Shuttering an Era: The End of Photojournalism

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The LA Times has a sobering review of a new Getty Museum exhibition:

The 10 photographers in "Engaged Observers," opening June 29 at the Getty Museum, are at once storytellers, witnesses, advocates for justice, investigative journalists, consciousness raisers, evidence gatherers and educators. They're also something of an endangered species, threatened by the destruction of their professional habitat. Magazines that used to commission such photographers to create in-depth chronicles of social phenomena, cultural conflict and struggle and change within communities have either gone out of print (the most legendary, Life, died as a weekly in 1972 and as a monthly in 2000) or are operating on scarcer and scarcer resources.

Assignments from print media largely supported the projects on view in the exhibition: Leonard Freed's incisive look at what it meant to be "Black in White America" in the 1960s, Larry Towell's sensitive portrait of Mennonite colonies in Canada and Mexico, Sebastião Salgado's epic study of human migration and others. For many of these photographers, assigned and self-assigned work could overlap and feed into one another, but not anymore, according to Mary Ellen Mark, represented in the show by "Streetwise," her tough, intimate portrayal of Seattle's runaway kids in the '80s.

"There's no more balance. That's over," Mark says by phone from her New York studio. "You wouldn't find a document like 'Streetwise' in magazines anymore."

A March article in the New York Times considers the strategies of different kinds of photographers in the new environment:

Amateurs, happy to accept small checks for snapshots of children and sunsets, have increasing opportunities to make money on photos but are underpricing professional photographers and leaving them with limited career options. Professionals are also being hurt because magazines and newspapers are cutting pages or shutting altogether.

"There are very few professional photographers who, right now, are not hurting," said Holly Stuart Hughes, editor of the magazine Photo District News.

Perhaps only after a trade or profession is threatened by technological change do critics cease to carp about it. Of course photography has always had academic as well as popular enthusiasts, but well into the twentieth century, generations of intellectuals suspected it. The photographic historian and educator Robert Leggat recounts the medium's early controversies, including Baudelaire's famous sneer that it was the "refuge of failed painters." And Leggat reminds us that in the mid-nineteenth century, photography itself was a disaster for some portrait painters, especially miniaturists:

Some painters dubbed the new invention "the foe-to-graphic art." Certainly those artists who specialised in miniature portraits suffered; in 1810 over 200 miniatures were exhibited at the Royal Academy; this rose to 300 in 1830, but thirty years later only sixty-four were exhibited, and in 1870 only thirty-three.

There's a special irony in the fate of the photojournalism magazines. Following Baudelaire's precedent, Depression-era thinkers of all political stripes suspected them. Douglas Brinkley writes in his new biography of Life magazine's founder, Henry Luce, The Publisher:

To the socialist Left, the magazines were tools of the bourgeoisie, reinforcing a middle-class view of the world and luring the proletariat into its culture. To intellectual critics of popular culture, among them the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who worte pessimistically in 1938 that "the fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture"), the photo magazines were vehicles by which "readers" became "lookers," and "understanding" became simply "seeing."

Now issues of the same illustrated magazines are displayed as priceless cultural relics in exhibitions like the Museum of Modern Art's show on Henri Cartier-Bresson, now closing, even if the photographer's print rather than the (sometimes cropped) editor's halftone is their real object. Many of those prints would never have existed without the magazines' assignments.

Finally, there's an important comment in the LA Times review:

Also, viewing an extensive essay on screen is not the same as making one's way through the pages of a book or magazine.

"Internet viewing is mostly a scanning experience, rather than being enveloped," [Getty Museum associate photography curator Brett] Abbott says. "A lot of these projects are so dependent on nuance and context, I don't know how this will translate to the Internet. I don't know if it can be translated without new strategies."

That's what some people are saying about text, too.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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