PCS Blog

Behind the Lens of Photojournalism: A History

Posted by KellyC | 01 October 2012

We've all heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, and photojournalism provides proof of the power and impact that just one photo can have. The Body of an American explores the life of photojournalist Paul Watson. Through the play and its exploration of his story, we are exposed to the world of photojournalism and are able to catch a glimpse of the impact that photos can have in telling a news story...or any story, for that matter. So what exactly is photojournalism? What are its roots and history? Here’s a little snapshot into the origins and "development" of the field of photojournalism. 
Often called "documentary photography," images captured by photojournalists are used to tell a news story. Photojournalists report stories to the public’s eye in a way that can be understood by all ages and literary levels, often coming face to face with obstacles such as weather and physical danger. In this form of reporting, the written story is kept to a minimum as the photo or photos usually speak loud enough themselves.
The initiation of photos into newspaper stories began in the 1850s. Carol Szathmari became the first photojournalist when his pictures from the Crimean War were published throughout Europe. At this time, photos were required to be engraved before they could be published, therefore producing interpretations of the photos, or "look-alikes." In 1880 The Daily Graphic published the first picture that was not engraved, but rather "halftone."
The mid-1920s brought about modern photojournalism, when the first 35 mm camera, called the Leica, was invented. Now free of bulky equipment, photographers could go nearly anywhere and take more candid photos rather than photos that, for the most part, were posed. During this same time period, the idea of the photojournalism magazine evolved. An invention originally from Germany, these magazines told stories with photos and cutlines, or captions.
Photographers took more pictures than usual, then sent these photos on to editors who would determine which ones best told the story. Photos were no longer just illustrations in a story, but rather the voice of the story. This combination of photography and journalism sparked the term “photojournalism,” coined by Frank Luther Mott.
With the market for photojournalism on the rise, publishers began to plan publications that featured storytelling. The most well-known was Henry Luce’s Life magazine, which was first released in 1936. This magazine presented good photos on a larger-than-usual format, and set the bar for photojournalism for the next 30 years.
During the World War II era, the already popular Life magazine became one of the most influential photojournalism magazines in the world. Powerful and effective photos from the war were on display in these weekly magazines, many of which are still famous today.


When the publication of Life and other photo magazines ended in the 1970s, the "golden age" of photojournalism ended as well. Even though they could not compete financially with other forms of media, these photojournalistic publications showed the world of journalism the power of a photo and the effect that an image can have, and would continue to have for years to come. 
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