THE DEVELOPMENT OF STANDARD AND ALTERNATIVE
FORMS OF PHOTOJOURNALISM
Timothy Roy Gleason
Bowling Green State University
1082 Fairview Avenue Apt. E-1
Bowling Green, Ohio 43402
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THE DEVELOPMENT OF STANDARD AND ALTERNATIVE
FORMS OF PHOTOJOURNALISM
By the mid-1950s standard photojournalism practices were established which
excluded alternative practices. This paper explores their development from the
1930s through the 1950s. Standards of journalistic objectivity and an emphasis
on the denotative qualities of photography were propagated by editors and
reporters. This style of photojournalism is presented in contrast to the work of
Robert Frank. His photography was not accepted in journalism because of his
THE DEVELOPMENT OF STANDARD AND ALTERNATIVE
FORMS OF PHOTOJOURNALISM
The New York School style of street photography, a form of documentary
photography, achieved widespread popularity in the 1960s. Practitioners of this
form emphasized the emotions of the scene photographed by becoming part of the
scene itself. Freelance photographers who worked in journalism practiced this
photography on their own time, but not while they were on assignment for
publications. This form appeared outside of New York in the 1950s as part of a
reaction against the constraints of the standard photojournalism practiced at
most newspapers and magazines. It was never adopted by the mainstream press.
Instead, it existed as an alternative form of photojournalism appearing in
non-mainstream magazines, foreign magazines or books.
This paper discusses the development of standard photojournalism and the
alternative path. This requires a study of photographers, their work and
publications of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The standard practices of
photojournalism in these decades are contrasted to the alternative practice's
most well known photographer, Robert Frank. Although other photographers are
mentioned for context, Frank is emphasized because of all practitioners of the
alternative style his work comes the closest to photojournalism. It may be this
reason why his work was viewed as controversial. He and mainstream
photojournalists photographed many of the same subjects and utilized the same
popular symbols of photojournalism. However, Frank was seen as an opinionated,
nonobjective photographer. Well-received exhibitions of his photographs in
recent years have apparently secured the importance of his work and his style.
Frank donated his negatives and prints to the National Gallery of Art in
Washington, D.C., so they could be preserved.
The standard practice of photojournalism in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s was
event-oriented, not intimate, and quickly done for short deadlines. Editors
wanted images that could be quickly understood by themselves and their readers.
They expected photographers to pursue simplicity over complex aesthetics for
readers who weren't expected to ponder a photograph like they would a painting.
Photographers were given assignments or chased spot news in an attempt to simply
illustrate the scene in almost the same way engravings were used in the 19th
century. Photographs were expected to be used as a mode of identification of
people, places, or things. Getting a photo of the action or event was paramount
compared to creating an aesthetically exciting image.
In an attempt to break away from standard photojournalism, a handful of
photographers began working more independently to document the world around
them. This alternative photojournalism was not a single style but an attitude
shared by different photographers. Photographers seeking to break away from the
standard utilized different styles for the purpose of creating a more personal
record of their surroundings. Most of the photographers attempting this break
worked in the vicinity of New York City. The city was the home to most of the
high paying and high profile magazines as well as a thriving avant-garde art
community. One of the most notable photographers who spurned the mainstream for
more personal photographic projects was Frank. He is an interesting figure
because he pushed the concept of photojournalism to the edge with his dark and
moody approach. Frank's photography required more interpretation by the viewer
than standard photojournalism. Frank was admired or despised because his vision
was radical. He attempted to make a statement with his photographs by printing
grainy and contrasty images which were hurriedly taken. Frank's aesthetic and
idiosyncratic approach did not attract U.S. publishers. His first book, The
Americans, was first published in France.
