Photography’s golden age

May 20, 2013 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: photojournalism.

Magazines distinguished themselves in the middle of the 20th century by becoming the major forum for a special brand of journalism – photojournalism. The use of photos by newspapers at the beginning of the century was quick and utilitarian. Newspapers concerned themselves with recording the day’s events, and they used photographs to help them do just that.

During the 1920s and 1930s, however, the nation had spawned a set of photographers who believed they should go outside their studios and photograph the lives of people, especially those struggling with the economic hard times of the Great Depression. These photographs contained little “news,” but they made powerful statements about the lives that Americans were leading.

About the same time, publishers realized there was a market for the journalistic photographic essay, and they planned publications that would emphasize this genre of journalism. The most famous was Henry Luce’s Life magazine, which came to life in 1936. The magazine was designed on a larger than usual format, ideal for displaying good photographs, and it set the standard for photojournalism for the next 30 years.

Life and other magazines benefited from the work of many fine photographers of the era. These photographers developed a distinct vision of what they were trying to do with the camera and a distinct style in the stories they told. Three of the most prominent of those photographers were Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange and Gordon Parks.

Evans learned documentary photography in the late 1920s after a formal education that included Williams College and the Sorbonne in Paris. After a stint with the Farm Security Administration photographing rural America, Evans joined the staff of Fortune magazine. He teamed up with writer James Agee and toured rural Alabama for two months, photographing the families and surroundings of the sharecroppers there. Fortune did not publish this work, but it later appeared in the book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Evans worked for Time magazine during the mid 1940s and then returned to Fortune, where he was a photo editor for 20 years.

Lange studied artistic photography at Columbia University in 1917-18 and then was employed as a photofinisher in San Francisco. She set up her own portrait studio but also felt the need to begin photographing people in their own environments. Like Evans, she worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression, photographing migrant workers. It was during this time that she took one of the most famous images in American photojournalism history – a migrant mother and two children in Nipomo, California. Lange was on the staff of Life magazine for a time in the 1950s, but despite poor health, she continued working on many freelance assignments into the 1960s.

Parks was the first African-American recognized as a major photojournalist. He, too, worked for the Farm Security Administration and late joined the staff of Life magazine. His direct and realistic photographs gave an image to the underprivileged people who were his subjects. Parks did major work during the Civil Rights movement, photographing leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Parks’ talents extended far beyond photography. He has written poetry and fiction, has composed music, and has directed several major motion pictures, including Shaft and Shaft’s Big Score.

The Golden Age of Photojournalism ended in the 1970s when Life and other photomagazines ceased publication. They found that they could not compete with other media for advertising dollars to sustain their large circulations and high costs. Still, those magazines taught journalism much about the photographic essay and the power of the still image.


Jim Stovall

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