Documentary Photography, Photojournalism, and Fine Art Photography in the 1990s and 2000s

In the latest in a recent series of articles on Thomas Hoepker’s September 11th image, Joerg Colberg of Conscientious published a well-written piece entitled “How we give photographs meaning.” In this post Colberg writes (my italics):

               “The meaning of a photograph is a construct that involves a group of people operating
               against a specific background (news, art, …), subject to the group’s personal, cultural and
               political biases. I think what we should be talking about is not how truthful photographs
               are, but how truthful we expect them to be, given the background they’re operating in.”

This quote raises a slippery question: how do we know what background we are operating against? Just where are those lines between fine art photography, photojournalism, and documentary photography?

In two posts last week, we explored first the history of the relationship between those three terms and then how the 1970s in particular played an important role in forming the contemporary photographic landscape of more elastic definitions that we live in today.

Today we continue the investigation by looking at subsequent evolutions in the 1990s and 2000s. This post is based on a paper written in 2008.


The 1990s expanded upon the dynamics established in the 1970s. “By the 1990s, the promise of the 1970s is, in a way, fulfilled,” writes Mary Panzer (email dated December 12, 2008). “The magazines have been closed for almost a generation. Galleries have become the standard market that magazines once were. The artists who posed as journalists to make a living are now jostling for gallery space with journalists who want to sell in and be seen in galleries.” Panzer also writes that the significant shifts during the 1970s produced long-lasting and slowly evolving changes: “It is important to note that the expanding museum market affects many photographers after the initial boom -- photographers once considered journalists are able to join the art market later on (1990s, say) though they could not or did not in the 1970s.”

The American economy exploded in the 1990s, greatly amplifying the effects of developments in the photography market during the previous two decades. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, trade opportunities for the United States expanded, while technological developments brought a wide new range of sophisticated consumer electronics, and innovations in telecommunications and computer networking produced a vast computer hardware and software business. The Dow Jones Industrial Average grew from 1,000 in the late 1970s to 11,000 in 1999. The growth of assets and expendable wealth produced a strong art market that continues, albeit with periods of modest decline, today. On www.art-support.com there are twenty-five photography galleries listed in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea alone while in 1969 there was only one in the entirety of New York City. The site www.the-artists.org notes that between 1990 and the summer of 2008, the photography price index posted an increase of 131%, as compared with 55% for sculpture, the second most popular medium over the same period. “It is now hard to believe that art photography was ever a contested market, but go back to 1970, and the world certainly looks different,” writes Panzer.

The economic development in the United States during the 1990s furthered the ability of photographers to carve a viable career as an artist, as did the increase in deaths of well-known early photographers, according to Panzer. Their deaths helped push forward the market for their prints because investors could be assured that they would not produce more prints. Living artists benefited from the growth in the market as well by riding along with the growth in prices. This raises the question of the relationship between the market for vintage photography and the market for contemporary art photography about which Panzer writes, “The former gets going sooner, but the latter comes to the fore in the 1990s.”

The firm placement of photography in the stream of contemporary art after decades of debate about its inclusion greatly aided in the growth of the photography market. The 1990s built on the full range of ways in which photography had been codified as documentary, photojournalism, and/or fine art by commodifying all of them, making it valuable to explore the ways these genres are thought of at the present. 

© Larry Clark

Today the word "documentary" stretches to include all of the various elements of its history. Documentary can be used to describe large, visually and thematically related archives or extensive photographic projects that range from the visualization of the personal experience of the photographer to sociological work. Two recent shows have demonstrated the range of drives behind contemporary documentary practice, Stepping In and Stepping Out: Contemporary Documentary Photography at London's Victoria & Albert Museum in 2002 and Cruel and Tender at the Tate Modern the following year. Charlotte Cotton, curator of Stepping In and Stepping Out, illustrated the range of political, humanist, and aesthetic forces that drive contemporary documentary photography, from teenage sex and drug abuse in the work of Larry Clark to post-industrial desolation in the work of Chris Killip, in her selections for the show.

