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Iconic Documentary Photographers

Since the very beginning of photography, the earliest daguerreotype and calotype 'surveys' of the ruins of the Near East, Egypt, and the American wilderness areas, photographs meant to accurately describe otherwise forbidden, unknown, hidden, or difficult-to-access places or circumstances. The term document applied to photography antedates the mode or genre itself. Documentary photography usually refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle events or environments both significant and relevant to history and historical events as well as everyday life.

But documentary is a category of photographic practice that likely has the bluriest boundaries. It generally relates to longer term projects with a more complex story line, while photojournalism concerns more breaking news stories. The two approaches often overlap.

Even if we can define documentary photography as a style of photographs that presents straightforward records of events, people and places, often recording important historical or political moments, the fact is that the photographs that can arguably sit under the umbrella of documentary range from the conflict photojournalism of Don McCullin to the atmospheric and haunting portraits of Diane Arbus.

Since the late 1970s, the decline of magazine-published photography has led to the vanishing of traditional forums for such work. Many documentary photographers have now focused on the art world and galleries as a way of presenting their work and making a living. Traditional documentary photography has found a place in dedicated photography galleries alongside other artists working in painting, sculpture, and modern media.

Walker Evans

Walker Evans, profile, hand up to face, 1937

Walker Evans (1903 - 1975) was an American photographer and photojournalist best known for his work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documenting the effects of the Great Depression. His elegant, clear-eyed frames capture the specificities of vernacular life across the country; his subjects range from dense cityscapes and cluttered storefronts in New York City to sharecroppers in Alabama and barbers and churches in small towns and rural areas. Evans helped pioneer the documentary and modes of photography, and his work influenced major figures including Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander.
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Don McCullin

Don McCullin in an broadcast from TV Brasil, 2011

Sir Donald McCullin CBE is a British photojournalist, particularly recognised for his war photography and images of urban strife. For the past 50 years he has proved himself a photojournalist without equal, whether documenting the poverty of London's East End, or the horrors of wars in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. Simultaneously he has proved an adroit artist capable of beautifully arranged still lifes, soulful portraits and moving landscapes.
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Lewis Hine

© Lewis Hine, self-portrait

Lewis Hine (1874 - 1940) was an American sociologist and photographer known for using his camera as a tool for social reform. His photographs were instrumental in changing child labor laws in the United States. Hine's photographs supported the NCLC's lobbying to end child labor, and in 1912 the Children's Bureau was created. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 eventually brought child labour in the US to an end.
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Robert Frank

Robert Frank © Dodo Jin Ming

With his Leica, 35 mm black-and-white film, quick reflexes and piercing vision, Robert Frank (1924 - 2019) is perhaps one of the most influential photographers of all time. His most famous work, published in the 1959 book 'The Americans', continues to serve as a touchstone and template for generations of street photographers. Over time and through its inspiration of later artists, The Americans became a seminal work in American photography and art history.
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Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin, 2009

Nancy ''Nan'' Goldin is an American photographer. As a teenager in Boston in the 1960s, then in New York starting in the 1970s, Nan Goldin has taken intensely personal, spontaneous, sexual, and transgressive photographs of her family, friends, and lovers. Goldin used the camera and photography to cherish her relationships with those she photographed. She also found the camera as a useful political tool, to inform the public about important issues silenced in America.
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Robert Capa

© Robert Capa

Robert Capa (1913 - 1954) was a Hungarian war photographer and photojournalist. During his career he risked his life numerous times, most dramatically as the only civilian photographer landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He documented the course of World War II in London, North Africa, Italy, and the liberation of Paris. On 25 May 1954 he was photographing for Life in Thai-Binh, Indochina, when he stepped on a landmine and was killed. He is considered by some to be the greatest combat and adventure photographer in history.
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Sebastião Salgado

Sebastião Salgado in 2016

Sebastião Salgado is a Brazilian social documentary photographer and photojournalist. He has traveled in over 120 countries for his photographic projects. Most of these have appeared in numerous press publications and books. Touring exhibitions of his work have been presented throughout the world.
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Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark, 2010

Mary Ellen Mark is an American photographer known for her photojournalism, portraiture, and advertising photography. She has had 16 collections of her work published and has been exhibited at galleries and museums worldwide. She has received numerous accolades, including three Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards and three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.
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Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus, 1949

Diane Arbus (1923 - 1971) was an American photographer and writer noted for black-and-white square photographs of ''deviant and marginal people (dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers) or of people whose normality seems ugly or surreal.'' Arbus believed that a camera could be ''a little bit cold, a little bit harsh but its scrutiny revealed the truth; the difference between what people wanted others to see and what they really did see – the flaws.''
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Margaret Bourke-White

