Orphan photos: documentary vs. commercial photography

Three girls eating

St. Vincent's Orphanage (1941)

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?

8 Comments on “Orphan photos: documentary vs. commercial photography”

  1. Pete says:

    “And where is the line for photographers between documentary photography, commercial work and works of fiction?”

    I think this is one of the more challenging questions for photographers, especially since I don’t think most of us think about it at all. For my part, I identify as a documentary photographer who will sometimes do commercial work, and so my approach is to be as factual and uncontrived as possible (within the limits of the specific job, of course). However, if I were a commercial photographer who sometimes does documentary work (which I think the St. Vincent’s image is an example of), it’s likely I wouldn’t have the same reservations toward staging a scene.

    As I see it, manipulating reality is essentially the job of a commercial photographer. They’re paid to make images that fulfill the needs of their client. Usually, the client wants cleaner or prettier or somehow “better” than reality. Maybe the St. Vincent’s people wanted “more pathetic” than reality. As you say, it’s hard to know. But knowing that the image was produced by a commercial studio definitely invites more skepticism than if it were made by, say, a newspaper.

  2. Laura says:

    Where do combat photographers fall in this range of commercial versus documentary? Are their editors the commercial component, choosing which images should be pitched to Time Magazine or the Washington Post? Does the combat photographer, by choosing a particular conflict/refugee camp/Marine Corps platoon/prison to cover injecting himself/herself into the story by virtue of choosing the locale/personnel? Or is there anything as a pure artist in a combat photographer?

  3. Shirley Kennedy says:

    I was raised in St. Vincent’s Orphanage, I have good and bad memories of that home, I should write a book about it, It would be an eye opener, to know what life was like…UGH!

  4. Rita Kraniak says:

    e-mail only

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