Create or document?

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From the series ‘Gravitation is relative’

I’ve come to believe that all photography falls into one of two categories: created, or documented. It’s also rather difficult to switch between the two, and people tend to find either one or the other more intuitive. I suspect this may well have something to do with left brain-right brain dominance, too. This underlying split is important because it dictates the kind of photographer you are, and the kind of work that best suits one’s intuitive vision. It isn’t a continuum, because the one thing that splits the two sides of the divide is binary: was something in the scene added or removed at the control of the photographer, presumably for the express intent of translating and communicating the vision of the photographer to the audience?

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Observation and documentary

Curiously, I think this is also the same perceptual or expected divide that separates photojournalism and the illusion of objectivity/ intention of integrity from the creative arts. The moment something in the frame has been added, removed, or changed by the photographer to better suit their imagination, we tip over into creative: that scene did not exist in that form until the photographer created it, and only exists in that form for that reason. On the ‘touch nothing’ end of the scale – documentary – is of course traditional photojournalism. On the other is a fantasy world that has no real definition, because – well, it can’t be defined. The only limit to the image is the creativity of the photographer: most commercial work and ‘conceptual’ photography falls into this category; the sets must be constructed; the models selected, facial expressions guided, light determined and created, and repeats undertaken until all stakeholders are happy. The final output must match the expectations of the imagination, and the photographer is as much screenwriter as conscious observer.

On the other hand, the documentary style of photography is only and entirely about conscious observation: you are capturing what you saw, not what you imagined: the scene existed in physical state before your arrival, and will continue to do so after you leave. You add, remove and change nothing, other than a record of the subjects in front of your camera. This is perhaps the truest definition of ‘taking a photograph’: you are literally measuring the amount and frequency of the light reflected from the objects in front of you. The photographer is not using their imagination so much as their trained observation, prompted by personal biases and interests. At the subconscious level, we are drawn to what subjects that interest us prompted usually by something else other than purely making an image. These underlying motivations may vary from the need to record a unique experience or scene, to a biased interest in the subject matter, or need to earn a living by showing interest in something directed by one’s client. Here, the differentiation in skill is how well the photographer can observe, parse and capture a scene before it changes into a form that is too late to record.

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Abstraction of subject, but still based on a direct ‘measuring’ of an extant scene

Note how the two types of photography require very different skill sets: technical understanding (leading to control over the image) aside, one has an entirely imaginative base, and the other an observational one. Dreaming does not typically lead to noticing the unusual, nor does an unhealthy interest in reality lead to dreams about something that doesn’t exist (i.e. the opposite of reality). I think it’s this that causes the difficulty in being really strong at both genres of photography: almost all of the studio/portrait/still life/controlled shooting photographers I’ve seen do not have any affinity with the observational or documentary genre; these are people who will perfect the most elaborate setups in the studio and spend hours on post, but use an iPhone when travelling and produce woefully bad images which have all sorts of distractions and shortcomings. There’s simply too much in the real world that’s not under control and the result of random unrelated processes to parse quickly and effectively. On the other hand, you’ve got the documentarians who can find a unique moment worthy of closer examination and preservation in seemingly ordinary scenarios, but find themselves unable to create an image of note when presented with full control; I’ve seen this type land up photographing still lifes of the studio lighting equipment in place without moving it (or using it to light itself). They need a base to start from, and once there, can run and see things the rest of us might not.

I think it’s certainly possible to transition between the two, but doing so on a regular basis leaves you somewhat in no-mans’-land, even though the imagination has to be somewhat grounded in reality: it’s difficult to figure out how to give the illusion of breaking normal if you don’t have a fairly good idea of what normal is. The same is probably also true for the documentary photographer: paying attention to the quotidian is required to present an interpretation of reality that breaks with it. I think By nature, I’m a documentary photographer: I started out observing and photographing the found rather than the created. I made images of things that I thought were personally interesting, and then tried to figure out why other people weren’t seeing what I was seeing: either they lacked common interests (fair enough) or my images fell short in the translation (usually the case). A good documentarian should be able to present something in a visually interesting way even if the subject matter itself isn’t interesting – otherwise the image won’t hold the interest of any audience for any length of time.

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The beginnings of control and creation

Even when I started transitioning to creating images – at first with still life setups of single watches – I still had to observe the watch for a while before trying to figure out which angle I wanted to capture. Controlled light was a dark art because it produced results that were very, very different to what I could immediately see with the naked eye. Practice developed experience which in turn developed the ability to imagine the ‘what if’ when something in the mix was changed; I would add elements to the compositions, but still ultimately base them on a fairly limited reality (e.g. a randomly found cluster of objects on one’s table that you might pick up together with your watch before heading out of the door). Other images in which I was in control of light and subject – portraits, fashion, cars etc. – still required a degree of documentary observation to start: I’d find a location and an interesting interpretation of the subject and then try to put the two together with some element of repeatability. As unusual as some of these compositions might be, like the first image in this post – I have still not created photographs in which the entire subject or scene was not the complete product of my imagination and implausible to exist in reality. Frankly, the thought of doing so leaves me drawing a bit of a blank: I still look for a base in reality to modify rather than create my own. I suspect it’s because it requires a lot of practice to make a facsimile of a believable setting; this is something I do not have anywhere near as much experience in as pure acute observation.

