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Documentary Photography

“Documentary is an approach, not a technique; an affirmation, not a negation. . . . [T]o speak, as eloquently as possible, of the things to be said in the language of pictures.” –Roy Stryker

Photography’s ability to record the natural world in unprecedented detail made it a powerful tool in capturing the drama of human life. As documents, photographs give life to fact. Nineteenth-century photographers such as Jacob Riis, Henry Mayhew and Lewis Hine gave rise to a brand of documentary photography that carried powerful social commentary and became a vehicle for reform. Riis’s How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) exposed the squalor of New York City’s slums and the abhorrent working conditions of the lower classes, which included many child laborers.

The Great Depression introduced a resurgence of social photography in America and produced the first photographers specifically labeled “documentary.” The Farm Security Administration (FSA) funded several documentary photography projects. Under the supervision of Roy Stryker, photographers Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn, among others, captured the effects of the Great Depression in rural America. Many of the eighty thousand photographs taken were distributed by the agency to newspapers and magazines to build support for the New Deal’s rural programs. The FSA generation of photographers is generally credited with codifying the documentary approach.

Digital photography has freed photojournalists from the constraints of film, allowing capture and storage of thousands of images on a single memory card. The availability of digital cameras in cell phones has made it even easier for photographs to be taken as events happen; “citizen journalists” have become significant contributors to the major news outlets.

front cover of You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskiine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-WhiteErskine Caldwell (1903-1987) and Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)

You have seen their faces. New York, The Viking press, 1937.

Say, is this the U.S.A. New York : Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1941.

Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was at the forefront of the American documentary movement. She attended Clarence White’s School of Photography and was one of the first staff photographers for Life magazine in the mid-1930s. Bourke-White was a pioneer in the use of the photo-essay. Numbering among the few women war photographers and the first woman embedded in an army unit to cover combat, Bourke-White captured both World War II and the Korean War. She photographed the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp and documented apartheid in South Africa in the late 1940s.

Bourke-White was married to novelist Erskine Caldwell for a short time and collaborated with him on several publications, including the two volumes shown here, which documented the shared cultural experiences of rural and working-class Americans in the South and across the Midwest.


Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) and Paul Schuster Taylor

An American exodus : a record of human erosion. New York, Reynal & Hitchcock, 1939.

American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration from 1935 to1939, during which time she captured the plight of the Depression-era rural poor. Her powerful portraits of Dust Bowl migrants, particularly her iconic 1936 “Migrant Mother,” offered the American middle class an evocative glimpse at the country’s poor and dispossessed; Lange’s photographs convey mood and narrative rather than events. Lange later documented the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II and the founding of the United Nations. She was a photographer for Life in the mid-1950s.

Eudora Welty (1909-2001)

One time, one place : Mississippi in the depression : a snapshot album. New York : Random House 1971.

Photography figured highly into American author Eudora Welty’s writing process. Welty spent the majority of her life in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, and her literary works are mostly based in the American South. Welty had her photography exhibited in New York in 1936 and 1937 before she had published any work of fiction. She worked as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration from 1933 to 1936, traveling across rural areas of Mississippi. This allowed her to, as she noted in the introduction to One time, one place, really see her home state for the first time. This edition was limited to 300 copies, numbered and signed by the author, of which this is number 275.

front cover of With Grief Acquainted by Stanford Winfield WilliamsonStanford Winfield Williamson.

With grief acquainted. Photographs by James Stricklin, Don Spark, and Jerry Cogbill. Chicago : Follett, 1964.
from the library of J. Saunders Redding

In the mid-1960s, three Chicago photographers set out to capture life in the city’s ghetto. This volume of photographs provides captions taken from conversations with the subjects. This is the author’s autograph presentation copy.





Documentary photography is used in a local context to capture social, economic, political events, and conditions in a town, city, or state in an historic moment or over time. Significant contributions to documentary photography in Delaware have included 1970s-era photojournalism as seen in The News Journal; life in Wilmington and its neighborhoods; and the campus community at the University of Delaware, the state’s flagship university.


Cover of Angelo's LuncheonetteStewart Whisenant.

Angelo's Luncheonette : community flavor in the Forty Acres. Wilmington, Del. : Stewart Whisenant, 2012. (San Francisco :
gift of Stewart Whisenant

Wilmington photographer Stewart Whisenant has documented Wilmington activities through communities ranging from running clubs to the Occupy Movement. He uses social media to share his digital images and self-published this digital collection of a popular community gathering place in Wilmington.




Tony Calabro (d. 2002)Photograph of children running from Wilmington awake, cover of Delaware Portrait by Crowe and photograph of Robert Cohen with camera

Wilmington awake : a portfolio of photographs. Research by John Mandik. Wilmington, Delaware : City of Wilmington, Bicentennial Office, c1977.

Signed by the photographer and researcher.





Pat Crowe.

Delaware portrait : photographs from twenty years at the News Journal. Edited by Jane Vessels ; editorial assistance by Gary Soulsman. Annapolis : Portfolio Press, c1989.

Signed by the photographer.






The heart sees better than the eye : the photographic legacy of Robert I. Cohen. Newark, Delaware : University of Delaware (Newark : Graphic Communications Center), 2000.






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