Margaret Bourke-White interviewed on Person to Person, 1955

Margaret Bourke-White (1904 - 1971), an American photographer and documentary photographer, became arguably best known as the first foreign photographer permitted to take pictures of Soviet industry under the Soviets' five-year plan, as the first American female war photojournalist, and for having one of her photographs (on the construction of Fort Peck Dam) on the cover of the first issue of Life magazine.
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Martin Parr

Martin Parr during the conference held on 6 October 2010 at Les Champs Libres in Rennes, France

Martin Parr is a British documentary photographer, photojournalist and photobook collector. He is known for his photographic projects that take an intimate, satirical and anthropological look at aspects of modern life, in particular documenting the social classes of England, and more broadly the wealth of the Western world. With over 100 books of his own published, and another 30 edited by Parr, his photographic legacy is already established.
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Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange, 1936, Library of Congress

Dorothea Lange (1895 - 1965) was an American documentary photographer and photojournalist, best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange had little interest in classifying her photographs as art: she made them to effect social change. Although she had led a successful career as a portrait photographer in San Francisco throughout the 1920s, by 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, she began to photograph life outside her studio. Lange's photographs influenced the development of documentary photography and humanized the consequences of the Great Depression.
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Cristina García Rodero

Cristina García Rodero in 2011

Cristina García Rodero (born 14 October 1949) is a Spanish photographer and member of Magnum Photos and Agence Vu photo agencies. Rodero photographs the persistence of rural traditions in modern times, such as religious rites and festivals in Spain. In Spain she is among the most celebrated documentary photographers.
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Anders Petersen

© Anders Petersen

Anders Petersen is a Swedish photographer, based in Stockholm. He makes intimate and personal documentary-style black and white photographs. Petersen, who won international renown with his Hamburg Café Lehmitz series (1967-1970), spent several years photographing patients at a psychiatric hospital just south of Stockholm. His gaze is one of raw tenderness, conveying naked emotions with insightful poetry. Carried by a deep integrity, he takes the viewer to the limits of normality.
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Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry, France, 2012 Photo by © Bruno Barbey

Steve McCurry is an American photographer, freelancer, and photojournalist. His photo Afghan Girl, of a girl with piercing green eyes, has appeared on the cover of National Geographic several times. McCurry has photographed many assignments for National Geographic and has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1986.
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Susan Meiselas

Masterclass by photographer Susan Meiselas, Blanquerna, 2015

Susan Meiselas is an American documentary photographer. She has been associated with Magnum Photos since 1976 and been a full member since 1980. Currently she is the President of the Magnum Foundation. She is best known for her 1970s photographs of war-torn Nicaragua and American carnival strippers.
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Eugene Richards

Eugene Richards, 2010

Eugene Richards is an American documentary photographer, living in Brooklyn, New York. He has published many books of photography and has been a member of Magnum Photos and of VII Photo Agency.
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August Sander

August Sander, 16 January 1940

August Sander was a German portrait and documentary photographer. As a practitioner of New Objectivity, an avant-garde art movement that sought to depart from abstraction and artifice and return to realism, Sander wanted his photographs to expose truths. ''Pure photography allows us to create portraits which render their subjects with absolute truth,'' he said. ''If we can create portraits of subjects that are true, we thereby in effect create a mirror of the times.'' Though his desire was to ''honestly tell the truth about our age and people,'' Sander’s depiction of German people is unavoidably subjective.
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Pieter Hugo

From the series There’s a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends, 2011 - Archival pigment ink © Pieter Hugo, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery

Pieter Hugo was born 1976 and grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. He is a South African photographer who primarily works in portraiture and whose work engages with both documentary and art traditions with a focus on African communities. With his various photo series, Pieter Hugo has put together an impressive body of work in the space of just a few years. Through this intense perception of corporeality, he captures the complexity and inconsistency of society. Constants in his work include seriousness, neutrality and an underlying respect for his protagonists, whose dignity always remains intact.
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Antonin Kratochvil

© Robert Mapplethorpe, self-portrait, 1980

As photojournalists go, Antonin Kratochvil has sunk his teeth into his fair share of upheaval and human catastrophes whilst going about his documentation of the time in which he lives. As people go, Kratochvil's own refugee life has been much in the way the same as what he has rendered on film. Kratochvil's unique style of photography is the product of personal experience, intimate conditioning and not privileged voyeurism.
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Tomasz Gudzowaty

