Home » Early Development

The beginnings of British documentary photography.


Topographic and Fine Art combine to make permanent documentary records during the early days of photography.

It is generally accepted that the first photographs to be accorded the status of “record” and hence “documentary” were made during the 1850’s and 1870’s. Photographers were on the move and proactive in making large format pictures of the spoils of the Empire. Artists such as Francis Firth were photographing and producing albums in Egypt and Asia Minor. In India Samuel Bourne made an early record of the landscape and John Thomson captured a pre industrialised China. In Scotland photographer George Washington Wilson made fine landscape images, all of this work found commercial success and most of it has been archived.
1877 saw the publication of “Street Life”. This was a serious work of Social Documentary Photography by Adolphe Smith and John Thomson which depicted life on the streets for the poorest of inhabitants. This ultimately lead to the creation of Barnardo’s, the famous children’s charity, as its founder Thomas John Barnardo had taken up the pursuit of photography to make a record and arouse sympathy amongst the public for the plight of the poor and vulnerable. Here then we see the use of photography as a tool for social change and the foundation of what has become documentary, and more sublimely, concerned photography.

For further reading on this vast historical topic follow these links, https://www.theartstory.org/movement/documentary-photography/history-and-concepts/ and https://www.loc.gov/collections/fenton-crimean-war-photographs/about-this-collection/ and https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/archive/collections/photographs/ You will have at your fingertips 100 years plus of historic information and wonderful photographs to look at.

See also this link  https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/edph/hd_edph.htm it’s American but has very interesting links about other great photographers such as Paul Strand.
For those particularly interested in the Street Life project mentioned above, you can see here https://www.imaging-resource.com/news/2013/08/09/john-thomson-photographing-19th-century-street-life-london a collection of images and read more about the work.

Highly recommended books on the subject of early photojournalism and the development of documentary photography include
Eyes Of Time - Photojournalism In America. Marianne Fulton Published by Little, Brown and Company, 1988 ISBN 10: 0821216570ISBN 13: 9780821216576
Thomas Annan of Glasgow: Pioneer of the Documentary Photograph  https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/339
Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography  https://www.routledge.com/Encyclopedia-of-Nineteenth-Century-Photography/Hannavy/p/book/9780415972352

And for those looking for Educational resources see here https://arthistoryteachingresources.org/lessons/nineteenth-century-photography/  an example of how you might structure an 1.5 hour Lecture.

 

1900's photography. Large format. Landscape records. Documentary photography.