Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Photojournalism as Art

Every photograph is, in a sense, an editorial act. Even the simple and casual snapshot involves editorial decisions. The photographer points the camera from a particular angle, and, at that moment, all other angles are excluded. The photographer determines how close to stand to the object being photographed, and the photographer determines whether to fill the frame with the object or perhaps to back away and include more of the background. The photograph, then, can be used to see objectively, but it always sees selectively.

Pictures (paintings as well as photos) prompt us to react by stimulating us in various ways. Content, certainly, is one factor. Similar portraits of an anonymous man, or a former president, or a deceased grandfather will affect us differently. We also react differently, whether aware of it or not, based on the technique that was used in making the picture. Van Gogh's stars might be the same stars pictured by the Hubble telescope, but there is a world (or a galaxy) of difference in what we see, what it makes us think, and what it makes us feel.

Many early photographers worked to make their photos mimic the appearance of paintings. Paintings were, after all, artistic. Cameras with lenses that focused softly, and that were pointed, for example, in the direction of natural scenery, could produce pictures that were similarly artistic. At the same time, the ability of the camera to render photos that seemed much more realistic fostered another strain of photography. Along the way, photorealistic depictions replaced wood and steel engravings. Photojournalism emerged.

Mathew Brady and associates covered the Civil War. Lewis Hine documented the conditions of the working class. The Farm Security Administration's photographic project showed the U.S. Congress, and the greater U.S. population, the devastation of the Depression (see, right, Dorothea Lange's iconic Migrant Mother). Walker Evans recorded both rural and urban America. Robert Capa captured World War II, and Alfred Eisenstaedt showed the world life before, during and after the great war.

These photographers made images, sometimes, that transcended the simple mission of reporting. Through perspective, the use of light and shadow, and other technical talent, they made a number of photographs that stand as art. How and why do these photographs have such effect? Geometry is at work, of course, and books and articles do exist that show pictures simplified to lines, circles and triangles, and which discuss the arrangement of these in space and why they appeal. Ultimately, though, the explanations are not entirely satisfactory. Analysis explains partly, but not entirely.

Consider, for example (below), Henri Cartier-Bresson's photograph of the painter Matisse. Cartier-Bresson became known for recognizing how the elements of a photo could ideally come together in one concentrated, decisive moment. This is a classic example of an environmental portrait, one where the setting reveals something of a person's character. The artistic and editorial skills of Cartier-Bresson determined exactly how much to include and how much to leave out.

Another photographer whose work combined the instincts of journalist and artist was W. Eugene Smith. See, for example (below), his passion, and compassion, in The Wake, a photograph of a family gathered together to mourn the death of a patriarch. Obviously, though, more than an intense impulse of feeling was at work in making the photograph. The arrangement of the faces represents a perfect kind of balance, and the interplay of the dark tonal values with the light is captured expertly.

In the works: Contemporary examples of photojournalism as art.


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