Orphan photos: documentary vs. commercial photographyPosted: November 28, 2011
Last week as I was cataloging photographs from the Caufield & Shook collection, one particular image struck me. It was an image from St. Vincent’s Orphanage in 1941 of three little girls eating at a short table. My first impression was “Awww! They look so sweet with their perfect little dresses and bows.” It took me a moment to realize what the scene was really portraying – and even longer to work through some of the complicated ideas related to the photograph’s creation and purpose.
On closer examination I realized that each of these sweet little girls with bows was eating a meager meal of crackers, an apple, and an empty ice cream cone. It was that empty ice cream cone that really got me. I thought, “How sad!” But with a little more thought I considered how perfect these little girls looked. Perfectly neat and clean, coiffed and dressed. How perfectly pitiful to be eating plain crackers and ice cream cones without the ice cream. How perfect for an advertisement asking donors to support the orphanage.
*Mental headslap!* Well, of course, it is! The photograph was commissioned and paid for by St. Vincent’s Orphanage. Sometimes when I’m working with historical photographs I’m so drawn in by the all the details that indicate its era that I forget that not all historical photographs are documentary in nature. This image was taken by the commercial photography studio Caufield & Shook. They were paid to take photographs at the orphanage for some purpose. It may or may not show a typical meal at the orphanage.
In some ways I appreciate the ambiguity of this image. It made me stop and think. What details in this photo were staged? What details are accurate? And where is the line for photographers between documentary photography, commercial work and works of fiction?