Fall 2001

Photojournalism at a Crossroads

Technology, culture and economics will determine its future.

By Peter Howe

Although rumors of photojournalism’s death have been substantially exaggerated during the last decade, it certainly isn’t what it used to be. Its glory days are long gone, days when Life, Look, Picture Post and others employed teams of dazzlingly talented photographers and when Fortune regularly printed the work of icons of photography like Walker Evans. And the more recent display of hard-hitting, relevant documentary work in the pages of Paris Match, under the magical direction of the late Roger Therond, is mostly a memory.

What caused this decline is complex, with the whodunit qualities of an Agatha Christie mystery. The easy answer is that television killed photojournalism or, if it didn’t inflict the fatal blow, seriously wounded it. The speed with which television news crews record, transmit and display their work to audiences of millions severely reduces the ability of photographers to compete for the attention of those same viewers. But it’s also true TV’s offerings are mostly unsatisfying 30-second segments that, at best, only skim the surface of stories. Common wisdom reminds us that a photographic image has a lasting value that television’s ephemeral nature can never equal. What photojournalism gives up in speed, it more than makes up for in the power of its frozen image.

But there is more to this story. Technological developments rarely replace what precedes them, though they do force change. A more significant influence on photojournalism’s declining appearance in mainstream publications is a cultural shift begun in the 1980’s and continuing today. Financial rewards seduce many photographers into shifting their focus from documenting news to creating flattering images of the faces, bodies, homes and lifestyles of those celebrities whom our culture now deems worthy of attention.

The cult of celebrity worship is pervasive, and its effect on photojournalism has been devastating. InStyle, a publication that breathily brings to its readers a sanitized version of the lifestyles of the rich and vacuous, is the most successful recent magazine launch of Henry Luce’s company. Not that Luce would have disapproved, given his embrace of the bottom line. And neither should we too sentimentally revere Time, Fortune and Life under his stewardship. After all, Life brought us such cutting edge features as “How to Undress in Front of Your Husband” and offered further assistance to the ladies of the time with a picture feature on how to smoke. But Life as a weekly also showcased superb work by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Carl Mydans, Robert and Cornell Capa, and W. Eugene Smith. Their likes are not to be found in the pages of InStyle, or anywhere else for that matter, except perhaps Mother Jones.

It is, of course, simplistic to argue that photojournalism’s past was golden and its present leaden. What is more interesting and much more mysterious is photojournalism’s future. My wife and I recently attended a private opening of the magnificent show by Sebastião Salgado, “Migrations,” at the International Center of Photography [ICP] in New York City. She was standing in front of powerful and distressing photographs of starving women refugees in Africa when a waiter in a white jacket offered her a tray full of beef sirloin hors d’oeuvres topped with fois gras. She looked at him, then at the photographs, and politely declined. Her discomfort in many ways was a reflection of mine, a comment on what seems a trend in the way contemporary documentary photography is viewed.

Salgado has produced a body of work depicting the tragic consequences of migration around the world resulting from severe economic hardship, internecine wars, natural disasters, and other forces that cause families to leave their native environments. It took seven years and millions of dollars to produce and is a project of such power and enormity that it is impossible to absorb in one viewing. Its value as a document of witness is unquestionable. What is questionable is the value of having work of this quality and importance displayed on gallery walls where fewer people can absorb it and where its message is in danger of becoming muted.

In the way that painting in Italian society of the Renaissance was a part of everyday life for rich and poor alike, photojournalism once similarly was integrated into the lives of millions of Americans, British, French and Germans through its publication in popular magazines. Painting in contemporary society has become mostly the domain of the urban, educated and often wealthy elite. It would be a tragedy if this was the only future for photojournalism since one of its great strengths lies in its ability to communicate across linguistic, cultural and national barriers.

The “Migrations” exhibition is stunning, and the ICP must be applauded for being one of the few institutions dedicated to giving wall space to such photography. But the effect would be much greater if Salgado’s photographs appeared not only on gallery and museum walls but also in newspapers, magazines and on television in America and across Western Europe, or in any other part of the world where people are able to actually mitigate the causes of displacement.

