Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The New Documentary Tradition in Photography

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, American photographers reinvented the documentary tradition once again. This time the subjective tradition that had emerged in the 1940s and early ’50s became a kaleidoscope through which photographers like Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander looked at the world. Trained in the “astonish-me” aesthetics of Alexey Brodovitch’s Design Workshops, Winogrand (1928–1984) claimed to make photographs in order “to see what the world looks like in photographs.” Although he possessed a particular fondness for visual puns and tilted exposures, his images belie a mastery of the 35mm camera and a seriously innovative point of view. His formal acuity is undeniable in El Morocco (1992.5107), in which the photograph’s slapdash style mirrors the thrill of the moment as a woman whirls around a dance floor. Such technical sophistication abetted an absurdist appreciation for the visual world, as is evident in works like Untitled (1994.107), where the disposition of three figures on the street enact an unspoken “Waiting for Godot” scenario. As these images and others prove, the significance of Winogrand’s chance observations of daily life delved far beneath their whimsical surface appearance.

Diane Arbus (1923–1971) was another 1960s photographer whose work deepened rapidly after its initial impact. Her training with Lisette Model encouraged her to develop her naturally perspicacious view of the world to produce photographic portraits with a disarming psychological frankness. While Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. (2001.474) may at first seem to portray a knobby-kneed kid goofing off in the park, he quickly becomes a cipher for the barely contained discomfiture that branded the country as it embarked on another war in Southeast Asia and picked at the frayed edges of 1950s conformist culture. Even a pillar of that culture, such as Mrs. T. Charlton Henry (2001.399), seems to bristle against the surface of Arbus’ image of her, revealing Arbus’ uncanny ability to evoke without overwhelming either her subject or her time.

The third in a trio of photographers that redefined social documentary photography in the 1960s was Lee Friedlander (born 1934). While Winogrand constructed existential situations with his camera and Arbus analyzed the inhabitants of the era with her lens, Friedlander sought to understand his era by examining society’s cultural furniture. In Nashville (1995.168.2), the television becomes a surrogate for humanity, dramatizing the unsettling idea that all experience—even our sense of self—is dwarfed by the power of media. Friedlander also inserted himself into his photographs using shadows and reflections, as in Colorado (1993.360), in effect transforming a street photograph into a self-portrait that attempts to ferret out the significance of individuality within the flotsam and jetsam of an increasingly mediated world.

While these photographers imaged the “social landscape” of America in the 1960s, others like Robert Adams (born 1937) addressed the actual outdoor landscape. In works such as Outdoor Theater, Colorado Springs (1971.531.6), mankind’s incursion into the natural world becomes a blatant threat to the integrity of the nation’s natural resources—a dangerous situation not because it is a deliberate campaign of destruction but because it is the product of developmental forces (such as the popularity of drive-in movies) that, if left unfettered, will envelop everything in their path. Adams’ work was included in a seminal 1975 exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester entitled New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, along with other contemporary landscape photographers including Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Stephen Shore. Training his lens on the topography of suburbia, Shore (born 1947) often worked in color, which punctuated his scrutiny of the area perfectly (2003.452).

Another great innovator in color documentary photography is William Eggleston (born 1939) (1991.1271), who by the mid-’60s had virtually abandoned black-and-white photography. Eggleston is one of the few photographers to have overcome the problem inherent in color photography, which curator John Szarkowski described in the introduction to the photographer’s debut exhibition in 1976: “Outside the studio … color has induced timidity and an avoidance of those varieties of meaning that are not in the narrowest sense aesthetic. Most color photography, in short, has been either formless or pretty. In the first case the meanings of color have been ignored; in the second they have been considered at the expense of allusive meanings. While editing directly from life, photographers have found it too difficult to see simultaneously both the blue and the sky.” By allowing the contemporary world’s colors to speak for the character and flavor of contemporary life—instead of enhancing them so they become saturated blocks of designer hues—photographers like Eggleston and Shore have succeeded in conveying the atmosphere of their subjects photographically, making their works among the most incisive in contemporary art.