Photojournalism, by the Editors of Time-Life Books

Life-Library-of-Photography-Photojournalism

This title was published in 1972 as part of the Life Library of Photography, and while some of its companion volumes have dated significantly over the last 45 or so years, the one on photojournalism holds up well.  The heavily illustrated large-format pages examine the subject in broad terms, showing how ubiquitous photojournalism is in daily life, providing a window on the world and helping us to interpret its complexity, while shaping our understanding of it.

The first chapter outlines the roots of photojournalism in basic eighteenth century newspaper woodcut illustrations, then the increase in the number and quality of illustrations as technology improved during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, moving from engraved versions of photographs to reproductions of the photographs themselves.  It also discusses the ethical issues raised by the intrusive methods photojournalism often employs.

These concerns have become even more pressing with the internet and the growth in camera phone ownership.  At the same time there is greater stress nowadays on the self-ownership of their image by many who feel that being photographed by a stranger is an invasion of privacy, a situation complicated still further by the increased awareness of child protection that can render seemingly innocuous photographs (and well-intentioned photographers) suspect.

Subsequent chapters examine the ways in which photojournalism has captured aspects of the world, from documenting key moments in history – the atomic bomb, the first flight in a heavier-than-air machine, landing on the moon – to its use as a persuader, either commercially or as a tool of government policy.  Some photographs are benign, such as Gandhi spinning, others are horrible, such as the assassination of a Japanese politician by a right-wing student.  There is the sinister – Mussolini caught from below as he gives a speech, or a wide-angle shot of a Nuremberg Rally – and the moving.  There is the everyday, and there is the photograph that helps to stimulate a social movement – can anyone not be appalled by the sight of a white man kicking a black man who is on his knees, caught during a violent anti-school integration protest in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1958?

There are reminders of pain and suffering, and of joy.  Some are intimate, others capture a large canvas – the 1906 San Francisco fire following the earthquake conveys the scale of the destruction a written account would struggle to achieve.  A woman who threw herself from the eighth floor of a building and has been caught a fraction of a moment before she hits the pavement cannot but fill the viewer with horror and compassion while simultaneously pondering on the element of voyeurism and yes, marvelling at the skill and luck of the photographer.  Social observation, crime, war, politics, protest, sport: it’s all here.

Chapters show how the photographic essay developed from pictures grouped haphazardly into a sophisticated method of telling stories pictorially.  Naturally given the book’s publisher Life magazine content makes frequent appearances (and the book tends to reproduce the Life outlook on the world).  There are lengthy extracts from spreads to show how photo essays are put together to gain maximum impact, whether the subject is a Spanish village, young middle-class drug addicts, or the work of the Farm Security Administration  photographers.

Technical chapters examine the role of the craft to emphasise that these are not straightforward slices of reality but are affected by the photographer, in the choice of lighting, angle, distance, film, lens, shutter speed, paper, cropping, and above all the moment – recall how politicians are made to look stupid by being captured in an awkward gesture.  The darkroom (or these days Photoshop, which has increased the ease of manipulation) offers additional opportunities to influence the message the image is intended to convey; there could have been more on how the photographer can distort meaning by fabrication, something that predates ‘photoshopping’.  Even the way photographs are arranged affects their reception.

Tips for amateurs wanting to try the techniques are offered, with advice from professionals and an in-depth analysis of a particular assignment at a day-care centre.  A concluding section surveys the diversity of photojournalism, not just in newspapers and magazines – mass circulation and niche – but in postcards and greetings cards, calendars, book and record covers (the latter sadly a dying art) and of course advertising.  An appendix has brief notes on equipment, all pre-digital of course – who would want to lug a Speed Graphic around these days?  Yet while the hardware has changed since the book’s publication, there are still useful lessons, and it is worth revisiting older pictures that are easily forgotten in today’s flood.

The introduction describes a casual walk with Alfred Eisenstaedt in which the famous photojournalist did not take any pictures but was at the ready, just in case.  The point is made that while amateurs may have the same or similar attributes as professionals in terms of imagination, proficiency and even kit, the major distinguishing feature separating them is attitude.  The professional is constantly thinking about how to take pictures that will sell and brings a degree of self-criticism to the results usually lacking in amateurs; anybody can improve, but it requires discipline.  This is true more than ever, when clicking away is so easy.  Studying books like this can’t hurt either.

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