Cinema and photography can be used both as art and for historical or legal documentation of events. In many cases, however, cinema and photography perform both functions and are documentation that is artistically made, or pieces of art that serve as historical documents.

The goal of photojournalism is usually to tell information that is more or less recent. As a branch of journalism, the aesthetic concerns of artistic works are not necessary. The work of many photojournalists, however, has come to be considered “art” because of its beauty and the work that went into creating it. Such is the case with Dorothea Lange — who worked as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration in the United States during the Great Depression — and her famous portrait, Migrant Mother, which clearly documented the living conditions of the impoverished classes, but also was able to capture a human drama that went beyond the bounds of that which is strictly documentary. Similarly, Puerto Rican photographer Manuel Rivera-Ortiz has captured in his photos of the destitute (in India, Bolivia, Cuba, Kenya, Malaysia and Turkey) the unacceptable desolation that coexists with a strange kind of beauty. Loyalist Militaman at the Moment of Death, by Hungarian photographer Robert Capa, and Raising the Flag in Iwo Jima, by U.S. photographer Joe Rosenthal, are two of the most celebrated photographs of the 20th century. Both document key moments of wars but can also be classified as art, for their composition and beauty.

The documentary is a genre of film that usually interweaves the elements of a work of art and a documentary text. If it is true that “cinema is the truth at 24 frames per second,” as Jean-Luc Godard said, it is also true that the director of a documentary, as he captures reality through his lens, creates a very personalized perspective. In Las Hurdes, by Luis Buñuel, for example, the Spanish director documents the poverty and backwardness of the Extremadura community in the country, but his portrayal also served as a personal commentary on the situation (which made the film more of a work of art). Much more biased, but equally artistic, are films such Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl and Why We Fight by Frank Capra, in the role of propaganda during World War II for Germany and the United States, respectively. The films also served, however, as historical and political documentation. They are considered two of the most important films of all time. In more recent times, the documentary has served as cinematic thesis (the work of Michael Moore, for example) or as an attractive way to represent an issue related to the sciences, humanities or history (the series Planet Earth by the BBC, Stephen Hawkin’s Universe, by the PBC, etc.). 

Finally, sometimes the opposite occurs: artistic pieces document a specific element. Old films and photographs can be used to reconstruct recent history. Frequently, for example, art and wardrobe directors for a film that tries to recreate the past use photographs and films from the era to create their works. The same is done for texts that are historical in purpose (for example, New York: Portrait of a City, by Reuel Golden).



Author: Alejandro Carpio
Published: December 20, 2011.

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