10 August 2009

Photojournalism: A Death by Inches

Reading about the history of photography lately, it's amazing how many revolutions this art form has gone through in its brief lifetime. Photography in the form we know it, portable and widely used on a variety of subjects, only came into being in the late 1870s. And then it was only after another fifty years that it really started to find its own voice and become the modern medium we all know.

Very important to photography's history is photojournalism. The most important single body of photos from the 19th century are certainly Mathew Brady & Co.'s images of the Civil War. A majority of the most iconic photos of the 20th and 21st centuries, at least among non-photographers, comes out of photojournalism, though a close second place must be awarded to fashion/celebrity portraiture (same thing to me; think Annie Liebovitz). Both those genres of photography have of course flourished because there has been money in them. They produce iconic images because, as staples of mass media, a lot of people see them.

For photojournalism, that is decreasingly the case. The NY Times just published today an article titled, "Lament for a Dying Field: Photojournalism." The story was filed under business, not art, but I see it as the death of an art form.

But only in a certain respect. As a professional art form, photojournalism has been in decline for some time, due to shifts in media. Its heyday directly corresponds to the heyday of its most prominent vehicle, Life magazine in its Henry Luce era, which ran as a weekly from 1936-1972. Its popularity funded ambitious photojournalist projects like those of W. Eugene Smith. Life and its style of photojournalism was basically killed by television.

Photojournalism has ever since been less an independent vehicle of expression than illustration, but demand for it in print media has been sufficient that the talented and determined photojournalist has still been able make a living at it. But with the decline of print media and revenues, as the NYT article describes, photojournalists are in the same dire straits as all other journalists.

Journalism and photojournalism will both survive in different forms, but it seems likely that many fewer people will be doing it professionally. That may especially be the case with photojournalism. My own concern is less for people who have to find new careers (hey, that's life) than for how this will affect the medium of photography and our visual literacy, as well as (with all journalism) the deep coverage of socially significant events and issues.

This will not mean fewer photographs are made and published. Never have more photographs been made and published. I'm not even sure that, in spite of increasing amaturization, fewer brilliant photographs will be published. I think professionals may produce great photos as much through opportunity and volume as by pure artistic talent. Some of even the most significant "professionals" in the history of photography, like Alfred Stieglitz, were not the greatest photographers, while amateurs like Julia Margaret Cameron and Jacques Henri Lartigue produced images of enduring artistry and historical importance.

But with the greater diffusion of photographs across the internet, fewer photos and photographers will enjoy the universal exposure that they once enjoyed when media channels were narrower, and therefore fewer icons will be produced. And I think icons, both iconic artists and iconic works, are necessary for the cultivation of an art. They focus collective attention, produce criticism, and provide the common points of reference needed for literacy.

So all this seems to bode ill for photojournalism, as a career and, perhaps, as an art. But will this also be detrimental to photography in general as an art?

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