Frank was motivated to work outside standard photojournalism--in European
publications and documentary books--because they felt a need to be more
subjective in their photography. This subjective approach was troublesome to
editors because it went against the traditions of newspaper photography and
diminished editors' control. This subjective approach required allowing the
photographer longer deadlines, more control over the editing and layout of
photographs, and the opportunity to engage subjects more intimately, which gives
the appearance of less journalistic objectivity. Frank, who worked as a
freelancer for journalistic and fashion magazines, including LIFE, desired to
publish photographs that were different than standard photojournalism. His
grainy and blurry style sometimes broke from the norms of both photojournalism
and general photographic practice. The subjects of his photographs ranged from
the poor to the rich. His style would become accepted in the 1960s and routine
for future generations of photographers. However, for the 1940s and 1950s, the
work of photographers like Frank, William Klein, and their peers within the
informal New York School, were on the cutting edge of both photojournalism and
The significance of this research is two-fold. First, conflicts within
photojournalism are generally overlooked by media scholars. Second, it examines
the interaction of photojournalism with trends in art and photography in
general. This is an opportune moment to conduct this research because enough
time has passed to examine the photography in a political, professional, and
cultural context. The documents used for this research are published
photographs, art and book reviews, and popular and academic writing on
This paper is divided into four additional sections. The first section,
photojournalism in the 1930s and 1940s, is presented to provide a deeper
understanding of standard photojournalism. In the second section,
photojournalism and photography in the 1950s, the different photographic styles
at work in the 1950s are discussed to provide a timelier context for Frank's
photography. In the third section, Robert Frank, his book, The Americans, is
used as an example of the alternative form of photojournalism. Finally, the
conclusion discusses why Frank's style remained outside of standard
Photojournalism in the 1930s and 1940s
The typical photojournalism of 1930s and 1940s was the newspaper or magazine
photographer. Newspaper photographers worked with large, awkward cameras which
prohibited them from reacting quickly to action. Magazine photographers
increasingly used smaller, lighter cameras allowing a more subtle, candid
photography. These smaller cameras required less steps to work and many
different exposures could be made in rapid succession. Of the two, magazine
photographers had better reputations but both were looked down upon by editors
and reporters who thought photographers were simply skilled laborers. The
different equipment, along with different professional ideologies, meant
newspapers and magazines covered events differently, but still journalistically.
Subjects in newspaper photographs often looked stiff and rigid, while magazine
subjects often looked casual and unaware of the camera's presence. Newspaper
photographers were still using their large cameras and still shooting mundane
assignments. Scherschel and Kalish credit eighty percent of a photographer's
camera work to the "routine assignment" which lacked any glamour. Other
assignments were sports, special (society, fashion, rotogravure jobs, and
commercial work) and "fast-breaking thrilling news." Photography in general
was varied, too. Social documentary, photojournalism and formalism were the
three primary photographic traditions to survive the 1930s. Compared to
social documentary, "photo- journalism is less radical, less overtly
propagandist, and more superficial," or, "social-documentary with a formalist
bent." Frank bordered the margins of photojournalism and social documentary,
and his aesthetic style was opposed to the strict formalism of art photography.
The newspaper photojournalist of the 1930s was commonly called a "press
photographer," and fought for respect not only from reporters, but also from
other professional photographers. Even though many press photographers accepted
freelance jobs outside news, they were still viewed by many other photographers
as being less artistic and independent than their imaging peers. The limitations
of the press camera often required photographers to pose their subjects so they
could control their light and focus, and to gain the opportunity to obtain more
than one exposure. This meant photographers had to shout commands in order to
control a situation, and this contributed to their reputation as loud-mouthed
bullies. Many did not have a college education and they valued the utility of
street smarts. A 1947 article in Journalism Quarterly reported the problems
photographers had in earlier years:
Some of the prejudice...in the days of the old flash powder gun still
holds....Some of it was due to the fact that members of the photographic
profession were of a rough and tumble variety. They had to be. Theirs was
a new profession. It was not accepted as a dignified one. In order to get
the picture, the photographer resorted to tactics which are frowned upon
Newspaper editors knew their readers enjoyed seeing photographs in magazines
and their own papers, so they reluctantly supported more photographic reportage
in the 1930s. It was strictly a business decision because reporters were
reluctant to accept photographers as their peers. "Journalists deflated the
authority of photography in two main ways-by constructing photography as a
medium of record and by constructing the photographer as a disembodied
figure." In the first way, authority was deflated by establishing a
denotative role for photography. Reporters and editors were concerned with
photography's connotative properties, as seen in much of the
government-supported photography of the Depression. By establishing the
professional norm of denotative photography, the word side try to limit
photography's scope to a supportive role. In the second way, reporters and
editors spoke of the cameras and not the photographers. This disembodiment
suggested the photographer was a mere operator of a thing more important: the
camera. While no word person would have claimed the typewriter more important
than a reporter, this was not so in discussions of photography. Contributing to
the simplicity was the need for speed. Girvin identified the pressure of
competition as an influence in keeping photographs simple. "The pressure for
speed mitigates against the quality in newspaper photographs....Editors would
rather use a fair picture to beat the opposition by an edition than wait for a
better picture and be beaten by an edition."
