Art Photography Versus Documentary Photography–It’s Really Not a Competition!

I was reading on Twitter this tweet that got everyone’s in the Twitterverse photography community feathers ruffled. (See what I did there.)

Why do people have to tell others what to make and what is valid and what isn’t? Like there’s any truth to their opinion.

There are multiple types of photography, from scientific to landscape, portraiture to astronomy, experimental to photograms. You can’t easily drop photography as a medium into a box.

Let’s talk about two, art photography and documentary photography:

Art photography, where you use the medium to create something that didn’t previously exist. Gregory Crewdson and Cindy Sherman come to mind. The image is completely created out of the mind of the photographer. That’s how we get a photograph of a naked woman standing in a wheat field with a gas mask on–it’s unusual, it’s art. It’s weird. It’s not easily found to photograph. (You don’t stumble on that!) It’s supposed to challenge, to make us think. Or, maybe it’s just trying to be “arty”. Something. Look at, it’s all that.

And there is documentary photography, where you use the medium to create images that document the human condition in the present day. Look at the work of the NY Times photojournalists, Lynsey Addario and David Burnett. Look at Time Magazine for a look into some of the best.

Then there are those who go out in public and use photographic techniques to document it, yet change it into a bizarre world due to their photographic styles. Look at Bruce Gilden’s and Martin Parr’s documentary and portrait work. Their use of flash changes it into a world all their own.

Matthew’s Twitter argument’s fallacy comes when he goes from saying art photography must evolve (Yes, maybe, why? it’s always evolving as new photographers make new work), to making a blanket statement that only art photographs matter (“Good photographs are made. Not simply stumbled upon.”)

Hey Matthew, who woke up on the grouchy absolutist side of the bed today?

According to Matthew, this is worthless, since I didn’t set it up. I stumbled upon it. Throw it out!

There are no absolutes in art, in documentary photography, in all the myriad ways that are available to use this amazing medium. By saying that one type matters (art photographs, that which is created, and that only!) and needs to be the only type that gets made to keep photography interesting, (to save it from what?) and discounting the documentary photograph because somehow that was some old, tired, primitive way the medium began–uh, do you know anything about photography’s origins, and have you seen any of the art photography of Man Ray and Julia Margaret Cameron?

It’s fine to work within constraints we put on ourselves. But calling the medium one thing as if it’s in danger of going extinct if photographers don’t evolve to what one person has an idea about it is silly.

It’s short-sighted. It’s laughable. It’s just there to ruffle Twitter feathers. To start an argument.

If I lived near Matthew, (he’s LA-based), I’d make a point of starting a project documenting his life. Creating images that show him the power of the documentary photograph. To record life. To stop time. To show us how we really are, (and how he really is). It’d be like The Truman Show documentary of the life of one person–Matthew. I’d be his personal paparazzo!

Perhaps we’d see him making his art photographs, a perfectly suitable subject for a documentary photographer making images of artists at work today. I wonder if that would qualify as a viable project, as it would consist of photographs “stumbled upon”.

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