On Documenting

by ralph

Many of us actively seek particular kinds of subject matter and blinker our vision against simple records of contemporary life because we have echoes in our ear of judges putting down images as "just a documentary"

I was fortunate because I was after stock photos from early on. The definition was broad and my understanding of it was a bit hazy (still is) so I accidentally managed to include some scenes which have captured fascinating bits of an earlier America. No not THAT early -- even the 50s and 60s have become eras of intense interest. It seems that scenes of the ordinary become quite fascinating when seen from the viewpoint of many years later

Prize winners in a camera club contest may still look good after the years but do they age well ? Only rarely will they look even more interesting than they did originally. More likely they are all classic compositions which will have been done many more times in the intervening years. In fact after circulating through the usual competitions many of those images may join a growing pile of dust collectors.

Just plain people shots are especially great because they show changes of lifestyle. Imagine a shot of a jolly group of people in a 30's or 40's open convertible -- actually taken then of course, showing styles, hairstyles, etc. That's why such pictures often find their way to museum and gallery walls, and stock picture agencies are all actively scouring the country for collections of old time material. (even personal family albums).

If you're a young person it wouldn't hurt to shoot a few images of the everyday world around you. Granted their gradual ripening into full blown nostalgic icons is chancy at best and slow enough to make watching grass grow seem exciting by contrast, it still represents a useful investment of time and talent at very little cost. The word archival is important here. B&W may still survive longer than anything else, particularly properly fixed and washed negatives. In fact there are many B&W prints that have survived from the 1800's. "Archival" processing is the way to go of course, and that seems to include a bit of sepia or selenium toning (not blue). Color materials have improved greatly but it's hard to know which ones will be the survivors many years down the road. Hedging your bets is always a good idea. I shot a lot of great 4x5 Ektachromes 30 years ago that have all faded to red -- a sad loss. But I often shot an Ektacolor S (asa 20) color negative along with the chromes and quite unaccountably, these are totally unchanged and continue to yield good prints. Among slide films Kodachrome has a historically proven track record for longevity (if you like its muted color) but Fujichrome may have bettered it --still we won't know for sure for quite some time.

One recommended strategy is to shoot 35mm slides or negatives and have the choice images scanned to a Photo CD. The Kodak PCDs in particular are on an ageless gold disc, likely to resist any change for ages. The problem here is, will the whole CD system and standards even be around ten years from now. In the rapidly changing electronic and digital technologies CDs already seem slated for replacement by DVDs. Just how long will manufacturers bother to make the latter backward compatible with the former?? Still, once you have a digital file of an image there should be little difficulty moving it to newer kinds of media.

Even if you're not a young photographer there are still great moments for documenting your environment. Try to anticipate the more sudden changes that are happening all over this part of New Jersey caused by the juggernaut of development. Last summer I took off on a trip for a few months and when I returned the occupant of a street corner 1/2 mile away had changed in a blink from a shabby (but somewhat historic) two story house to a big Eckerd drug store. Missed my chance on that one but a couple years earlier I did get some
sh
ots of an old oak tree from the 1700's that was removed to make way for the widening of County Line Road.

How about the style of the documentary shots? This one really is self defining. "Documentary style" of course - clear and sharp, detailed and straightforward without any resort to current, cute styles (like putting the top and bottom out of focus) which would just look like poor technique in another time.

Just remember that there are many kinds of good pictures and what looks ordinary in this era can be fascinating years later. At very least shooting some documentary shots might be a great way of finishing a roll of film that you're anxious to be done with.

In Jan 1948 I was anxious to put my brand new folding Kodak Monitor (620 size - 6x9cm.) to use so I took it out to Central Park where I shot the Central Park South skyline with the glistening effects of a major ice storm in the foreground. Time has only added to this photo and every time I print one and put it on the wall, it sells. Later I shot a couple scenes of New York City and Maplewood, NJ that showed streets in a snowstorm - complete with those 50s cars and busses. These too have gathered interest as they've aged.

On one trip I took a shot of a court house, a resolutely boring subject (they can look the same 50 years later), except that the parking lot in the foreground was a riot of shiny new late 50s cars, all in bright colors and tail fins. What a piece of Americana.

Unfortunately it's easy to miss the main idea of a shot, when the historic perspective only shows years later. Back in the 50's I shot some sort of general store in a historic village (which may have been Cold Spring village near Cape May). There were a couple gas pumps in front but I managed to include the whole barn like building. Big mistake. The gas pumps had those old fashioned globes on top and this nifty fifties Buick (partly cut off at the edge) stood waiting. THAT was the picture. I really didn't need the whole building.

So remember, film is cheap and time machines are still hard to come by.