The tools of a photographer are often mentioned in histories of photojournalism
because the level of technological advancement in photographic equipment
contributes to what a photographer can and cannot do. The equipment
photographers use does not determine the appearance of the final image, but it
does impact how photojournalism is conducted. Similarly, a reporter's tools,
like typewriters, computers, and notepads, have impacted how they did their
work. In his 1939 book, Press Photography with the Miniature Camera, Duane
Featherstonhaugh, describes the miniature camera as any camera utilizing film
the size of 2 1/4 by 3 1/4 inches or smaller. The minis were much less
obtrusive than the press cameras and allowed for more candid photography. An
advantage of using a miniature camera was the "speed" of the lenses. While press
photographers using Graflex or Speed Graphic cameras, known as "press cameras,"
had to cope with lenses with apertures of f4.5, users of the 35mm cameras could
use lenses with apertures of f1.5. This meant the latter could use their cameras
in much lower lighting conditions. In conjunction, film manufacturers were
increasing the sensitivity of their film which benefitted those using the candid
approach. Faster, more sensitive film was needed for this kind of photography.
This increase in sensitivity allowed the photographer to forgo tripods and
flashes in many situations.
The leading manufacturer of the 35mm camera was Leica, which offered its first
models, the Leica Ia and Ib, in 1924. It became popular with German
journalistic photographers like Erich Salomon, who was the first person to take
candid photographs of the world's political leaders. Salomon and his imitators
primarily worked for German periodicals. The success of the German picture
magazines Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung and Muchner Illustrierte Press motivated
Henry Luce to start his own magazine, LIFE, which utilized the miniature
camera. LIFE even hired Zeitung's editor, Kurt Korff, to teach editors how
to edit, crop and layout photographs for the magazine. Despite LIFE's popular
utilization of the miniature camera, it did not immediately become the camera of
choice at newspapers, where most of the U.S. photojournalists worked. Even at
LIFE many photographers still used the larger cameras rather than the 35mm
Leica. The real transition from the press camera to the miniature camera did not
occur until the 1950s and 1960s. "The small hand-held [Leica] eventually became
as firmly associated with the photojournalist as the battered portable
typewriter was with the war correspondent."
Newspaper photographers were reluctant to change. In the 1930s, those
newspapers with large photography departments kept miniature cameras largely as
supplemental gear used where press cameras and flashbulbs were prohibited. The
veteran photographers were suspicious of the miniature cameras but many younger
colleagues willingly experimented with them. Gannett Newspapers experimented
with providing reporters Zeiss Baby Ikontas, but this failed because many lacked
the skill to produce usable pictures and photographing took time away from
written reporting. The 1930s ended with press photographers still relying on
the bulky American- produced press cameras instead of the miniature cameras, the
best of which were made in Germany.
Photojournalism's technical development was stalled during its war against the
Axis powers because there was little advancement in newspaper technique and
processes. Creatively, however, war coverage contributed to a growing
emphasis on, and respect for, photojournalism. The best war photographers, many
of them European and already quite familiar with the miniature camera, utilized
the smaller camera to make themselves more accessible to front-line coverage.
Photographers like Robert Capa provided dramatic photographs which could not
have been taken without the use of quicker and smaller equipment. Through
publications such as LIFE the public was able to see a style of photojournalism
which was able to react to events and human actions rather than stage them. War
photographers helped to establish the growing professionalism of press
photographers by virtue of association.
According to Scherschel and Kalish, the press photographer of the mid-late
1940s was a different person. "A few years ago, the newspaper photographer was a
picture-taking automaton. He was a 'tool' of a reporter, acting on orders of the
man with the notebook. Now, in this picture-minded world, the lensman is a photo
reporter." The new importance of pictures meant good photographers were
needed by newspapers so "the copy boys of today are no longer tomorrow's
photographers." Noel agreed, "The cameraman as an individual, and as a
member of the editorial staff, has started to gain recognition from the paper's
front office and the public in general." Despite the changes, photographers
were still regarded as lower-level employees, and those at newspapers were not
equated with their famous colleagues at LIFE. Even at LIFE photographers were
looked down upon by many editors and reporters. War photographers raised the
reputation of press photographers but they did not transform the position of all
journalistic photographers into journalistic professionals equal to reporters.
