If documentary photography is inherently a means of capturing the present, it can also, inevitably, make us think of images of the past; of black-and-white pictures showing real people and real places, aspects of everyday life deemed interesting enough to have been ‘documented’ by someone at that point in time. It’s a difficult term to pin down, often overlapping with other, more defined areas of photography, such as reportage or photo-journalism, street, architectural and landscape photography, even portraiture. In its variety, however, lies its strength.
On the Tate’s website, documentary photography is defined as the “straightforward and accurate representation of people, places, objects and events” before a brief history of the medium notes how television, digital technology, and a lessening in demand for published images, has led to its decline – though it has “since found a new audience in art galleries and museums”. Clearly technological change has altered how we both make and see pictures, but has the need to document our daily lives really lost its urgency? And if so, are we still documenting the present effectively – have we neglected capturing today in our obsession with the past?
There have certainly been warning signs about its future, but documentary photographers’ interest in recording, preserving and sharing images of what it is to be alive ‘now’ is as real as it ever was, even if the ways in which we encounter these kinds of images has transformed in recent years. In fact, a wide range of collectives, small presses and magazines, curated Instagram accounts, websites and even gallery spaces have begun to establish themselves as part of a new climate in the UK that is enabling contemporary photographers to document the now, while many photographers are challenging the traditional notions of the genre itself.
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