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Evidence: 150 Years of Documentary Photography

Documentary photography from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day reflects the widely held perception of the photograph as a surrogate for reality. Landscape photography after the Civil War served as documentation of an unfamiliar Western frontier, as well as a reflection of the American concept of Manifest Destiny. At the beginning of the twentieth century, social documentation illustrated to the public, specifically the middle class, the various ills of rapid industrialization in the form of child labor and urban overpopulation. By the 1930s, the Farm Security Administration had employed photographers to document the plight of those living in rural poverty in the southern and western parts of the United States as a result of the Dust Bowl and
the Great Depression. War correspondents recorded the personages and events they encountered, often with devastating accuracy. Contemporary photography still reflects this same desire to document or record a scene or event in an attempt to convey its relative importance or to make a statement about a situation.

The photographic medium itself is, however, never a simple objective representation of reality. The photographer chooses the subject, frames the shot, and takes a picture that will contain cultural or societal markers which viewers will identify and use to interpret the image. Not only does the artist’s physical and mental viewpoint inform the image he or she creates, but his purpose in taking the picture, whether for a journal or a government record, affects how the artist presents his subject, and how he or she would prefer that the viewer react to the image. Furthermore, the photographic medium, although supposedly a truthful record of a historical reality, can be easily changed or edited. Regardless of their context, however, each of these works involves the viewer intellectually or emotionally through the artist’s depiction of the subject. Drawn from the permanent collection, these images represent nearly 150 years of documentary photography in North America and Europe.

Elizabeth Emrich
Exhibitions Assistant