There was even debate after the war if press photography could and should be
taught at universities.
After the war the miniature camera was still not being utilized by press
photographers. Scherschel and Kalish, in Graphic Graflex Photography: The Master
Book for the Larger Camera, remind readers that the "news photographer's almost
unanimous choice is the Speed Graphic, usually the 4 x 5 size." As an example of
its popularity, they report the Milwaukee Journal equips each photographer with
a 4 x 5 Speed Graphic, fitted with an f4.7 lens, and that a miniature camera is
part of the department's supplemental gear (see image #1).
Photojournalism and Photography in the 1950s
Technical improvements in photography during the 1950s were overshadowed by
tensions within photography. Photojournalism's popularity increased along with
the rise of the picture magazines, but peaked during the mid-1950s. A 1955
exhibition marked the celebration but also the end of photojournalism's
popularity as a purveyor of American ideals and values. George Russell has
called the period of photojournalism from 1950 through 1980 one of "new
directions." Photojournalism changed because of the near death of one medium
and the growth of another. The increasing popularity of television and the
decline of the picture magazines hurt the growth of photojournalism. While the
United States in the 1950s America had the reputation of being an unexciting
decade wrought with conformity, for photography it was a decade of debate over
its own identity. Photojournalism adopted a rather conservative aesthetic
instead of accepting the alternative avenues of representation seen in
documentary and art photography. To understand how photojournalism continued to
develop in the 1950s, it is useful to understand it in the context of
photography in general. The tensions within photography-especially
photojournalism-can be seen by examining an exhibition, "The Family of Man," and
a book, The Americans. The former was initially successful but later criticized,
and the latter was initially unpopular but became a model for many for many
photographers. "The Family of Man" took an American view of the world, while the
The Americans was a Swiss photographer's view of America.
John Szarkowski, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in
New York City, identified three important events of the 1950s which have
impacted American photography the most. The first event was the founding of
Aperture magazine in 1952. It was an outgrowth of the formalism which survived
the 1930s. Next on Szarkowski's list was "The Family of Man" exhibition, which
was the creation of MoMA in 1955. According to Szarkowski, "The Family of
Man," directed by Edward Steichen, marked the tension between photographers'
creative visions and the demands of editors and curators. "Although delighted to
see photography so demonstratively appreciated, many photographers were
distressed that the individual character of their own work had been sacrificed
to the requirements of a consistent texture for the huge tapestry of the
exhibition." The exhibition was widely popular with Americans who did not
normally visit museums.
Steichen, who was Szarkowski's predecessor, created a body of work accessible
to the average American but excluded aesthetically experimental photographs.
Instead of contemplating the popular abstract paintings of the time, visitors
went to see many journalistic-style photographs which they were already familiar
with. Many of the exhibited photographs were borrowed from the archives at LIFE,
and many journalistic photographs were on display from other sources.
The third event Szarkowski identified was the publication of Robert Frank's
book, The Americans, which was first released in France in 1958, then in the
United States the following year. Born in 1924, Frank was raised in Switzerland
and came to the United States in 1947 looking for work as a photographer. With
the support of well-known photographers Walker Evans, Alexey Brodovitch and
Steichen, Frank was awarded Guggenheim grants for 1955 and 1956. His project was
to travel across the country photographing what he encountered. The wealthy,
average and poor were all worthy subjects for Frank. He saw an America different
than the one advertised in movies, newspapers and magazines. He was well aware
of how people could become marginalized in a country. While Hitler was storming
Europe, the native Frank had to gain Swiss citizenship by losing his Jewishness.
His citizenship was granted days before the war's end. Later, his odd
accent, appearance and foreign camera equipment led to his arrest in Arkansas.
State police suspected he was a Communist spy and this experience did nothing to
counter Frank's critical outlook on the authority figures of America, who were
presented with their impurities on display. The Americans, his most famous work,
has been regularly reprinted and favorably reviewed by critics, despite the
heavy criticism it received upon its original publication.
