Beaumont Newhall, Documentary Approach to Photography

As one of the leading lights in photography criticism, the words of Newhall are often an insight into the fundamental principles of the art. At the beginning of an essay he wrote in 1938, Newhall touches on an issue which is still relevant almost 80 years later:

JOURNALISM has discovered that the camera is one of its most powerful tools. A picture can often tell more than thousands of words, and a picture made by photography implies by its method of production a basis of fact. All know that such an implication is untrue, but everyone accepts the photograph as the pictorial evidence of an eye-witness – the cameraman. (Parnassus 10.3 (1938): p 3)

Interesting to me from the point of view of setting a series of images in a strict order and time frame, he has the following to say about the difference between film and still photography:

…there is a profound difference between still and motion-picture photography. The former is primarily a spatial art; the latter a temporal one. The film is always seen as a unit; the sequence of images is prescribed, and remains uniform except for wilful cutting by exhibitors for moral or economic reasons. The still photograph, however, is seldom seen twice in the similar manner. It may be reproduced together with any other photograph, and with any caption. Therefore, while there is a unity of sprit between still and cinematic documentary, their approaches to the same problem must be through separate channels. (p 4)

So what would he have to say about the use of photographic still images in a set sequence? Without captions but viewed together with a soundtrack?

Newhall cites the work of Charles Marville and Eugène Atget as two photographers of Paris that can be considered documentary photographers – the first because he was commissioned to photograph specific condemned quarters prior to destruction, and the latter for his attention to details which had begun to disappear at the time of photographing.

Marville was assigned the task of photographing the Paris quarters that had been designated to be demolished, making way for the grand modernization projects of Napoleon III and Haussmann. The photographs are filled with a kind of romantic nostalgia, and preempt the work of Atget. There is a whole archive of his work in high resolution on this website, some of the images show the narrow streets before Haussmann’s designs were implemented as well as the broad boulevards that he was responsible for.

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