A Brief History of Humanist Photography

November 23rd, 2009Stephen Mayes

Humanist photography is a practice based on a philosophy of social change. Building on the momentum spun by Lewis Hine who documented the living conditions of New York’s slum dwellers in the early Twentieth Century, early humanist photographers quickly learned to harness the photograph’s extraordinary combination of descriptive power and emotional immediacy to both inform and move the viewer.

The arrival of Leica’s miniature camera in 1925 revolutionized the practice of documentary photography setting the foundations of the reportage style that persists to this day. Although conceived as a landscape camera, miniaturized and portable to inaccessible locations, the 35mm camera quickly became the de facto tool of documentary photography with its defining naturalistic style as photographers learned to harness its power to shoot quickly and unobtrusively in all conditions. The style matured in the hands of Henri Cartier Bresson who developed the concept of the “decisive moment” which he defined as “the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.”

By 1966 Bresson’s colleague Cornell Capa had developed the notion of the “concerned photography”, described as “work committed to contributing to or understanding humanity’s well-being.” At the same time, the burgeoning glut of printed magazines adopted the emerging convention of the photo-essay both as a compelling means of story telling and of filling pages. Reportage as we know it was born.

Although color emerged in the fifties it didn’t really proliferate until the seventies when magazines commonly adopted color gravure printing processes. Meanwhile black and white remains a shorthand for immediacy and authenticity, and retains a special place in the hearts of photographers with its emphasis on mood and graphic form, suggesting interpretative study rather than representative illustration.

This abundance of print space and the increasing sophistication of the audience (arguably accompanied by a growing ennui with the now familiar documentary style) encouraged photographers and publishers to experiment with less direct and more associative styles of imagery. Visual hints and oblique references became recognized standards in reportage, opening the door to imagery layered with metaphor and fulfilling the early aspiration of the humanist photographers to be commentators as much as reporters.

One hundred years after Lewis Hine photographed the child workers of The Bowery we are forging into a new Millennium, learning to use a new set of digital tools for photographic manufacture and distribution. Although so much has changed much remains still to be changed. The work of the humanist photographer is just begun.

2009, written to accompany VII exhibition at Tufts Art Gallery, Boston