Melissa Miles in The Drive to Archive Conceptual documentary photobook design in Photographies (Volume 3, Issue 1, 2010) says that there is an international trend in contemporary photography that is known as Conceptual Documentary. This is characterized by a desire to explore a single, often banal idea from many different angles and it seeks out and frames its subject according to a pre-determined idea or scheme.
Conceptual documentary can be understood as a symptom of the larger “archival impulse” that pervades contemporary culture. Conceptual Documentary’s emphasis upon seriality and its framing of documentary photographs according to a pre-determined scheme attest to a rejection of the decisive moment that is spontaneously “captured” by the documentary photographer, and a comparable distrust in the notion of singular, authentic or original photographic meanings.
Miles says that this appreciation for the contingency of photographic meaning owes a great debt to 1960s conceptual photography, and in particular to the use of seriality as a means of undermining the fetishization of the singular or discrete photograph. However,
Miles says that:
there is an important difference between 1960s conceptual photography and contemporary Conceptual Documentary. Like postmodernism, conceptual photography has been accused of treating the camera as a discursively neutral aperture through which the subject enters language. The conceptual artists Ed Ruscha and Robert Rooney both describe the camera as simply a tool for recording their serial photographs. Rooney famously described the camera as a “dumb recording device”.... In 1981, Ruscha similarly said of Twenty-six Gasoline Stations that: “The photography by itself doesn’t mean anything to me; it’s the gas stations, that’s the important thing.
Miles goes onto say that conceptual documentary is importantly distinguished from these earlier traditions because it is centred on a new self- awareness about the limits and possibilities of photographic technologies and their impact upon Conceptual Documentary projects.
The latter's emphasis on the viewer or receiving subject in Conceptual Documentary also counters conceptual art’s tendency towards emphasizing the power of institutions and systems of global capitalism in shaping mean ing, and points to another important distinction between 1960s conceptual photography with its asssumption of the photographer as an expressive source of meaning and contemporary Conceptual Documentary photography.