The dynamics of photojournalism have shifted more dramatically and will be discussed here in greater depth. The arrival of the Internet in the 1990s furthered the changes in the role of photojournalism in news delivery begun by the television and altered the visual tendencies of the genre. David Campany writes in his essay “Safety in Numbness” that “over the last few decades it has become clear that the definition of events was taken over first by video and then dispersed in recent years across a varied platform of media technologies.” (Campany, "Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on problems of 'Late Photography'" Where Is the Photograph?, 188) In fact, video frame grabs from digital sources constitute almost a third of all new “photographs” in today’s market. (190) Campany, this time writing in The Cinematic, describes the new stylistics of photojournalism:

               Reportage photography has ceded the role of bearing news to television and the Internet.
               It has all but given up the instantaneous in the process. Instead it has assumed important
               functions as a second wave of slower representation made after the world's events have
               happened. Once the epitome of all that was modern, photography now finds itself a
               relatively simple and primitive medium. Certainly it takes its place as a component in the  
               hybrid stream of contemporary imagery but where it singles itself out - as it does most clearly
               in contemporary art - it embraces not the moment but slower rhythms of observation and  
               premeditation. (Campany, The Cinematic, 12)

Video capture from the start of the 1991 Gulf War

Campany suggests photojournalists prior to the advent of television news photographed during the most intense moments of an event because they could distribute images on a mass scale quickly as compared to any other media. When video replaced photography’s claim to this role, photographers adapted to a new role that produced a new style of photography. In this different role, photographers often arrive as the video cameras are packed away and images of events have already spread through television and the Internet. Photographers break news very rarely; instead photographs now constitute a second wave of examination of an event. These “aftermath” photographs appeal to viewers by feeling static and reflective. They strike the viewer as a new kind of “pure” imagery as compared to the chaotic juxtapositions and constant movement of the visual bit stream emitted by the convergence of modern electronic image technologies. (191)

Campany discusses the Gulf War’s role in the advent of aftermath photography. The United States government allowed very few photographers to cover the war, and subsequently the images many carry with them and can recall of the action came from satellite images and US military footage showing such things as guided missile strikes. When photographers did enter the country after the war was over, they photographed the remnants of war’s events, revealing the damage done by actions unseen in the forms of destroyed tanks, bodies, a scarred desert, and burning oil fields. The images, rather than playing part of campaigning for or against the war itself, instead carried a sense of mourning, a sense buttressed by writing often poignant in tone. Photojournalism had become “elegiac, poetic and muted” and, in struggling to find a way to stay relevant after having lost its role in breaking news, found melancholy a seductive approach. (190)

© Jean-Claude Coutausse, Kuwait. Liberation of Kuwait City. An Iraqi corpse on the road
to Basra bombarded by the U.S. Air Force during the Iraqi forces retreat in February 1991.

The new sensibilities in photojournalism did not entirely replace the old. The meaning of "photojournalism" had become further pluralized. Despite the sea change in its purpose within American society, photojournalism in the sense of the 1950s survived in reduced form in news magazines such as National Geographic, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, and The Chicago Tribune Magazine. Although they rarely ran photo essays, their sponsorship of 1950s-style photojournalism contributed to the publication of many major features elsewhere, especially magazines serving more specialized audiences. (Panzer 26) In fact, according to Mary Panzer, the 1980s became known as a second "golden era" of photojournalism, despite the competition for news delivery from television, with an increase in demand for traditional photojournalism from magazines and newspapers alike.

Furthermore, in the 2000s photography still held for many a venerated and respected position in journalism in relationship to television and continued to offer elements that video could not. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse, for example, the city of New York hired photographer Joel Meyerowitz to record an “official” body of images of the site. Britain’s Channel Four News showed a half hour special report on Meyerowitz’s work entitled “Reflections on Ground Zero.” Campany notes the irony of the program airing a report in which it deemed itself unable to perform as well as photography the construction, display, and distribution of an image, even while showing images at least as informative as Meyerowitz’s. (Campany 123)

Campany’s essay highlights a recent trend towards “aftermath” journalism as an aesthetic close to forensic photography: cool, detached, and after the main events have already happened. He views this photography of traces, remnants of activity, empty buildings, vacant streets, and damage to the body and world as emerging from the forgoing or inability to represent events themselves and a concession of this role to other media, but also because of a special status granted to photographers, such as Meyerowitz. Campany suggests this may come from a collective belief that the photograph represents a simpler time, when we lived less information-cluttered lives in a less complicated technological world as well as from photography’s natural capacity to condense and simplify things and from its capacity to stay open to interpretation, suspended, as Lucy Soutter writes, with seeds of narratives that can never come to fruition except in the imagination. (Soutter, "Dial P for Panties", Afterimage, 2)