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Modern Photojournalism (1920-1990)

Photography was invented in the 1840s, but it was in the 1920s when photography became modern. This was possible with invention of the first 35mm camera, the Leica.

This had enabled the photographer to go anywhere and take as much photos with a smaller equipment to take the  shots. The difference was without a doubt, has a dramatic effect for primarily posed photos. It had made  people aware of the photographer’s presence and  to see a new and natural photographs of people as they really lived.

Photo magazines started emerging from the mid 1920s. It was Life magazine which  created a new general-interest magazine which relies mostly on modern photojournalism. It was published weekly and became immediately popular, it even created copy-cat magazines, such as Look, See, Photo, Picture, Click and so on. (Life magazine finally folded in 2001).

In the world war II era, Life was seen as one of the most influential photojournalism magazine in the world. It published  some of the most dramatic pictures of  conflict, during the war. These photos did not come often from the newspapers but from the weekly photojournalism magazines, and it is these photos that still are famous today.

Photographs such as the Arthur Rothstein’s  “dust bowl photo”, or Dorothea Lange’s”Migrant Mother, can still be viewed today.

[Migrant Mother, 1936. By Dorothea Lange]

Photography has always been driven by technology. This is because photography, more than any other visual art, is built around machines and, at least until recently, chemistry.

By the 1990s photojournalists were already shooting mostly in colour and had made actual prints, but with the use of  computer technology to scan film directly into the design, it was the beginning of the new millennium.

Photojournalists were no longer using film as  digital photography had become so universal, it was both faster and cheaper in an industry preoccupied with both speed and profit.

Colour had become the standard for “legacy media,” for newspapers and magazines, as well as for web news sites. Colour printing technology also requires a higher quality image, so photojournalists have  to adapt their methods to accept fewer available light images.

Most publications are looking for eye-grabbing colour and not necessary in black and white.  As colour demands correction to avoid greenish or orangeish casts from artificial light, this has meant photojournalists, have to have even more sophisticated new cameras, sometimes returning to the methods of their ancestors by carefully setting up lights and posing their subjects.

You will often find, if you compare published photography today to that to 25 years ago, many fewer candid photos, less spontaneity, fewer feature photos of people grabbed at work or doing something outside. In fact,the subject is aware of the camera, just as they were before the 1960s, in the beginning  of the quest for naturalism in photojournalism.

Photojournalism is still very much needed. It documents the usually unseen and unknown as well as having access to where most can not go, e.g: War, Afghanistan. Photojournalism is a powerful visual tool, which speaks to the viewer on many levels. This is why it will always be in publication.

[Accidental Napalm attack, 1972. By Nick Ut]

Think of any single photo which speaks volumes.  Most will think of  Tiananmen Square in China, and you’d possibly recall the man facing down tanks. Think of the Gulf  War, the wounded soldier crying over a comrade will come to mind. Think Vietnam War, and the execution of a Vietcong, or of the naked girl running, as she was a napalm victim. The single image still holds some defining power in our society.

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