Documentary Art

ImagesArthur Lubow at Threepenny Review:

What makes a documentary photograph also a work of art? When does its news remain fresh, even after the daily paper or monthly magazine that printed it has faded? Bruce Davidson is a documentary photographer with a sixty-year track record, the most distinguished survivor of a time before photography was sold profitably in art galleries or studied widely in universities. It was only in the 1970s that the idea of “art photography” was recognized as being not a contradiction in terms; before then, someone wanting to earn a living with a camera relied on advertising agencies or periodicals. Many pictures that later entered museums began their lives in fashion and news-feature magazines.

Walker Evans once said that his photographs were not documentary pictures but “documentary style.” He explained: “An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, although it certainly can adopt that style.” As one looks through the wealth of Davidson’s body of work, this distinction is helpful to keep in mind.

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