across the globe, some ...


Exposed: Sandra Phillips on the Unseen Photographer

Curator of Photography Sandra Phillips talks about the evolution of documentary photography and how the invention of ‘dry plate’ negatives ...


Cruel and tender

Carter Ratcliff

What is the place of documentary photography in art? This is the central question raised by Tate's first major ...

Related Terms and Concepts

Documentary photography at Tate

Tate Modern Exhibition

Conflict, Time, Photography

26 Nov 2014 – 15 Mar 2015
An exhibition exploring the relationship between photography and sites of conflict over time at Tate Modern, opens November 2014
Tate Britain Exhibition

How We Are: Photographing Britain

22 May – 2 Sep 2007
How We Are: Photographing Britain at Tate Britain 22 May 2007 – 2 September 2007 takes a unique look at the ...

BP Spotlight: Chris Killip

Tate Britain display of the work of artist Chris Killip Monday 21 April – Sunday 28 September 2014
Tate Britain Exhibition

Another London

27 Jul – 18 Sep 2012
Another London: Tate Britain exhibition of 150 classic twentieth-century photographs