- Terri Weissman
Refers in the broadest sense to any use of the photographic medium as visual evidence. This use arises out of the special relationship to the material world that photography has been imagined to have in the West since the 19th century (see Photography, §II). Even with the advent of digital technologies, which facilitate image manipulation (see Digital photography), pictures produced with a camera often continue to serve an evidentiary function, some even presenting themselves as legally actionable traces of the real. But this straightforward description of documentary is deceptive. In the historiography of photography, no consensus exists on whether documentary is a historically specific genre or a descriptive quality that can be applied to a variety of images across time periods. Documentary thus has two histories: one is the retrospective construction of a history of evidentiary or informational photography that stretches back to photography’s beginnings; the other concerns the development of a photographic approach to which photographers and critics in Europe and the US applied the term ‘documentary’. No single style or conceptual model characterized the latter, which emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, although it often combined realist subject-matter with modernist or creative practice in order to educate the public about the world. These early practices laid the groundwork for future approaches to documentary, as inspiration or as critical response....