The history of photography is full of people who with great intensity put forward theories on the nature of photography, or who denigrated the work of others, or set up break-away groups. These people have their place, but fortunately there were others who avoided controversy and who set about recording the life and times of the period in which they lived, either from a sense of mission, or simply to leave an accurate version of their life and times for others.

Up to the time photography was invented events were portrayed by means of painting, and whilst many of them evoke an emotional response it is difficult to be sure that what we are being presented with is not fanciful, incorrect, or even blatantly dishonest. There are, for example, so many different paintings of Queen Elizabeth I that it is not clear what she looked like! (See also Alfred Chalon's comments in Artists and Photography.)

Photography does add to authenticity, but the oft-quoted adage that "the camera cannot lie" is a very misleading one. Even with "straight" photography (i.e. where neither negative not print has been retouched), there are many ways by which the process can be used to manipulate and mislead, for example by selection of viewpoint, or by using a picture out of context. Used honestly, however, photography has the capacity to capture a particular moment in time, to reproduce images in considerable detail, to overcome language barriers, and compellingly to draw attention to situations about which we might otherwise be unaware. This capacity was immediately recognised by early photographers.

For specific aspects of documentary photography, see Architectural, Landscape, Portraiture, Social Reform, Travel and War.

© Robert Leggat, 1999.