The Photojournalist’s Canon: Part One — The First 50 Years

This is a set of posts about inspirations and influences. I know you may have landed here following a search about camera equipment, but to quote Peter Adams, “A camera didn’t make a great picture anymore than a typewriter wrote a great novel.” Photography is about seeing and making any camera of any sort work for you. This post should cite many examples of that.

A “canon,” as used here, is a list. It may be a collection of rules from a religious authority or a list of the great books, music and art of history. This canon is a rough start on a list of the most influential photojournalists or documentary photographers (largely the same thing) to have aimed their lenses at the real world.

The idea came to me as I was looking for a favorite recipe the other day (poblanos en nogada if you’re curious). I went to the stack of cookbooks and pulled Raymond Sokolov’s The Cook’s Canon: 101 Classic Recipes Everyone Should Know, and found myself wondering who or what would be on a photojournalist’s canon.

This could be approached a few different ways: It could be a list of great works, a list of great essays, a list of great photographers. I chose the last because great works or great essays can be isolated incidents in a career, or can be forgotten or never escape a small readership. Great photojournalists have succeeded in not only repeatedly producing great work, but in getting it seen by masses and collected by institutions.

Why bother? Everyone’s list may be different. Some will argue the merits of who makes such a list. Who am I to decide? But that’s the beauty of a blog. This is ostensibly a conversation, and I make no pretense that I have the final word. Please feel free to add to this list in the comments with a name and a few sentences to make your case.

And what do you care? For many, this should be a reminder of who influenced us to take up the profession whether they are on this list or not. For students of the art/craft/profession, it is a list of those worthy of some study. For all it will hopefully be inspiration to truly innovate in what we do.

In order to have a pattern and avoid excessive repetition of styles, here are the standards I have selected. He or she (or maybe they) should have:

  • Produced documentary work reflecting the important standards and ethics of the profession,
  • Stood the test of time by repeatedly producing notable work, and
  • Innovated in the art or profession by being first to adopt an important style or approach, break a barrier or rise above the limits of the day.

This isn’t as easy as it might seem to be. For example, take Henri Cartier-Bresson. Of the decisive-moment-layered-geometric-composition style is he the first? Or did André Kertész do all that first? Should Marc Riboud, also one of my personal heroes, be included? Or does his work stand firmly in the same genre as HC-B? The nuances and potential arguments are many. But what the hell. It’s worth a try. If you add to the list, make a point about why they were first or best at an approach. If I were just making a list of favorites, this would be a different sort of list.

In order to make this an approachable read, I’ll start with the first 50 (or so) years:

03_HistoryRoger Fenton — This guy may have been the first photographer to drag a camera into a war zone. He photographed the scene of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the Crimea in 1855.  Though until the 20th century photography was seen not as art but as document, Fenton may have been the first photojournalist. Granted, his ethics would certainly not pass even 20th-century standards, but he made a few long exposures on sluggish glass plates that for the first time transported viewers to the scene of a major world event.

 

Bodies of Confederate dead gathered for burial after the Battle of Antietam, September 1862, by Brady photographer Alexander Gardner.

Mathew Brady — Six years later this star American photographer arranged a similar thing. Brady was a studio photographer noted mostly for his portraits, including those of Abe Lincoln made — as many assume — by securing the president’s head to a metal rod so he could hold still for the long exposure. Imagine… “Excuse me, Mr. President while I strap your head in place…” But Brady packed up his studio onto a wagon and sent assistants out to the scenes of death and mayhem in the American Civil War, where they photographed aftermath mostly, because dead soldiers didn’t move. They did, however, make images of men posed in bivouacs and other situations where they could hold still for the daguerreotype plates. His crew, which included notables Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan, and other period photographers also produced work in 3D for stereoscope viewers. Today we worry about shocking and desensitizing our readers, but back then they delivered the gore in 3D by selling cards in stores. To end this lengthy note, we might say Brady was as much the first photo agent as he was an early photojournalist, running a team of photographers to cover the war. Like Fenton and others of his era, the manipulations of all their images before and after the exposure are legendary. But as I’ve noted here before, ethics evolve. He should be on this list for his innovations. And in an end far too common on this list, he died penniless.

Eadweard Muybridge — Muybridge was as strange as his invented name and certainly not a photojournalist in any classic sense. But his work in settling a bet on whether all four hooves of a horse leave the ground at a gallop make him a seminal documenter of scientific phenomena. Following him one could easily include the likes of electronic flash inventor Dr. Harold Edgerton, obsessive railroad photographer O. Winston Link and photographers of the mechanics of the natural world like Louie Psihoyos or James Balog.

