A New Approach
Throughout the semester we have been discussing and debating what exactly constitutes as a documentary photograph and what you need to focus on to be considered a documentary photographer. Phillippe Halsman is one of those photographers that blurs the lines that contain our typical perception of a documentary photograph. He does not abide by our assumption that photographs must be unstaged. Instead, he claims to document a specific and authentic human emotion, whether in a staged environment or not. What matters isn't the setting of the photo, but how it is taken.
Most people stiffen with self-consciousness when they pose for a photograph. Lighting and fine camera equipment are useless if the photographer cannot make them drop the mask, at least for a moment, so he can capture on his film their real, undistorted personality and character -Phillippe Halsman
Here we have a clearly staged photograph. No one is going to assume that a bird willingly perched itself on the tip of a burning cigar. What makes this photograph documentary is the expression on the subjects eyes, his relaxed, leaned back posture, and the clear communication of a calm yet powerful emotion that transfers from subject to viewer. This is documentary of the personality of the man in the photo. With minimal information, we can assume through his dress, posture, and confidence that this is a man of importance.
Here is another clearly staged photograph. It is nearly impossible to believe that Louis Armstrong would be playing his trumpet in the middle of a completely white room. However, much like the previous photo, what makes this documentary is his raw facial expression. Armstrong appears to be in the heart of a solo performance as his fingers hover over the buttons, eyes bulging from face, mouth gasping for air. There is no questioning that this image evokes the passion that Armstrong puts into his craft and is therefore documentary of his art. This picture itself if a personification of jazz. The stark contrast between the subject and his environment buts all of the focus on Louis and his trumpet, leaving the audience with nothing but soul.
Again, this photograph is clearly staged. There no pieces on the chess board and the man is staring directly into the camera. This image us to perfect to be raw. However, by incorporating the chess board and one very focused eye, Halsman is able to document the accomplishments of this world renowned chess player. It may not be documentary of a particular moment, but of this chess players journey as a whole to becoming a master. It is just him and the chess board. No one else. And in this set up, Halsman creates a powerful image that allows the viewer to understand that chess is this mans everything.
Lastly, Halsman captures this wild photograph of a man with a giant butterfly net. He takes it from a low angle which makes you assume the camera is the butterfly the man is catching. As if after this very moment, we, the viewers, we're captured. Again, he is not documenting a REAL moment, but has staged a very real image that evokes the feeling of hunter vs. hunted and therefore is documentary of this mans job. He is balanced precariously so that he can nimbly capture his target and is very contrasted from the sky, bringing out full attention to him and the net we are bound to be in; if only pictures could move.