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17.3: Photography- From Photojournalism to the Eccentric Eye

  • Page ID
    232367
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University
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    Photohistorian Peter Galassi notes a shift in the "standard of realism" from the static poised images of documentary photography of the 1930s to the blurred, grainy images "caught on the run" with hand-held cameras that would come to characterize post-war photographic practice.17 Exchanging their unwieldy box cameras for nimble 35 mm cameras-Leicas were special favorites-photographers turned the documentary urge of the 1930s to an expanded field: the horrors of the Nazi death camps when first revealed by the camera of Margaret Bourke-White; the mushroom cloud of atomic detonation; the image of an American GI holding a naked baby found in the jungles of Saipan, an island in the Pacific. In the process they disseminated to a mass readership an image of cultural and national unity, grounding collective experience in the stories of individual Americans. Photojournalism crossed lines of region and class, and, occasionally, of color; most often, however, it assumed the sympathies of white middle-class America. Unlike photojournalists, who used photography as a means to an end, the New York School of photographers experimented with the medium itself. Their often idiosyncratic vision was best served in booklength collections that examined a darker vision of America beneath the bland appearances of prosperity, security, and comfort.

    Photojournalism

    Figure 17.20: WEEGEE (ARTHUR FELLIG), Brooklyn School Children See Gambler Murdered in Street (Their First Murder, 9 October 1941), 1941. Gelatin silver print, 10 5/16 x 13 3/16 (26.2 x 33.5 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.
    Figure 17.20: WEEGEE (ARTHUR FELLIG), Brooklyn School Children See Gambler Murdered in Street (Their First Murder, 9 October 1941), 1941. Gelatin silver print, 10 5/16 x 13 3/16 (26.2 x 33.5 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    The term photojournalism refers to an institutional context-mass circulation newspapers and magazines rather than a particular style; it rose to pre-eminence in the 1940s and 1950s in several different forms. The term even encompasses the sensationalistic tabloid style best exemplified by Arthur Fellig, known as Weegee (1899- 1968) (fig. 17.20), whose photography explored the bizarre extremes of human behavior, exploiting the voyeur in all of us. An ace New York City crime scene photographer, Weegee reveled in such scenes as mobsters shot dead in the streets and the leering faces of onlookers, shot at point-blank range.

    Following a narrative model, American photojournalism told stories through images, expanding beyond the possibility of the single frame to two-page spreads featuring unposed shots of people and current events, accompanied by a text that firmly grounded the meanings of the images in a narrative structure. Already well established in German illustrated newspapers since the 1920s, photojournalism got its start in the United States in 1934 with the appearance of Life Magazine, fueled by the prewar emigration of European photographers such as Albert Eisenstadt (1898- 1995) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908- 2004). Life Magazine opened its first issue with a promise to readers: "to see the world, to eyewitness great events ... to see strange things- machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and the moon."18 During the war years, as one American recalled, "Life came every week to deliver the war to our doorstep and replenish our fear."19 In the post-war years, the photojournalism of Life Magazine disseminated an image of cultural and national unity, grounding collective experience in the stories of individual Americans.

    It is hard for us today to appreciate the impact of weekly magazines. Their advertisements, glamor shots, and fashion photography served up images of youth, beauty, and affluence, enticing consumers to pursue manufactured visions of the good life. They commandeered the way Americans imagined distant lands, bringing images from the far corners of the world into the living room. Photojournalism vastly expanded the power of the photograph. Though many have ceased to believe that photography "holds a mirror to the world," its "truth value" as witness to history is still uniquely compelling.

    Figure 17.21: ROBERT CAPA, The Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, near Cerro Muriano (Cordoba front), c. September 5, 1936. Photograph.
    Figure 17.21: ROBERT CAPA, The Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, near Cerro Muriano (Cordoba front), c. September 5, 1936. Photograph.

    ROBERT CAPA. The force of photojournalism to shape our memory of history was expressed with extraordinary immediacy in the war photography of Robert Capa (1913- 54) (fig. 17.21). Shot at the precise meeting point of life and death, Capa's war photographs established a new level of heroic veracity for photojournalism. At their best, his images erase the presence of the photographer in the face of the event itself; a fiction, but one that furnished an unparalleled testimonial to the power of photography as a witness to life. Capa became one of four founding members of the Magnum Photo Agency, a collective of photojournalists including Henri Cartier-Bresson, who worked independently and beyond the control of syndicated news. Keeping control of their negatives, they were free to distribute them as they wished, retaining rights of ownership to their photography.

