Project: What makes a document?


This project was to research certain parts of the history of documentary. I was fascinated by some of the things I found and enjoyed looking them up.

John Grierson 1898-1972 is said to be the first person to use the term ‘documentary’ within visual media. Known for making factual films. The format of documentaries has changed but he taught many about the craft. He was responsible for several documentaries and there is a trust which promotes it still in his name. He was not entirely happy with the term as he felt it was an evolving concept. (Fox, J.

Robert Flaherty – founder of Documentary – his film Moana was described as a documentary by Grierson.

He had previously made a film called Nanook of the North about Inuit life, in 1922. Moana 1926 documented daily life of people in Samoa preparing rituals for a ceremony. The film did not do well despite the fame it now seems to have as the birth of the documentary.

Mission Heliographique – 5 photographers given the task of surveying architecture in the country. They were given a list of buildings to document and sent off. The project never really took off, negatives locked away. The images that we are able to see online are very clear images depicting the buildings. A few are a little unclear and almost look detached, such as Henri Le Secq’s image of a statue taken in 1852 – Large Figures on the North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, 1852

Roger Fenton is well known for documenting the battlefields of the Crimean War. The images at first glance seem to be mostly wide angle shots of the area where the war was, one showing cannonballs left over, some showing the landscape of the battlefield and some the cemetarys. In these images, any people are very small and superfluous. There are depictions of the camps the soldiers were living in. There is then a series of quite formal portraits, of groups of soldiers or soldiers on or with their horses. The facial expressions are quite neutral, and not much emotion is given away.

Felice Beato travelled with the British Army and took images of the second opium war in China. One in particular shows a lot of corpses on the Chinese side, almost in a very matter-of-fact way. There are also images of temples and famous Chinese buildings, mainly with no people, looking very plain and stark. They look very different to how I remember them, full of crowds of people. This is a very different view of China.

The USGS surveys show landscapes and pictures of buildings in order to document different areas. William Henry Jackson shot lots of images of Yellowstone National Park, and Timothy O’Sullivan went to many areas including Nevada. The images are black and white, again very matter of fact portrayals of what they could see. They are mainly landscapes – people who do appear seem to just be there, not posed. 

Overall, I am getting to know even more about this genre. I studied it before but think that this opportunity to do it again will give me a new perspective. 



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