Salgado also offers another glimpse into the future of photojournalism, this time with a focus on how he works. He begins by identifying a theme that fascinates him, then raises the funds necessary to ensure that he leaves no photographic stone unturned in his coverage. His themes—migration, workers, children, landless peasants—are of global dimensions, so this requires considerable effort in fundraising, something he does with his wife and work partner, Lélia. They are now able to attract such corporate heavyweights as British Petroleum, but this was not always so. To fund the “Workers” project, they assembled a consortium of magazines: Each paid for territorial exclusive rights to publish the work as it was produced. As director of photography at Life, I purchased the North American rights. The (London) Sunday Times bought the UK rights; Stern the German, and Paris Match the French. Through their charm, passion and examples of their work, Sebastião and Lélia ensured that “Workers” would achieve the epic proportions that it eventually did.

When I hear photographers complaining that today nobody pays for work over an extended period of time or that magazines aren’t commissioning meaningful stories (both of which are mostly true), I remember the Salgados in the early days and the efforts that they made to do work on their terms. It might be unfortunate that photographers have to jump through such hoops, but for those who do, the reward is work uncompromised by the demands of deadlines or the whims of editors. For the talented photographer it usually means photography that more accurately reflects his or her passions and sensibilities. Unfortunately, it also usually means the work only reaches the public through exhibitions or limited editions of coffee table books.

On the other end of the communication spectrum is the Internet. In those heady days before the dot-com crash, its potential seemed limitless. The possibility for the Web to become a major outlet still tantalizingly exists, but like so many other enterprises in the digital era, no one has found a way to make money. However, what pushes possibility into the realm of probability is the increasing availability of high-speed connections through cable modems or domestic DSL lines. No longer is there time to brew coffee while a large picture file reveals itself on the screen.

As with similar advances, turbo-charged access brings with it an interesting dilemma. The combination of a cable modem and sophisticated compression techniques will soon produce a media environment in which, for the first time, a viewer will be able to choose between streaming video and still photography. Experience tells us that the still image not only remains in the viewer’s subconscious but also engraves itself upon the psyche of the culture. Think of memorable images: Eddie Adams’ photograph of the Vietnam police colonel executing a Vietcong suspect, Carl Mydans’ picture of General MacArthur wading ashore in the Philippines, and Joe Rosenthal’s classic portrayal of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. These events were filmed, too, but viewers did not have the opportunity to choose which version they wanted to see. In the MTV era of video—with video’s ubiquitousness among younger generations—the Internet could be the medium that finally kills photojournalism as a method of mass communication.

Right now, however, the Web is a much-used vehicle for documentary photographers, many of whom have developed their own sites, including online galleries and print sales. On MSNBC.com, there is a powerful project on aging in America by the photographer Ed Kashi. In the early 1990’s, when I was a consultant for Modern Maturity, I commissioned a large part of this project, little of which was used in the magazine despite spending a significant amount of money on it. So it’s possible that the Web can become a medium that exceeds the kind of display that once was the domain of magazines.

Another question mark in a profession already plagued by too many is the long-term effect of digital cameras. For wire services, the development of this technology is a blessing that potentially contains a poison pill. Armed with cameras and a laptop, the photographer can shoot, edit and transmit in a fraction of the time it would have taken to process and scan traditional film. It also empowers the photographer, who essentially becomes a frontline editor of his or her own work.

The danger lies in the potential loss of archival images whose importance is not apparent until years have passed. On many occasions, an image of lasting historical significance is found at the tail end of a roll of film or two frames away from the photograph originally selected. In the era of digital photography, for example, the picture of President Clinton hugging an insignificant intern would never have been found. It simply would not have been preserved.

Documentary photography will survive. While the craft might now be at a crossroads, there are simply too many practitioners—young and old, good and bad—struggling against great odds for there not to be powerful photographic images in the future, images that will disturb, enlighten, inform and invigorate us. Where we will find them, and who will pay for them, has yet to be determined.

Peter Howe was a working photojournalist for 13 years before becoming director of photography at The New York Times Magazine and Life and a vice president at the digital photo agency Corbis. He is now a consultant, providing assistance to several photographers and picture agencies as they adapt to the digital environment.


1 Comment on Photojournalism at a Crossroads
Ayomide says:
October 1, 2009 at 1:11am
It's really saying the fact
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