Exercise: What makes a document

What makes a document?

Having read Jose’s original article, 67 responses and numerous links I am now ready to add my thoughts to the debate about ‘What makes a document?’, although as Rob says (17 Feb 16) it is difficult to find something new to add.

Replies have included various dictionary definitions using words such as record, evidence, information, proof, so if these definitions are to be believed, as RobTM says in the very first post (27 August 2011), a photograph will always be a document because it is a record of something at existed at the time the photograph was taken.   Researching further at ‘documentary’, words such as fact and no fictionalization are added, implying, for me at least, that in order to be a document, the photograph also has to be authentic, i.e. a ‘true’ record and yes, I have read the posts of Folio, Anne and Peter, (September 11) questioning whether or not facts are really true. This brings into question images such as Felice Beato’s image of the Massacre at Lucknow where he apparently arranged disinterred bodies in the foreground before taking his picture to stress the scale of the massacre or Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death    The image of the wolf jumping over a fence, posted by Jose  (27 August 2011) interested me.   Disqualified, as it did not meet the strict criteria for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition because the wolf was deemed to have been trained and thus not exhibiting ‘wild’ qualities. Nonetheless, the photograph does record wolf jumping over the fence so is this still a document?

Jose asks, is it time, context, or something else that makes a document?

At the risk of being slated for my apparent lack of sensitivity and awareness of world affairs, I have to confess that when I first saw Jose’s image of the Gaddaffi balloon my initial reaction was that as a regular visitor to the Bristol Balloon Fiesta, I could have taken that photograph.  It struck a chord with me because I know the event well and have many similar images taken over the years, thankfully mine are just records of the balloons that interested me at the time without history adding the sinister meaning it has to Jose’s image.   In this case, it was a combination of the passage of time, what happened in the intervening years and my familiarity with the event at which the photograph was taken that made this image a document for me.  As Jim says (29 July 2013) …’it is the perspective and interest of the viewer, i.e. the personal significance of the photograph’ that causes photograph to become a document.

This reminds me of a photograph given to me by my uncle when he learned that I was researching our family history.  He knew nothing about it but thought it might be of interest to me because it was amongst my grandmother’s things.  The photograph was of a man and woman standing outside a news agents shop with the name T Whitton, Stationers above the door.  I had not come across anyone of that name and there was no information with the photograph but as I was to discover later, there were plenty of clues in the picture itself.

T Whitton Stationer

T. Whitton, Stationer

Closer inspection revealed that one of the posters on the window was for the Dundee Advertiser, a local newspaper published between 1850 and 1899.  Another was for a performance by Dan Leno, a music hall artist popular in the 1880’s and 1890’s, so I could date the photograph to the late 1800’s and place it in the Dundee area.  I knew that my grandmother’s father’s family had been weavers in Dundee and when I searched further into this I discovered that an aunt of my grandmother, Mary Ann Pearson, who worked as a weaver, had married Thomas Whitton, a supervisor in the mill where she worked in 1884.  It seems that Thomas had inherited the stationers when one of his older brothers died.

So here is an old photograph which normally would not have warranted a second glance but why would my grandmother have kept if it didn’t have some significance for her?  It was certainly a record of something, a man and woman standing outside a shop, but it wasn’t until I was able to pick away some of the layers that the context or meaning was revealed.

Ed’s post (21 September 2015) intrigued me when he questioned whether or not photographs taken by accident are documents, those images which are out of focus or badly composed.  Maybe they record our skill level at that time and serve as a good source of learning to show how far we have progressed.  They are unlikely to be of interest to anyone other than ourselves though so for me, that ‘something else’ has to be as Jim said, the personal perspective of the viewer.

What makes a document?


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