The purpose of documentary photography, or photojournalism, is to objectively reproduce various aspects of society through the chronicle of images of everyday reality. But as years go by, this photographic style has become hugely recognised as an art form.
In this article we listed ten of the most representative authors, both past and contemporary, to give you a brief overview of past and present tendencies of this genre.
Josef Koudelka: Gypsies
Josef Koudelka spent almost ten years, between ’62 and ’71, living among gypsies in Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, France, and Spain, to produce Gypsies, one on the most touching and sincere portrait of the Roma society. The book was published in 1975 in Paris, where he had to take refuge after the soviet union invasion of Prague. During the Prague Spring, Koudelka shot another series of amazing pictures credited, for security reasons, as “an unknown Czech photographer”, and awarded with the Robert Capa prize in 1969. >>
Robert Frank: The Americans
Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank secured a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955 to travel across the United States and document the post-war American society. The book, released in 1958, initially received harsh criticism both because of the adopted photographic style (pictures sometimes too grainy, out of focus and in contrast to the traditional concept of photographic art) and because perceived as deprecative of the American national identity. Only a few years after the publication, The Americans become considered a seminal work in American photography and art history. >>
Sebastião Salgado: Workers
Sebastião Salgado was born in Brazil in 1944, he studied economics in Europe and earned a master’s degree in economics, before to decided to become a professional photographer in 1973, right after a few work trips to Africa. To pursue his photographic projects he traveled in all continents and over 120 countries, producing meaningful images that have appeared in numerous press publications and books. Workers, by the word of his author, is “a tribute the ceaseless human activity at the core of modern civilization”. >>
Dorothea Lange: Dorothea Lange’s Ireland
American documentary photographer and photojournalist Dorothea Lange is best known for his work on the consequences of the Great Depression in the United States, and his most famous picture, migrant mother, one of the most familiar images of the 20th century. Lange shot the pictures in this book during several trips to Ireland with her son Daniel, with the purpose to document the spirit of a nation through the portrait of the Irish rural families. Dorothea Lange’s Ireland was released more than 30 years after the artist’s death. >>
Robert Capa: Heart of Spain
Robert Capa was famous for his temper, who had led him to the attack with the first wave in the Normandy, as well as parachuting from a plane together with professional soldiers to document with his camera the 2nd British army crossing the Rhine river. His passion for life and danger ultimately conducted him to death in Indocina in 1954. The pictures in this volume, shot during the Spanish civil war between 1936 ad 1939, are some of the most accurate and emotional conflict images ever taken. >>
Don McCullin: The Destruction Business
British photojournalist Donald McCulling started his photographic career while spending his period of National Service in the RAF, during the 1956 Suez Crisis. Working as a photographer’s assistant, he failed to pass the written theory paper necessary to become a photographer, and spent the rest of the time in the darkroom. Back in UK, he worked for almost 20 years as correspondent for the Sunday Times Magazine. His most interesting works is the coverage of the Vietnam War and the Northern Ireland conflict, many of wich is included in this volume The Destruction Business. >>
Steve McCurry: The Path to Buddha
Other than for his most popular portrait, “Afghan Girl” and his National Geographic style images, Steve McCurry is world wide recognised for his work as a documentary photography in conflict zones. One of his most interesting project is The Path to Buddha, in which the American photographer document the strength and determination of the Tibetan people to keep alive their religious traditions, despite the oppression of which they have been subjected for almost 70 years. >>
Lewis W. Hine: Men at Work
Lewis W. Hine was one of the first photographers in history to guess the importance of documentary photography as a tool for social change and improvement, probably because of his studies in sociology. Between 1904 and 1909, he took over 200 plates in Ellis Island, documenting the thousands of immigrants arriving every day in the United Stated. In its author’s words, Man at Work is a journey to “the heart of modern industry where machines and skyscrapers are being made”. But mostly, it is a tribute to man’s strength and wisdom. >>
Lauren Greenfield: Generation Wealth
American Emmy-award-winning photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has a special attitude to investigate the contradictions in modern days society. She was able to carve out her space in the modern documentary photography landscape by documenting the globalization of materialism, often highlighting the most grotesque sides. This book, despite the hilarity and humour all its images are pervaded of, is meant to make a serious reflection about the complicated consequences of the economic well-being in most of the western countries. >>
Martin Parr: The Last Resort
British photographer Martin Parr is a controversial figure in modern documentary photography. Part of the reason is probably his most famous work: The Last resort. When published in 1986, this work divided both critic and audience for several reasons: the use of colour in documentary photography, the snapshot style, and the cruel depiction of the British working class in swimsuit, in the New Brighton holiday resort. >>
Do you think this list is representative of the best documentary photography books ever published? Leave a comment below to let us know which is your favourite one.