Cameron portrait (left) of Julia Prinsep Jackson, later Julia Stephen, Cameron's niece, favorite subject, and mother of the author Virginia Woolf. "The Red Man" (right) photograph by Gertrude Käsebier

Cameron portrait of Julia Prinsep Jackson, later Julia Stephen, Cameron’s niece, favorite subject, and mother of the author Virginia Woolf.

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“The Red Man” photograph by Gertrude Käsebier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Julia Margaret Cameron and Gertrude Käsebier — History is filled with white men, even though women and other races are innovating alongside the counterparts that have generally held the pens and purse strings. These two women came to photography relatively late in life, and broke gender presumptions to make extraordinary portraits on two sides of the world — Cameron in Britain and Ceylon, and Käsebier in the U.S. Their styles were rich, intimate, personal and beautiful.

 

The iconic ruins in Canyon de Chelly, Ariz., by Timothy O’Sullivan.

Timothy O’Sullivan — This Civil War combat veteran, photographer of Gettysburg and one of Brady’s minions made his own distinct name by making some of the first best images of the American West. His romantic pictures of the mountains and canyons of the frontier arguably fueled western expansion by demystifying the region and romanticizing its beauty. On the other side of the planet a contemporary, John Thomson, was exploring China with a camera, for purposes of documenting the reality of that ancient culture for those back in Europe who could not go there. His images are not only beautiful, but filled with intricate detail and volumes of information. Would have National Geographic existed yet…

 

White Man Runs Him, a Crow scout serving with George Armstrong Custer’s 1876 expeditions against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne that culminated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Edward S. Curtis, c. 1908.

Edward S. Curtis — Curtis, funded with $75,000 by J.P. Morgan in 1906, set out to photograph The North American Indian. Making beautiful portraits of disappearing cultures was the superficial goal, but ethnologists and historians discredit his work for its romanticism over accuracy. Curtis sought the beauty in the subject and amplified it by dressing his subjects in elaborate head dresses and clothing inappropriate to their cultural history. Despite the fictionalized images, the breathtaking collection he made still provides a document of peoples making a transition into the 20th century and humanizes formerly maligned and belittled peoples. His images have echoed not only down the line of documentary portrait photographers, but in the work of fashion greats Irving Penn and Richard Avedon who made loosely real portraits of visually compelling cultures decades later. Curtis had a little-known contemporary who did a much more ethical-in-our-eyes job of it: Frank (Sakae) Matsura, a Japanese photographer who set out to photograph Native Americans in their daily lives then, often dressed in European clothes and struggling to adapt to a foreign culture. Gertrude Käsebier at the same time applied her formidable portrait talents to photographing Native Americans.

 

Immigrant living in Victorian New York, by Jacob Riis.

Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine — Riis started a tradition, continued by Hine twenty years later, of using the camera as a tool to document social injustice and grab at the hearts and minds of readers. As a reporter who used the camera to prove his point, Riis crusaded against immigrant living conditions in New York’s slums. Hine saw the camera as his principal tool, however, and used it to fight against child labor. Riis’ flash powder illuminated dingy dwellings. Hine charmed, conned and cajoled his way into mines and factories to photograph the tiny children working there. The work of both helped change old laws or create new ones to protect underprivileged citizens. Their work has influenced all that followed, from the Photo League to the Farm Security Administration and the photographers of the Civil Rights Movement such as Danny Lyon and Bruce Davidson to any documentary photographer working for social change.

 

Child labor, by Lewis Hine.

To Part 2…

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  1. #1 by Neal Malik on July 28, 2011 - 10:21 pm

    I love this, I often found myself going back looking at older images of my relatives and reflecting to their time. These images are haunting, looking into the eyes and onto the battle grounds from over a hundred years ago. It makes me wonder about our digital age, will we lose something by being able to delete what we think is a bad image? With a push of a button we can dump an image, “poof” and its gone forever. Photography is my love, so much so I even own a small business, “Impressions in Time” http://www.impressionintime.com. Even the name came from my love of looking back to see the distant and not to distant past. But I myself have fallen prey to the ease of deleting what I think is a flawed image. It makes you wonder how much of what we have now would not exist if these past giants of photography would have had our technology.

    Like

  2. #2 by Amit Bose on September 8, 2011 - 1:10 pm

    The blog gave me a great insight into how great minds work. It is unbelievable how far these legends used to go, that extra effort they had put in to shoot what they wanted.

    Great piece!!!!

    Like

  1. The Photojournalist’s Canon: Part Two — Early 20th Century « Perfesser Kev
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