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Book review: Documentary Photography Reconsidered: History, Theory and Practice by Michelle Bogre

Selection from The Family Imprint, © Nancy Borowick, 2013

Something about this book has not let me get through it in one concentrated sitting;  I consider this to be a really great quality of a photography book. I always seem to get sidetracked and off on a tangent, or looking up information about the next subject or person I encounter. I have the same issue when I look up something in a reference book or website. Something sparks my interest and I quickly get hooked on the next item which falls alphabetically after the initial subject. Ironically, in this book’s introduction, the author says “the best way to use this book is to look up the ideas and photographers mentioned as you read,” so I am already hooked. The book should appeal to students, educators, photographers entering the field, or people like myself who get derailed in a wealth of information about photography.

The theme of documentary photography carries a lot of baggage. Both historically and contextually, documentary photography both accepts and rejects many different forms, themes, styles, and techniques. Michelle Bogre makes a point to address the ever broadening definition of documentary photography, and Stephen Mayes, in his forward, rightly challenges even using the words ‘photographer’ or ‘photography’ to describe the making of visual images in the 21st-century. The departure of the genre from what has come before, into what it is becoming is exciting and invites discussion and debate.

The cover of the book addresses this more perfectly in the visual example shown. Featured on the cover is an image by Daniella Zalcman. This is poignant for a couple of reasons right off the top – Daniella is a female documentary photographer. She’s making strides in a field that has been dominated for decades by white males.  Zalcman’s work, which utilizes multiple exposures to merge portraits and environments, expands the historical definition of documentary photography, visual storytelling, as well as portraiture. An expanded conversation with Zalcman appears in the book, and an interview with her also appears in the companion website.

Documentary Photography Reconsidered is not your typical photo history text book, but rather what Bogre describes in her introduction as an “overview, a slice of history reconsidered” resulting from her hundreds of hours of conversations with a diverse array of photographers, editors, writers, and critics. By including practitioners in the book that are lesser known, including women, photographers of color, and other marginalized groups, Bogre attempts to broaden our historical knowledge of documentary photography and “challenge deeply held beliefs about what documentary photography was and is today …”

In his foreword, Stephen Mayes concludes with this thought: “Documentary Photography Reconsidered is a book of words about a non-verbal phenomenon and it behooves us to see through the words to the imagined territory beyond. It’s an opportunity for reflective self-awareness; today it offers a jolt to our understanding of the medium and tomorrow it will mark how far we’ve come. But it will be up to us, the readers, to define what this book stands for.”

Documentary Photography: Reconsidered volume is supported by the publisher’s companion website, which includes in-depth video interviews with featured practitioners.

Pillstagram, a curated Instagram feed by Baptiste Lignel, 2014

Detail selection from Pop Pills, © Baptiste Lignel/Otra-Vista, 2014

The smoking area at Hamilton A&I, from the series Aging in America: The Years Ahead, © Ed Kashi, 1997

Selection from The Human Face of Climate Change, © Mathias Braschler and Monika Fisher, 2009. The Nazaryan family are inhabitants of a sinking house in Yakutsk, Siberia, Russia.

Newsboy, Mobile, Alabama, Lewis W. Hine, c. 1916

Battle Company, © Tim Hetherington, 2008

Connected Tribe, Bameno Village, The Kemperi Clan. Waorani Intangible Zone Limit, El Oriente, Ecuador, © Varial Cédric Houin

Documentary Photography Reconsidered: History, Theory and Practice by Michelle Bogre

Paperback: 264 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1472586698
Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 10.6 inches

Michelle Bogre is a Professor Emerita of Photography and the former Chair of the Photography Department at Parsons School of Design in New York.  She is also a copyright lawyer, documentary photographer and author of two books: Photography As Activism: Images for Social Change, and Photography 4.0: A Teaching Guide for the 21st Century. Photography as Activism was selected by Rice University in Houston, Texas as the Fall 2014 Common Reading, which is a practice of selecting one book to be read by all incoming students.

About Cary Benbow

Photographer, Writer, Publisher of Wobneb Magazine

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