I can usually stand but so much reading and writing about gear. After too much of it, the time comes when I have to go take refuge in pictures again. Nothing's quite as bracing as a good historical archive, looking at the work of photographers who often had only one shot to work with and generally had no artistic pretensions because photography—their photography, certainly—wasn't considered art. They often simply photographed things they found interesting, meaningful, unusual, or remarkable.
The University of Washington Libraries Digital Initiatives program has a large selection online from its archives of the work of Lee Pickett, a photographer who worked in Washington State from 1911 until the 1940s. The official photographer of the Great Northern Railway, he was based in Index, Washington, in the heart of the Cascade Mountains.
The writing of titles and notes directly on the negatives is often a tip-off to a working photographer's lack of artistic pretense; it's almost a formal flag of the primacy of the documentary record. (Although photographers got good at writing backwards, they sometimes still slanted their letters forward as they wrote, making the slant look backwards in the print.)
Note the crude but effective posing aids in the picture below (that's one way to make dogs sit still for a picture!). Two of the dogs are looking intently at the man whose foot appears in the right side of the frame. A beautiful photograph, of which any postmodernist could be proud.
Featured Comment by John Roberts: "'They often simply photographed things they found interesting, meaningful, unusual, or remarkable.' I find this approach to photography many times produces work that is so much more interesting than what is usually offered up as 'art' photography. Perhaps it's the complete lack of pretense that allows photographers like Mr. Pickett to produce photographs that still hold our interest so many decades later."
Featured Comment by John Robison: "When I view photos like these, of a long gone time, I have a question. Who are taking pictures today of the usual, the boring, the record, the mundane, the ebb and flow of "common" things. Photos that will wind up in the main street museums of towns small and large? Seeing these makes me want to grab the largest format camera I have, load it with some 100 iso film, and go make pictures of these very common things."
Mike replies: I've always said that at the very least, cities and states should have official "public photographers" whose job it is to document everyday life, what the city looks like at any given time, simply to leave some tracks and make a record. If it were something that we had started doing a hundred years ago, no one would question it. But since we don't do it, no one sees the point in it. It would amount to the most minuscule drop in the bucket of public expenses, but it would likely provide a meaningful adjunct to the motley of pictures that are taken (and that endure) haphazardly, by artists, amateurs, snapshooters, photojournalists, and for commercial purposes. To answer your question, though, probably the closest thing to what you're talking about are newspaper photographers. Of course, one problem with that is that when newspapers go out of business, often as not their archives are discarded.
Featured Comment by John Camp: "Actually, the place where this gets done, a lot, is not museums but state historical societies. They often buy large collections of genre photos, absorb old newspaper files, and so on. These society files, along with newspaper files, regularly get used to create "Our Town Yesterday" books, which you can find everywhere. I even wrote the introduction to one, called Strange Days, Dangerous Nights, by Larry Millet.
"For people who live near a state capital, the historical societies are photographic treasure-houses, as are (sometimes, depending on the funding mechanism) local county and city historical societies. A pretty famous photo book, Wisconsin Death Trip, came mostly through one of these societies, I think (from Jackson County, Wisconsin).
"While these societies are a wonderful resource for daily photography, one problem is that the photos tend to be 'event' oriented. I think there might be some value to organizing a kind of photo expedition which would simply take 'flat' photos—the interiors of supermarkets and stores and factories, document dress and 'what's in the refrigerator' and medicine cabinets, including close-ups of the contents of medicines and cereals and all the other things we put in our mouths...a kind of uninflected index of our civilization at this point."
Mike adds: Wisconsin Death Trip is a great book, although it's one I've never owned (I thoroughly osmosed the library's copy in art school).