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Creation, revisited

Now we come to the crux of the article: of late, I’ve been having the feeling of being limited by shooting as a documenter rather than a creator. There are only so many underlying compositional structures and arrangements that are possible before the image becomes similar to something you’ve previously made, only with slight variations in subject and light. This is not interesting, and the only way to make a different image becomes to find different subjects. Of course, the more you shoot, the harder this becomes. Some types of subject offer near infinite variation – nature and people for example – but even then, the gross structures may well be fairly similar (e.g. big foreground anchor, mid ground leading elements and distant massive geological feature for landscapes; the mountains and rocks may be different, but there’s only so much you can change within the physical limits). If you photograph enough, you’ll find yourself hitting this wall sooner or later. I still strongly feel the need to create, but outside the restrictions of what I’ve previously shot or seen. The only way forwards is to make that jump, so that the limitations are my imagination rather than my physical location. I suspect the yields are going to be even lower than staying the course, even taking into account the desire to avoid repetition. But the payoff is this: in a documentary situation, the scene always exists in reality so another photographer may well capture the same or similar thing; in a creative situation, the envelope of the imagination are far more varied from individual to individual so it’s much easier to make something unique. The results should eventually be interesting… MT


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  1. “But the payoff is this: in a documentary situation, the scene always exists in reality so another photographer may well capture the same or similar thing; in a creative situation.”

    True, indeed. That’s why I include (as much as possible) a family as my subject in my compositions. In that way, all my documentary/street photos can’t be copied.

    I am a documentary by nature too, and have reached the point of what you have described – stagnancy. New compositions are most likely just minute variations of previous compositions.

    • They also have more meaning for you too, I think – it’s very hard to create an emotional connection to anonymous strangers, and if the photographer isn’t feeling it – it’s almost impossible to make the audience feel it.

  2. Gursky is in the dual camp although painting wise not setup wise as far as I know. Documentary photography is traditional defined by the intent to document. You are using the word differently in this thread but the intent behind photography is always critical to the result. Lacking intent will result in lacking photography.

  3. Interesting Ming. I would definitely imagine discovering your (past and prospective) work through contemporary art shows (e.g. Armory), rather than photo-equipment/ photography essays, which is a completely different domain. I always wanted linking you to the certain artists. Maybe you finally converging ..

  4. Bill Lollis says:

    Excellent and very illuminating article! I am a pet photographer. Most of my work is done for animal rescues. I am very definitately in the documentary camp. However, very often my clients require a high degree of creativity to make a dog or cat stand out from the others. I have an assistant, the “attention getter”, who happens to be very creative. We have a system where I do some documentary shots, but always include shots that she suggests, often with unusual views or props. This system has been very successful. I’m not sure if this would translate to everyone, however.

    • I can certainly understand why you do it – but is it still documentary if the environment is changed by the photographer?

      • Bill Lollis says:

        No. Except to document the changes. I’m thinking that even if one were to set up a concealed surveillance camera, randomly taking images, merely setting up the camera would involve some creative decisions. I also suspect a purely creative photograph would be quite abstract. I don’t there is a line where documentary crosses over into creative, or vice-versa. I think understanding where one lies on the continuum is an important step towards developing one’s own vision and style.

  5. Interesting article and discussion. There is obvious care that went into the images and thoughts shared. I find the content on this site *worth the time* spent. That makes this site special. Thanks Ming and Robin!

  6. Ming
    Documentary often changes behaviour with human subjects (or animals), taken to the extreme you get all the funny/startled/annoyed expressions passed off as social commentary in so much street photography, so do we need a third category of capture; Exploitative. 😦
    Whilst I get the aim of your article, all creator-ive work is based on making something of an ideal or in some way better, think product, fashion or portraiture photography. Perhaps creator photography is an idealised vision in contrast to the documentary approach of capturing the best, clearest or most realistic. I think that the creator approach to photography is a bit more like graphic design or illustration, maybe even painting.
    Is what you create up to your standards of acceptability?
    Or will you need to rely on documenting photographic skills to make your creations look as good as you hoped?
    Regards Noel

    • The exploitation only comes through intent – it’s still documentary in the sense that nothing is really created. Creative photography can move beyond the ‘film set’ approach we see in the usual commercial photography; a good example might be the work of Crewdson (though unfortunately that’s 100% commercial in the sense the images are meant to be sold, but not commercial in the sense that it isn’t to sell a subject in the image).

      • Martin Fritter says:

        Do you like Crewdson? I’ve only seen the books. The Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City has at least one of his pieces, but their photography galleries were given over to a huge and fantastic Eugene Richards show. I doubt there’s a standard topology of photographic genera. What is it Sugimoto doing with his seascapes (if that’s what they are)? Oh, the pics with this post are great.

