As a realist form, documentary photography needs to be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism. The FSA photographs were able to bring a force to bear on their contemporary audiences because of the realist purchase that documentary has as a genre, and because they were produced in the 1930s, when visual media had a particularly powerful cultural currency.

Like other realist forms, documentary functions through the myth of objectivity. Documentary photographs appear to be self-generated and unmediated; the conceit is that they allow real conditions to speak for themselves. The photographer is usually absent from the field of the image, and we are in his or her place, left to imagine that we would process the scene before us in exactly such a way if we were actually there ourselves. Photohistorian Abigail Solomon-Godeau argues in Photography at the Dock that the apparatus of photography confirms this effect:

this structural congruence of point of view (the eye of the photographer, the eye of the camera, and the spectator's eye) confers on the photograph a quality of pure, but delusory, presentness... the image in a photograph appears to be in it, inseparable from its ground; conceptually, you cannot lift the image from its material base. (180)

The mechanics of photography help photographic images to seem "pure" and "transparent." This effect thus protects documentary photography, to some degree, from what would be a customary interrogation. Some scholars argue that what is perceived as realism at any particular historical moment is by necessity that which confirms the epistemological and ideological sentiment of the time. In this sense, the realism documentary conveys through its mechanics, rhetoric and subject matter gives the genre a powerful persuasive capacity.




Juliet Gorman, May 2001