The elastic term of documentary

 Documentary is an elastic term that has been stretched to cover almost every kind
of nonfiction film or video production. The first person to use it about motion picture
records seems to have been the Seattle based photographer, Edward S. Curtis. In 1911-
1912 Curtis was lecturing in cities on the east coast of the United States to raise funds for
a monumental project, a photographic record of all the native people of North America.
In programs for his lectures Curtis advertised the “documental value” of his material.
“They show,” he wrote, “what the artist with the camera can do in rendering a record of a
people - a record which not only gives a documentary story, 

but also the atmosphere and
soul of the primitive life.”
Curtis planned a full length motion picture about native Americans living on the
Pacific north-west coast. In a prospectus he stressed the ethnographic value of the
“documentary material,” writing that it “will be one the most valuable documentary
works which can be taken up at this time.” It would be “A documentary picture of the
Kwakiutl tribes, the natives of Vancouver Island.” Curtis’ use of the documentary term
may have been prompted by Theodore Roosevelt, whose support of his photographic
project helped Curtis get started. In a letter from the White House of December 1905
President Roosevelt referred to the value of Curtis’ photographs “as historical
documents” and to the Indian, the subject of the photographic record, as “a living
historical document.” The film historian Kevin Brownlow (1978) has suggested that
documentary film makers owe a debt to Theodore Roosevelt, a keen conservationist, for
his openness with film cameras, which helped build popular interest in the early
nonfiction film.
French dictionaries date the use of the term documentaire in relation to film to the
mid-1920s. Like its English equivalent, the word carries an implication of a record that
supplies evidence or proof. In everyday speech documents refer to papers, specifically
identification papers. If we say we are documenting something or someone, we are
establishing facts about that object or person, verifiable by some kind of paperwork.
The form of the documentary film and the uses to which it has been put have been
determined by social changes and advances in technology. Four main eras may be
identified: 1)

 the era of the silent film, from 1895 to the end of the 1920s; 2) the classical
era of the sound film, the 1930s and 1940s; 3) the first three decades of television,
following upon the medium’s reappearance after World War II, the 1950s, 1960s, and
1970s; 4) the 1980s, 1990s, and the beginning of the 21st century, an era of new
technology and change in the structure of the television industry.
By the end of the twentieth century documentaries were being made virtually
everywhere in the world, in all shapes and sizes, often in great numbers, and about every
imaginable subject. This survey does not attempt to plot the global practice of
documentary. The approach followed here proposes that the documentary, like a free
press, is essentially an instrument of democracy. It is a Western artifact, as is the
technology that has made it a universal form. We focus here chiefly on its appearance and
development in the United States

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