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Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context Since 1955

Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context Since 1965

One of the disadvantages of collecting and writing about quality photography books is that my appetite far exceeds my ability to keep up with my collection. I say that because I should have written about Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context Since 1965 long ago.

Although published back in 2006 for the 50th Anniversary of World Press Photo, it is fortunately still in print and available at a bargain price of $40 as of this writing.

As the title suggests, the book is not simply one more portfolio of great press photographs, but actually reproduces the photographs as they originally appeared when published in magazines from 1955 until 2005. You don’t just get the photographs, you get the presentation.

For anyone who is interested in the history of photojournalism or simply wants to understand what it was like to receive in the mail a weekly portfolio of incredible photojournalism, this is an indispensable book.

I can’t begin to recall the number of times I have gone to this book to look at the work of a great photographer or a groundbreaking story as it was first published. It provides a fascinating time capsule that allows us to look back and see how significant events were portrayed at the time they occurred.

Even without any additional text, the book would be worth adding to the library of anyone interested in photojournalism.

But fortunately, it does have a text. In fact, it has a great text, written by Mary Panzer. Panzer, who has a long history as a curator of photography at multiple institutions, has written an introduction that isn’t simply about the photographs or about the period beginning in 1955, but is a mini-history of photojournalism and its significance, going back to the birth of photography.

One of the things I most love about this book, is that I can flip through the pages and see how editors chose to present picture stories from photographers and projects that would eventually transcend and overshadow their first publication.

There is a May 24, 1987, Sunday Times story of strip mining in Bald Mountain in the Amazon, from Sebastio Salgado. The birth of his Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age project documenting workers around the world.

There is the New York Times story from 1978 by Susan Meiselas, documenting the Sandinista-led revolution in Nicaragua. We see Irving Penn’s Look Magazine portraits of the San Francisco counter culture in 1968. Also reproduced is the famous story of 12-year-old Flavio, living in filth and poverty in Rio, by Gordon Parks, that ran in Life magazine.

From the August 3, 1956 edition of Colliers is David Douglas Duncan’s photographs of “…the Middle East Tinderbox” – the Gaza Strip. It is a disturbing reminder that nearly 70 years later the fighting and suffering continues.

A November 1958 story from Italy’s L’Espresso captured and encapsulated the newly minted paparazzi phenomenon with a series of photos from the scandalous birthday party of Turkish socialite and stripper Aiche Nana, which inspired Federico Fellini’s orgy scene in La dolce vita.

Often overlooked in conventional histories of photography is how important the photo magazines were in supporting photographers who are known today primarily as artists. It is a reminder that these great photographers often struggled to pay the bills and contractual work from magazines were a vital lifeline and important tool for developing their individual vision.

There is Robert Frank’s story on the newly established “Congressional” train that began runs between New York and Washington in 1955. The story predates Frank’s The Americans and previews the distinctive photographic style that would characterize his ground-breaking book, which included an image taken from the assignment. 

Seven years before the groundbreaking “New Documents” show introduced her to the world, Diane Arbus produced “The Vertical Journey” for Esquire magazine. Although she had not yet settled on her signature shooting style, her fascination with social outcasts was already well developed.

Even after finding success, notable photographers relied on magazine assignments to help support them. There is Nan Goldin’s photographs from 1996 of 15-year-old model James (Jaime) King, that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. Martin Parr turned his camera to Florida’s beach culture in “Sun Kitsch” for W magazine in 1997.

Flipping through the pages of Things as They Are one can’t help but feel nostalgic for print photojournalism. The afterword by Christian Caujolle was written in the first years of this century. Read from the perspective of today, just under two dizzying decades later, it is an unwitting reminder of just how rapidly things have changed in the digital era.

In writing his impassioned and somewhat optimistic plea for the future of print, Caujolle could not have seen the semi-truck of social media barreling towards magazines and newspapers.

Photojournalists still cover events occurring around the world. In fact, the peculiarities of social media have actually increased the demand for still images. But, as readers doom scroll through their feeds, consuming pictures by the second, the lifespan of images, even great images, is more fleeting than ever before.

It is difficult for serious photojournalism to compete in a world in which everyone is a content creator and the reader’s time is a resource in short supply.  

Is there a sustainable economic model that can both fill the insatiable demand for content and offer hope for the long-term future of photojournalism? The printed media at all levels has been left understaffed and under-resourced. Reductions in staff inevitably lead to reductions in quality and the reduction in quality feeds the death spiral of losses in readership.

Piled on top of those challenges are the substantial changes in the nature of readers. We live in a world where we are connected to everything, everywhere, all at once, yet at the same time we are isolated from our communities, our neighbors and our neighborhoods.

Only time will tell what the future of photojournalism holds, if it holds anything at all.

In the meantime, though, we can snatch up Things as They Are and enjoy it for what it is, a superb history of photojournalism and photojournalists.

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