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Documentary photography 
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The word "documentary" has its origins in physical documents but has it has morphed over time into "factual, meant to provide a record of something".[1]
Most, but not all, photography is the capturing through light of the natural world but would not be included in "documentary photography". There are overlaps here with photo reportage and photojournalism but there are also distinctions. With photojournalism it is the means of image distribution that is significant. The image might well bedocumentary in theme but change it's theme to photojournalism when distributed by a new agency or other media channel. It doesn't have to be commissioned by a media agency prior to the taking of the images to bephotojournalism making the boundary between the two themes fluid.  
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PhVDaguerreotypes of fires and their devastation 
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PhVDaguerreotypes of floods and their devastation 
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PhVDaguerreotypes of civil unrest and social upheaval 
Having said this any decent one volume history of photography will include a section including the origins of documentary photography starting with the daguerreotypes of the City of Hamburg fire (1842) photographed by Hermann Biow[2], the fire at Oswego Mills (1853) documented by George N. Barnard and the charred remnants of Molson family brewery (1858) attributed to Thomas Coffin Doane. These rare photographs are about the photographer being in the right place at the right time. Other longer term documentary projects provide evidence on the living conditions of a city prior to urban development and there are a number of well known examples of this such as Thomas Annan in Glasgow,[3] Archibald Burns in Edinburgh,[4], Adolphe Terris in Marseille, Charles Marville[5] and Eugène Atget[6] in Paris. Some projects were sponsored by municipal organisations whilst others, perhaps most notably Eugène Atget, were driven by an internal desire to document architectural details of a changing world.  
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PhVThomas Annan: Glasgow 
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PhVArchibald Burns: Edinburgh 
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PhVAdolphe Terris: Marseille 
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PhVCharles Marville: Paris 
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PhVEugène Atget: Paris 
It is simplistic to see documentary photography as a single entity and in Dorothea Lange's 1940 book A Pageant of Photography she wrote:
Documentary photography records the social scene of our time. It mirrors the present and documents for the future. Its focus is man in his relation to mankind. It records his customs at work, at war, at play, or his round of activities through twenty-four hours of the day, the cycle of the seasons, or the span of a life. It portrays his institutions — family, church, government, political organizations, social clubs, labor unions. It shows not merely their facades, but seeks to reveal the manner in which they function, absorb the life, hold the loyalty, and influence the behavior of human beings. It is concerned with methods of work and the dependence of workmen on each other and on their employers. It is pre-eminently suited to build a record of change. Advancing technology raises standards of living, creates unemployment, changes the face of cities and of the agricultural landscape. The evidence of these trends — the simultaneous existence of past, present, and portent of the future — is conspicuous in old and new forms, old and new customs, on every hand. Documentary photography stands on its own merits and has validity by itself. A single photographic print may be "news," a "portrait," "art," or "documentary" — any of these, all of them, or none. Among the tools of social science — graphs, statistics, maps, and text — documentation by photograph now is assuming its place. Documentary photography invites and needs participation by amateurs as well as by professionals. Only through the interested work of amateurs who choose themes and follow them can documentation by the camera of our age and our complex society be intimate, pervasive, and adequate.[7]
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PhVLeather firefighter's helmet with shield for "Photographer, Office of Fire Commissioner, Manitoba" (ca. 1950) 

  1. Λ Online Etymological Dictionary
    (Accessed: 18 January 2014) 
  2. Λ The daguerreotypes of the devastation of the Hamburg fire were thought to have been taken by Carl Ferdinand Stelzner but are now known to be by Hermann Biow. 
  3. Λ Thomas Annan is well known for his Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry (1870) and for The Old Closes & Streets of Glasgow - engraved by Annan from Photographs taken for the City of Glasgow Improvement Trust which has gone through multiple editions and is a classic of documentary photography. 
  4. Λ Archibald Burns & Thomas Henderson, 1868, Picturesque Bits from Old Edinburgh: A Series of Photographs, (Edomonston and Douglas, publishers to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Company) 
  5. Λ For Charles Marville and Paris - Jacqueline Chambord (ed.), 1981, Charles Marville: Photographs of Paris, 1852-1878, (French Inst/Alliance Francaise); Charles Marville, 1994, Marville Paris, (Hazan); Charles Marville, 1997, Charles Marville, (Centre National de Photo) 
  6. Λ There are a large number of monographs on Eugène Atget and the standard by which all others are judged are the four volumes published by the Museum of Modern Art (1981-1985):
    John Szarkowski & Maria Morris Hambourg, 1981, The Work of Atget. vol. 1: Old France, (New York: Museum of Modern Art)
    John Szarkowski & Maria Morris Hambourg, 1982, The Work of Atget. vol. II: The Art of Old Paris, (New York: Museum of Modern Art)
    John Szarkowski & Maria Morris Hambourg, 1983, The Work of Atget. vol. III: The Ancien Regime, (New York: Museum of Modern Art)
    John Szarkowski & Maria Morris Hambourg, 1985, The Work of Atget. vol. IV: Modern Times, (New York: Museum of Modern Art)
  7. Λ Dorothea Lange, 1940, A Pageant of Photography, (San Francisco), p. 28 
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