© Tomasz Gudzowaty

Tomasz Gudzowaty, born 1971 in Warsaw, gained international recognition as a documentary, portrait and art photographer through numerous publications and awards, most notably – World Press Photo in which he succeeded nine times. He traveled to over 100 countries on all continents for his photographic projects, pursuing diverse subjects, with special focus on wildlife, sport, and social issues.
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Olivia Arthur

Olivia Arthur, Magnum Night at the Valli Theater in May 2014

Olivia Arthur is a British documentary photographer. She co-founded Fishbar, a publisher and space for photography in London, with Philipp Ebeling in 2010. She's known for her in-depth photography examining people and their personal and cultural identities. Much of her work has illuminated the daily lives of women living in countries as varied as Saudi Arabia, India and across Europe.
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Ed Kashi

© Ed Kashi

Ed Kashi is a photojournalist, filmmaker and educator dedicated to documenting the social and political issues that define our times. A sensitive eye and an intimate relationship to his subjects are signatures of his work. As a member of the prestigious photo agency VII, Kashi has been recognized for his complex imagery and its compelling rendering of the human condition.
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William Eugene Smith

William Eugene Smith

William Eugene Smith was an American photojournalist known for his refusal to compromise professional standards and his brutally vivid World War II photographs. Smith is credited with developing the photo essay to its ultimate form. He was an exacting printer, and the combination of innovation, integrity and technical mastery in his photography made his work the standard by which photojournalism was measured for many years.
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Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis in 1906

Jacob August Riis was a Danish-American social reformer, ''muckraking'' journalist and social documentary photographer. He contributed significantly to the cause of urban reform in America at the turn of the twentieth century. He is known for using his photographic and journalistic talents to help the impoverished in New York City; those impoverished New Yorkers were the subject of most of his prolific writings and photography. He endorsed the implementation of ''model tenements'' in New York with the help of humanitarian Lawrence Veiller.
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Denis Dailleux

© Denis Dailleux

Denis Dailleux was born in 1958 in Angers, France. He has published a series of photography books all portraying Egypt, Cairo and his impressions of the revolution. His photographs have been exhibited internationally in Paris, France, Accra, Ghana, and in Siem Reap, Cambodia among other places.
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Harry Gruyaert

© Harry Gruyaert

Harry Gruyaert is a photographer known for his images of India, Morocco and Egypt as well as of the west of Ireland and for his use of colour. He is a member of Magnum Photos. His work has been published in a number of books, been exhibited widely and won the Kodak Prize.
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James Nachtwey

James Nachtwey in Moscow after the talk in Mars gallery. March 24, 2011

James Nachtwey is an American photojournalist and war photographer. He has been awarded the Overseas Press Club's Robert Capa Gold Medal five times and two World Press Photo awards. In 2003, Nachtwey was injured in a grenade attack on his convoy while working in Baghdad, from which he made a full recovery.
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Francesco Zizola

© Francesco Zizola

Francesco Zizola is an Italian photojournalist, based in Rome. His photographs have appeared in magazines and he has received numerous World Press Photo awards, including World Press Photo of the Year in 1996 and four Pictures of the Year International awards. He is a member of NOOR photo agency, which he co-founded.
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Chris Steele-Perkins

© Chris Steele-Perkins

Chris Steele-Perkins is a British photographer and member of Magnum Photos. He has produced some of the most iconic images of British society in the last half-century, exploring youth subcultures, poverty and community with artful sensitivity. His more than 45-year career has seen him travel widely, making significant bodies of work in his home country of Myanmar, as well as Japan, Africa and Afghanistan, all of which have received critical acclaim.
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Roman Vishniac

Roman Vishniac, 1977

Roman Vishniac was a Russian-American photographer, best known for capturing on film the culture of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. He created some of the most iconic images of Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust, documenting a world that would soon vanish. He also chronicled the rise of Nazism and the aftermath of World War II.
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Robin Hammond

© Robin Hammond

Robin Hammond is the recipient of the W.Eugene Smith Fund for Humanistic Photography, a World Press Photo prize, the Pictures of the Year International World Understanding Award and four Amnesty International awards for Human Rights journalism. He has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues around the world through long-term photographic projects.
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Lisa Kristine

© Lisa Kristine

Acclaimed humanitarian photographer Lisa Kristine specializes in images of remote indigenous peoples. Best known for her evocative and saturated use of color, her fine art prints are among the most sought after and collected in the world. Lisa has documented in over 100 countries on six continents, using a 19th century 4×5” field view camera for the majority of her work.
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