Sixteen photographic images are featured  in  Paul Martin Lester's college textbook:  Visual Communication: Images with Messages, 5th ed. (Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011), pp. 24, 29-30, 33, 67, 70, 97, 156, 277.

For my most recent academic article "A Historical Approach to Understanding Documentary Photography: Dialogue, Interpretation and Method," please visit:




The textual essay below accompanied a selection of photographs and appeared as the cover story in Visual Communication Quarterly, January, 1997 and is available through Routledge at: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a912197705&db=all


Social Landscape Photography
Gerald John Davey, Ph.D.

       Social landscape photography focuses upon our everyday, ordinary environment and follows in the tradition of documentary photography. Its intention and purpose is to bring into viewers awareness aspects of our lived world that seem worthy of common reflection. It calls us to reflect on that world and our experience of it. It attempts to show us the world which goes unseen in our daily lives and make it visible, perhaps for the first time.
       It is, however, highly personal and unabashedly interpretive. Its purpose is to stay with us for awhile, as a subject for contemplation in itself and perhaps invoke a little wonderment at the world we have wrought, the values we hold and the choices we’ve made. The essence of the genre is to capture images that point to something larger than themselves, something abiding about our social world and so visually and personally comment upon it. At the same time, it unrelentingly presents us with the absolute particular that lies before the lens and its felt reality. It is this unique characteristic of photography, to present as inseparable the absolute particular (the reality of the subject matter, the persons, things and events before the camera) and the personal vision of the photographer which the photographic recording itself inherently presents that provides the fundamental and unique power of photography as a medium for the transformation of consciousness. While the aesthetic and social values and beliefs are more immediately apparent to the eye of the viewer in paintings, sculptures and other visual arts, the photograph’s seeming “transparency” allows it to enter more easily into consciousness not as the construct of the photographer but as seemingly unmediated reality. It is as though the photographer and the world conspired together to create an image. The two are inextricably bound in a way that we are ill prepared to deal with. There is no parceling of the image into the personal and the objectively real. The photograph seems to be both simultaneously and each is fully present and exhausts the image in its totality. This unique quality allows the photograph to communicate at both conscious and unconscious levels without necessarily bringing into conscious reflection the nature or point-of-view of the creator of the image. This is a power, of course, used for any number of ends and that calls for careful use of the medium.
       A predominant sense of irony or an implicit contrast between social pretensions and social reality frequently pervades this genre.  Among the best examples in American photography were occasional pictures produced by such FSA photographers as Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Dorothea Lange and Marion Post Wolcott. Russell Lee’s image “Iron River, Michigan 1937,” a picture of a barren, tree stump filled plot of land with a nicely centered sign advertising “Choice Farm Land For Sale” comes immediately to mind. The sign itself is just small enough that one has to look closely at the picture and only when you are drawn in, does the word “Choice” become clear.  So, too, Dorothea Lange’s picture of migrant families walking along a nicely paved highway with a billboard just ahead, advertising the relaxed pleasure of traveling by train as if it were available to all.
      What distinguishes social landscape photography from documentary photography more broadly is the latter’s usually more direct, purposive recording of visual facts. Again looking at the FSA and many other documentary workers as well, there is an earnestness in the work, a directness that says “Look at this!” Social landscape, too, deals with social issues that tear at the soul of our society and our world. Yet, its approach is relatively indirect. It calls us to meditate upon them. It’s aim is to settle into the soul and transform the viewer. It relies on a prescription of T.S. Elliot who once wrote: “Communication takes place before it is understood.”

    -(My appreciation to Visual Communication Quarterly for permission to include this previously published essay on my website.)