Over 68 million people watched documentaries on Netflix in 2016. The figure is consistently growing, and the rising popularity of the genre reflects a burgeoning desire to make sense of the world. This concern manifests across film, literature and the arts, and a new exhibition at Huxley-Parlour Gallery, London, reflects on the history of the tradition within the photographic realm through 40 key works.
Tracking different approaches to the field through iconic American photographers, The American Document: New Visions in Documentary Photography 1931-1976 examines the medium’s shifting focus: from the socially and politically motivated “New Deal” images of the 1930s and 1940s to the more personal, quotidian contributions of the following decades.
For instance, pieces by Dorothea Lange (b. 1985), Arthur Rothstein (b. 1915) and Walker Evans (b. 1903) demonstrate the graphic Modernist aesthetic which defined Documentary during the Great Depression. Their photographs, commissioned by Farm Security Administration (FSA), visualise the social and economic plight of US citizens. Combatting rural poverty, examples such as Evan’s celebrated portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs – famously appropriated by Sherrie Levine (b. 1947) in the 1980s – were used as photojournalistic evidence to inform public opinion and gain support for relief programmes.
A change in methodology came in the 1960s, as image makers such as Lee Friedlander (b. 1934), Garry Winogrand (b. 1928) and Diane Arbus (b. 1923) began to foreground the immediate urban environment. By recording the everyday experience, they marked a radical break from tradition, transforming both subject matter and composition. Departing from structured, early configurations, a more informal, “straight” approach characterises these pieces, which are tied together by an interest in the metropolis and its inhabitants. Well-known works on display include Friedlander’s New York City and Arbus’ A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, NY, which feature alongside striking contributions by renowned colour photographer Joel Meyerowitz (b. 1938).
The American Document runs until 14 April. Find out more here.
1. Lee Friedlander, Butte, Montana, 1970.