    Figure 17.22: W. EUGENE SMITH, Nurse Midwife, from Life Magazine, no. 31, pp.134-45, December 3, 1951. Gelatin silver print, 10 5/16 X 13 3/16 in (26.2x33 .5 cm).
    Figure 17.22: W. EUGENE SMITH, Nurse Midwife, from Life Magazine, no. 31, pp.134-45, December 3, 1951. Gelatin silver print, 10 5/16 X 13 3/16 in (26.2x33 .5 cm).

    EUGENE SMITH. Smith (1918- 78), photographer for Life, used the emerging genre of photojournalism with an intense sense of moral mission (fig. 17.22). His caption for "Nurse Midwife: North Carolina, 1951" reads: "This essay on the nurse midwife, Maude Callen, is, in many ways, the most rewarding experience photography has allowed me ... she is probably the greatest person I have been privileged to know. .. . She is, to me, near the pure ideal of what a life of affirmative contribution can be." The photojournalism of Life presumed a close identification between viewer and subject through informality, subjective immediacy, and transparency- the quality that encouraged audiences to connect directly with the reality represented in the image.

    Figure 17.23: EZRA STOLLER , Family portraits from The Family of Man exhibition, 1955. Photograph.
    Figure 17.23: EZRA STOLLER , Family portraits from The Family of Man exhibition, 1955. Photograph.

    THE FAMILY OF MAN. In 1947 Edward Steichen (1879-1973) became director of the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art. There, in 1955, he curated one of the most popular exhibitions in the history of photography. Drawing away from what he felt were the self-involved aesthetic concerns of art photography, Steichen came to see photography as a democratic form capable of molding public attitudes. His The Family of Man exhibition (fig. 17.23) was a fitting conclusion to a distinguished career that spanned fine art, commercial, and public forms of photography. The Family of Man, an extended photo essay on the commonalties that draw the human family together across lines of race, geography, poverty, development and underdevelopment, toured over thirty countries and was seen by some nine million visitors. The 503 images in the exhibition were chosen from thousands submitted. The individual personalities of the photographers-273 in all from around the world, including the leading figures of these decades, from Ansel Adams (1902-84) to Henri Cartier-Bresson-were lost in the insistent theme of universality, which downplayed cultural differences and structural inequalities between rich and poor nations in favor of a humanist message of harmony and cooperation. The culminating image of the exhibition was that of a mushroom cloud, clearly identifying the common threat facing the nations of the world.

    Favoring the message over the maker, The Family of Man put photography firmly in the service of a mass public audience. Its accessible meanings and insistence on photographic transparency-reading through the image to the reality it represents-took shape against the practice of photography as a fine art with its own arcane formalist concerns. And like Abstract Expressionism in the service of international diplomacy, The Family of Man assembled the nations and peoples of the world under the umbrella of the United States Information Agency, the public relations branch of the government responsible for encouraging international goodwill toward the United States.

    The "New York School" of Photographers

    Another area of post-war photography, however, departed dramatically from the style and assumptions that informed photojournalism. A group of photographers working in New York explored the medium itself in a way that paralleled developments in painting. These photographers, who included William Klein (b. 1928), Diane Arbus (1923-71), Weegee, Richard Avedon (1923-2004), Ted Croner (1922- 2005), Lisette Model (1901- 83), Bruce Davidson (b. 1933), and Robert Frank (b. 1924), were linked by a shared aesthetic and subject matter. They exploited a number of new effects previously avoided by fine art and documentary photographers: blurring, light flares, halation (the halo resulting from shooting toward light sources), and graininess. Photographers such as William Klein and Bruce Davidson produced pictures in which context was often lacking, focus blurred, and figures isolated or oblivious to one another. Giving up tight control over lighting, capturing motion, and incorporating the limitations of the camera into their aesthetic, these photographers favored an improvisational, uncrafted look for capturing the private urban worlds and underworlds of New York in the 1950s. Disregarding photographic finish, they emphasized process and threw off the fiction of objectivity by inserting their presence through hand-held cameras: reality can only be known through an individual sensibility. The influential curator of photography, John Szarkowski, at the Museum of Modern Art wrote that the aim of the younger photographers "has not been to reform life, but to know it. Their work betrays a sympathy- almost an affection- for the imperfections and the frailties of society."20 This new breed of 1950s photographers was in revolt against the readability and coherence of mainstream photojournalism. In place of the human bonds uniting Steichen's Family of Man, their work conveys a sense of social fragmentation and urban alienation. The focus was often on the grotesque or absurd, the strange deformities of mass society. And yet their images speak to basic human promptings- the search for companionship and beauty, the desire for love, the craving for recognition, and voyeurism-expressed in uncanny moments that jolt us and disturb our notions of propriety.

