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The History Of Photojournalism

The relationship between photography and the news has blurred the line between documentation and art since the practice began. Eyes to viewfinders, fingers to shutter release; photojournalists have the amazing ability to immortalise key moments in human history. Imagine the whole world remembering an event through an image you captured!

Muhammed Ali standing over Sonny Liston - John Rooney

More than this, the practice shapes and has shaped how we visualise important events, movements and cultures, both in our past and our present. When you think of Muhammed Ali, John Rooney’s image of the boxer standing over Sonny Liston may come to mind. When considering past wars, we might see Joe Rosenthal’s iconic capture of the U.S. flag being raised in Iwo Jima, or perhaps Nick Ut’s terrifying vision of a post-napalm Vietnamese village. The point is, photojournalists have the amazing power and responsibility to immortalise human events, but also to reveal and expose them in the first place.

From humble and exclusive beginnings, to a space we can all contribute to with the power of smartphones, press photography’s evolution makes for an interesting journey through the years. Social issues have been publicised, pop-culture icons have been enshrined and brutal wars have been interrogated. We owe so much of our collective human memory to photojournalists from years-gone-by. It is more than worth casting our minds back to where it all began, and how it grew into where we find the practice today.


White Angel Breadline (1933)- Dorothea Lange

Many agree we owe the term ‘photojournalism’ to the turmoil of the first four decades of last century. Picture (pardon the pun), photography as a relatively new form of art, not very accessible and lacking in professional legitimacy. This is where we were in 1900. Fast forward to the end of the 1930s and photographs have become an almost indispensable part of the news. So what happened? Turmoil mostly. And through this turmoil, emerged some of the early names we remember as great photojournalists.

Names like Robert Capa, Ernest Brooks and W. Eugene Smith, who put themselves in the thick of wartime action. They braved conflicts such as the Spanish Civil War, WWI’s western front and WWII’s pacific theatre to document and preserve the true nature of the violence. Meanwhile, names such as Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Alfred Stieglitz picked up their cameras to document the often strife-ridden interwar years.

German Prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge (1944) - Robert Capa

A defining characteristic of the time was press censorship, which often prevented the publication of great photos in the interest of preserving national morale and/or helping the war effort. Nonetheless, some of my favourite photographs were taken in this period.

1950s - 1970s

The 50s to the 70s are considered by some to have been a golden era for photojournalism. Camera options had evolved significantly since the war and interwar years and the average person could access a viable camera to a far greater extent.

From The Panhandle (1987) - Ken Griffiths

Moreover, those serious about their craft enjoyed a wealth of options in all formats. If sheet film was too cumbersome for your avenue, (let's say you were a war photographer in Vietnam), 35mm options had come a long way. Similarly, if you were employed to document happenings in pop-culture, and perhaps wanted a better quality negative; rolleiflex(s) and other 120 cameras had made huge steps forwards in terms of quality and manoeuvrability.

The popularity of magazines such as LIFE and Vogue opened doors for more creatives to enter the photojournalism space. This was something that helped set this era apart from its predecessors. Perhaps, a development we can put down to the rise of live television broadcasting. A medium that helped shoulder the need for strict objectivity and clarity in the news. Nonetheless, few other mediums could match photography’s power to move and be impactful, when a still image is seen in print.

There was much to photograph on the serious, big news front too. The aforementioned conflict in Vietnam produced a swathe of iconic works of journalism and empowered many photojournalists in a way seldom seen before. Nick Ut, Don McCullin and Horst Faas to name a few journalists who braved violence there, and elsewhere, to document the realities of modern war. In much the same way, photojournalism also became a method of political dissent.

The genre became a method of discussing life under authoritarian regimes. Particularly poignant and impactful were photographs from Berlin which showed the political divide which physically bisected the city. Don McCullin’s work in this area is notable, as is that of Peter Leibing and Paul Schultzer to name a few more. The 70s and 80s gave us more of this in spades. Popular culture and wartime politics captured in equal measure by a significantly sized creative class of photojournalists.

1990s - Today

Kurt Cobain’s MTV Unplugged in NYC (1993)- Frank Micelotta

This brings us to modern-day, where debates over the validity of photojournalism almost serve as a call-back to those in the early 1900s. As phones have become smarter and faster, the distinction between press photographers and members of the public with cameras in-hand has blurred. Indeed, every individual nowadays, in the right place at the right time, probably has the capacity to contribute visual material to the news.

This is assuming they have the thought to reach for their smartphone, and the time to film or photograph the event, depending on how much risk the occurrence might pose to them. However, professional photojournalists will set themselves apart in the calculated way they go about documenting a scene. For example,the exposure triangle; three interrelated metrics that control how much light is let onto the photograph, will be drilled into their brains. Whilst shooting they will be weighing up considerations of composition versus objectivity; they want to capture a scene without intruding or disturbing the moment.

US- Brokered Peace Accord for Bosnia (1994) - Greg Gibson

They want to take a technically ‘good’ picture. Photojournalism has always been a deliberate exercise backed by technical proficiency and a decisive mindset.

That being said, amazing photojournalism work has been done thanks to the unassuming nature of smartphone technology. For Example, Benjamin Lowy’sLife During Wartime’ series is an incredible look at life in war torn Afghanistan, shot purely on a 2011 iphone. It shows that smartphone technology can aid the photojournalist, but doesn’t pay into the argument that anyone can be a photojournalist by virtue of the phone in their pocket.

Either way, what is clear, is that the profession/genre has evolved significantly since its early years. Photojournalism will always be an important section of the photography canon. Although the majority have moved away from our soft-spot for analogue, photojournalists around the world continue to take stunning photographs which inform us, and will inform future generations of their history for centuries to come.


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