Belinda's Bash

Belinda Naylor-Stables

Hunting for milk bottles

“I’m looking for a couple of those old pint milk bottles,” said Robert. (He’s trying to collect props for a play set in the late 1930s.) “Any ideas?
I have lots of ideas – mainly about this being an interesting starting point for an article about documentary art…

The important role of documentary art

If you haven’t heard the term before, it’s worth knowing that documentary artists record ordinary everyday things. They also get commissioned – or happen to be in the right place – to record landmark events. Along with these records, they remind us that with time many things that are normal today become extraordinary tomorrow.

Living history
Now on record - milk bottle and inkwell

Now on record...

I think we humans are all documentary artists to some extent. We can’t help but store images from our present. Time moves on, then one day something triggers that memory which is now well past. For example, I recently wandered through our local bluebell woods in Hartwood Forest with friends. Something about the fresh breeze, lush dappled green and the bright birdsong took me back to my junior school days in Wales. Come Spring, the staff would cancel classes for one morning, belt us up in our little navy macs and brown lace-up shoes and take us for a walk in nearby snowdrop woods. As little 7, 8, 9 and 10 year olds, we would come back to school clasping bunches of snowdrops that mostly ended up in jam jars on classroom window sills – with a few in our inkwells where the white and green flowers gradually turned blue. It was a simple pleasure that was one of the delights and highlights of our school year.

But human values change – depending on necessity. Now, in the UK, we have to think twice before we pick something in the wild because of restrictions placed on us by 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Yet, on the other hand, these new guidelines have led to new attitudes which in turn have saved some species from extinction. An article in the Telegraph in 2010 explained how an hourly police patrol had to be organised around a specific location at the Silverdale Golf Club in order to protect the Lady’s Slipper orchid there. Four years and several arrests later the rare wild flower still inhabits the golf course. 


There are many subcultures and tribes woldwide. Past ones have been lost to the world, unrecorded. Now, with all our different image capture devices, we should be able to store information and then read subcultures like a book.

For example, take: Furries – or not as the case may be! A documentary film such as Furries: An Inside Look can tell us a lot. According to this documentary, Furries are people who take on a fursona (furry persona) and becomes a ‘furry’. A whole economy revolves around this furry fandom way of life – as furry fans can earn money contributing to furry activities, such as hiring out furry costumes, speaking at Furries Conventions and selling furry art. 

Trends emerge

And so it goes that the ordinary, everyday ways of going about our lives, things that seem as innocuous as picking a wild flower, can become unavailable or even illegal. Milk bottles, wild flowers and ink wells are just three examples of the ordinary where change leaves a mark.

Also the tools we use evolve into different shapes over time. We've gone from dip-in pens and ink wells to the ability to electronically tag wild plants in my lifetime. I'm panicking slightly, as I can find milk bottles on the web - but has anyone made a record of those ink wells?

So, once we examine a documentary art collection showing us images of a specific time, place or tribe, can we perhaps draw some conclusions about where our natural inclinations will take us to in the future?

Does our interest in technology stem from our need to feel in control of what is going on around us, I wonder?

And when we align ourselves with sub cultures such as Furries – is it because our imagination and creativity are really important to our identity and we want to express that? Or is it simply a need to make more sense of our own human nature?

Different media

Documentary art takes many forms. Here is a list that leads you to more examples of documentary photography, art and film…

Documentary drawings

Julia Midgley shows a collection of artworks that are about recording current life. Some of the works have been specially commissioned to record an event.

Documentary photography lists a wide range of different types of art. This particular link takes you to photographic documentary.

Documentary film

Top Documentary Films is a collection of American films on a wide range of life – including Furry Fandom mentioned above.

DocumentaryHeaven includes a category on art and artists e.g. the traditional art of sign painting.

A further Google search for ‘documentary artists’ will set you on an intriguing trail… Share if you find something inspirational!