Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936 The Sir Elton John Photographic Collection

Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother 1936 The Sir Elton John Photographic Collection 

The documentary photographer is trying to speak to you in terms of everyone’s experience.
Dorothea Lange, 1934

During the 1930s, photographers refined the formula for what we now know as social documentary. To compel the public to look at less palatable aspects of contemporary society they married creative manipulation with an appeal to viewers’ trust in the photograph as an objective visual record. This combination proved itself uniquely capable of eliciting empathy but is fraught with artistic and ethical complexity. These works highlight the vexed position of documentary photographs: historical evidence, instruments of propaganda and, latterly, works of art.

The development of new technology – particularly the portable camera and roll film – allowed photographers to capture spontaneous moments unfolding in the everyday world. Taking viewers into neighbourhoods where they might never set foot, street photography and documentary opened up new perspectives socially as much as visually.