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

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

  • 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 film.’ From the work of John Grierson and Allen Funt’s Candid Camera to Michael Apted’s 7 Up and works by Gillian Wearing, Cousins charts the development of documentary film through the decades.

  • Documents for the world

    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 of whose work is being shown in New Documentary Forms, one of a series of new displays at Tate Modern, reveal an increasing political motivation behind their projects. Here, the curator introduces the show, while two of the photographers talk about their images

  • 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 exhibition devoted to photography, which includes an axis of the most highly acclaimed American and German image-makers of the past century. Carter Ratcliff looks at the evolution of a photographic practice that occupies the troublesome borderland between hard fact and enigmatic contingency.

Documentary photography at Tate

  • Tate Modern

    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

    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 journey of British photography

  • Tate Britain

    Another London

    27 Jul – 18 Sep 2012

    Another London: Tate Britain exhibition of 150 classic twentieth-century photographs