    Figure 17.24: STEPHEN FRANK, Diane Arbus with Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, 1970.
    Figure 17.24: STEPHEN FRANK, Diane Arbus with Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, 1970.

    DIANE ARBUS. Arbus (fig. 17.24), the youngest of the New York school, continued a tradition of what historian Christopher Phillips has called the "social fantastic"--drawn to human eccentricity, to urban subcultures such as female impersonators, and exhibiting an immense range of human behavior, a tradition traceable to such European photographers as Andre Kertesz (1894- 1985) and Brassai: (1899- 1984). Yet, coming of age in the repressive conformism of 1950s society, Arbus's nonjudgmental approach established an influential new vocabulary. Arbus took the singular and the odd as a measure of the human, approaching photography as- in her words- a form of "contemporary anthropology. "21 Unlike her colleagues, Arbus's mature work (beginning in 1962) was carefully posed, often shot at close range, and involved an intimate exchange with the subject. Her work, like others of this generation, embraced the intersubjective nature of photography- that is, how the presence of the photographer transformed the subject itself. Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, posed but uncropped, captures a moment of sudden revelatory encounter between the boy and Arbus. Here, self-absorbed play stops and communication takes over, a communication expressed in the odd details of crabbed left hand, cocked head and grimace, and dropped suspender strap. The image, while funny, compels us to acknowledge this small inconsequential actor.

    ROBERT FRANK. The New York School included several European émigrés; among the best-known of the group was a young Swiss photographer named Robert Frank (b. 1924) who had arrived in 1947, one of a long line of European travelers to cast a curious, probing eye on the United States. Like others before him he studied the nation for a glimpse-often disturbing-of Europe's future. On a road trip across the country, funded by the Guggenheim Foundation, Frank shot 687 rolls of film, training his Leica camera at the nation's bars, diners, parks, roadside motels, dreary small towns, big city scenes, Hollywood glamor and media culture, black funerals and segregated buses; Americans driving, eating, loving, gathering, dying in a regional and social cross-section of the country. The result was The Americans (American edition 1959), the best-known of a series of photographic books from this decade.

    It is hard today to grasp just how shocking a book it was. Like Walker Evans (1903-75), a big influence on the young photographer, Frank found his subject in the emptiness of the American landscape. Frank, like Evans, wanted his photographs shown without text; both artists thought hard about the sequence of images. Frank's Leica camera meant smaller-format shots; he gave up control over lighting as well. Frank's photography was sometimes blurry and unevenly exposed, retaining what earlier photographers would have considered technical flaws. He embraced the uncontrolled and accidental. His framing is frequently tilted or arbitrary. His human subjects, pushed to the margins, look away from the camera, or are otherwise obscured. The jukebox, which appears in several shots, seems a symbol of elusive community, occupying an empty space while promising companionship. Compiled in book form, Frank's images produce their meaning cumulatively. His photographic style declared, rather than seeking to disguise, his own presence in the photograph, and with it his subjective vision of the world.

    Frank's anti-aesthetic style would be linked with the anti-establishment stance of the Beat artists and poets among whom he found sympathetic collaborators. He stripped his chronicle of the bland reassurances often projected by photojournalism, and his road trip exposed a rootless society of spiritual nomads. Like the Beats, he looked for authenticity within the minority fringes of American life-African Americans worshiping at the river's edge, or confronting the photographer with expressions of pain that contrast sharply with the masklike stares of those better off. Like other European travelers before him, Frank had a sharp eye for the hypocrisies of American claims to equality in a time of segregation.