        • I like the idea, not sure if it requires such an over the top execution (or how much of that is production hubris so he can charge silly money per print) – but I’d still argue its much harder to make something similar out of found elements than create it from scratch – in the real world you can’t simply interchange your actors at will…

      • Ming
        I think that photography (or any art form) being commercial, in any sense, relates only to the desired audience. I am not sure if you are suggesting there is a fundamental difference in creating for commercial or creating for your own satisfaction, presumably you set yourself a brief rather than the client. Is setting yourself a brief of some sort part of the creative process or is it something like a plot or narrative that requires creative work to be realised?
        From a quick read about Crewdson online, his creative approach seems to be more aligned to a Director of Photography role than graphic designer or painter. From my point of view his work is very much in the environmental portrait mode, though it is often the figures that are providing some context to read the environment, or it is the environment that is having its portrait taken perhaps.
        Regards Noel

        • Step back one level, less literally: commercial doesn’t necessarily mean images to sell [something]; it’s images for pay. For example, Crewdson gets paid handsomely for each image – and that’s probably the main reason he does it. That to me is commercial, even if the brief or idea is whatever he comes up with beforehand. It isn’t documentary or portraiture so much as a film set – yes, he’s a director more than a photographer in that sense. Most of us simply can’t afford the scale of his productions.

          On the other hand – you can’t go out and make something – Ie arrange elements in a predetermined pattern according to an existing idea or concept – without first knowing what that concept is. But you can do so if you’re hunting and simply responding to things that appeal to you for whatever reason – this is the documentary mode.

  7. Kristian Wannebo says:

    A very clear, it seems to me, analysis of two ways of photography.

    I’d like to stay a bit with a middle ground you touch on.

    Where a photo in the physical sense is a documentation, but as an image (almost) only by coincidence is connected with the physical subject.

    As e.g., Ming, in your Abstract above
    ( and e.g. your recent Icelandic dark Waterfall photo can also be seen that way).

    Or this one by Valerie Millett:

    ( It reminds me of Saint-Exupéry’s simplified drawing of the desert towards the end of The Little Prince. )

    Here ideas and feelings can lead to images that can lead to new ideas and feelings… – and the documenting approach isn’t “really” documentary.
    There is, or, at least, can be a different creative aspect here than in “pure” documentation.

    [ Personally I photograph documenting (in the sense of the article) and have only very occasionally been able to touch this region.
    In nature I lately find myself using longer lenses to catch interesting detail.]

    • Having made that image – I’d say it still falls into the documentation camp. I had to look a bit harder to find it, but fundamentally – I still saw it and shot it. There’s no additional setup, physically moving elements, changing light etc – I was not fully in control of all variables. I think or me that marks the differentiation between creating and documenting. Perhaps moreso with a landscape: it’s very difficult to create one of those 🙂

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Yes, I agree, I understood that.

        What I try to compare is the creative aspect of just finding a subject and making an image and the different (and more complex) creative aspect of blending a (hopefully) mature idea into the finding a subject and making an image in such a way that the subject itself loses much if its importance and this idea dominates the final image.

        ( Also many of your photos in “The Idea of Man” come close to this.)

        • Kristian Wannebo says:

          I ment “draw a distinction between” rather than “compare”
          [ sorry .. 🙂 ]

        • Okay, that makes more sense. In a sense we are hunting for a target we don’t quite recognize until we see it…I’m sure somebody is going to compare this to shopping! 😂

  8. While there’s certainly a place for both in photography, my personal preference is to create whenever possible. Very interesting article!

    • Agreed – though I’d say the documentary part sharpens one’s observational skills, which in turn makes you ask the ‘what if’ questions, leading to the visual experiments and the ‘something different’…

  9. Ming — This is a timely post for me and one that resonates especially strongly, helping me to summarize and issue I’ve been struggling with. My photography is largely landscapes shot on the north coast of California and is my avocation in retirement. I have been feeling in a deep rut, one where it seems each image is simply a redo of something I had captured in the past. I spent much of yesterday looking through my Lightroom catalog over the past five years. My work five years ago was generally stronger. That work was more thoughtful and typically intimate images of the landscape, generally more graphic and appealing. More recently, I managed to drift back into images that are simply captures of the grand landscape, captures you correctly describe as documentary. It is so easy to take a snap of the landscape; it’s much harder yet much more rewarding to do the creative work. A most helpful post; thank you! Frank

  10. And so it begins.

  11. stephenjohndawson says:

    Very interesting take on the binary distinction between documentary and creative photography, and the resulting scale between is surely infinitely fine grained, containing all possibilities. What seems to appeal more and more to me is those photographers who see almost any extant image as a base to communicate some insight or vision not immediately apparent to others. Using reality as a palette to expose an unexpected vision.

    • Personally, I’ve always thought that was the real definition of a photographer: somebody who sees/shows/communicates a perspective that isn’t immediately obvious…be it through timing, physical perspective or something constructed…

    • Robert E Good says:

      Well put.

  12. On this topic, investigating Philip-Lorca DiCorcia would be worthwhile.

    • He’s one of the few (along with Nick Brandt) that immediately come to mind who do both at the same time…though I would argue they really fall a bit more into the ‘create’ camp: whilst the raw subject matter physically exists, much work must be done to achieve the final creative intent.


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