Absent from Szarkowski's list of important events in 1950s photography is LIFE
magazine. To many photographers LIFE's significance in the 1950s was strong but
quickly dwindling. After World War II, LIFE remained what it was before the
war--the magazine of choice for photographers and readers. While the infant
known as television would grow to compete for the eyes of the American public
and the dollars of American advertisers, it did not compete for the talent of
American photographers. LIFE had been modeled after the German picture
magazines, but due to its success it took a life of its own. Its expansive use
of photographs and adoption of candid photography made it attractive to many
photographers before the war. The magazine was committed to hiring the best
photographers it could find and they started with one of the best photographers
ever, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was hired to provide photographs for its dummy
LIFE magazine was important to Americans after the war because it provided
images of happy and domesticated American families to actual families who were
seeking stability and contentment. A supposed "real" America was chosen by
LIFE to represent the country as a whole, and by using the representational
technique of realism, the magazine created an aura of authenticity which enabled
the magazine to create a trusting relationship with the reader. One of its
most successful photo essays was W. Eugene Smith's "Country Doctor," which
elevated the common man to heroic status. The doctor's exploits as a man are
fantastic not because he is presented as a god, but rather as a man who commits
himself to the community. Smith created a heightened sense of reality through
his photographic techniques. In many cases, rather than using available light,
Smith lit the scene to reveal details which enhanced the experience of
'knowing.' The reader could see revealing features, like the fatigue on the
doctor's face, and have a sense of being present with him (see image #2).
During the war LIFE published may war-related photographs. Their photographers
were overseas covering the most important news story for a magazine not known
for its hard news coverage. After the war its photographers may have thought
they were working for two different magazines. One was the LIFE which just had
about two dozen photographers revealing the most brutal aspects of the war. At
the same time they were the LIFE which published unsubstantial photographs. For
example, one such image was of a 21-year-old actress playing with a bubble in
the bath tub, and another is J.R. Eyerman's well-known image of movie theater
patrons wearing 3-D glasses (see images #3 and #4).
For photographers wanting to publish in the United States, some of the best
alternatives to LIFE were fashion magazines, especially Vogue and Harper's
Bazaar. It has been common practice for photographers to take freelance jobs
outside of their specific discipline. Many photographers care little whether
they do feature magazine assignments or fashion, as long as they get paid and
can photograph their subjects in their own style. Harper's layout was designed
by Alexey Brodovitch, who informally taught some of the most important
photographers of the era. Brodovitch held workshops for his New York City
students first at the New School for Social Research and then at photographers'
studios. Some photographers came to improve their work and others hoped to be
discovered by Brodovitch. One of his proteges was Robert Frank, who tried
his hand at fashion photography but left unsatisfied.
Many of the East Coast photographers were familiar with the latest art
movements because many progressive artists worked around New York City. American
art had always paled in comparison to Western European art because the former
was simply a slowly developing reflection of the latter. The first American art
movement to gain an international reputation and influence European artists was
abstract expressionism. The so-called placid American 1950s was also the new
home of avant-garde art, which relocated from Paris to New York City.
Abstract expressionism has its roots in the Depression years, and its greatest
successes were in the late 1940s and 1950s. LIFE tried to explain it's meaning
to their readers in a two-part series in 1959 by the magazine's art editor,
Dorothy Seiberling. She called it "a source of bafflement and irritation to the
public at large," and tried to explain it through its most successful
practitioners. Jackson Pollock was presented the first week to be followed
by Willem de Koonig, a one-time neighbor of Robert Frank, Clyfford Still, Mark
Rothko and Franz Kline. Abstract expressionism, also known as "action painting,"
was described as the work of artists who "found themselves rejecting the past.
They considered them adequate only to express the times in which they were
created. Their own times--charged with wars and tension, bombarded with the
complexities of science, clouded by the mysteries of outer space and man's inner
being--were as different from past epochs as an airplane from a wagon. To
express these times they felt they needed a style that was tense, explosive,
mysterious and altogether new."
Abstract expressionism was also an appropriate style for the age of
McCarthyism. Many artists, especially photographers, were hesitant to represent
social issues in their art. The listing of the Photo League as a subversive
organization is the most well known example of the government pressuring artists
to stop their social commentaries during this era. The formlessness of an
artist's ideas and beliefs as displayed in abstract expressionism was hard to
label as Communist. It expressed drama through color and contrast, while the
movement of the paint reminds us of being caught up in times one cannot control.
It served as a major stylistic influence for East Coast photographers. The New
York City practitioners of action painting became known as the "New York
School." This was also the name given to the photographers led by magazine
designers Brodovitch and Sid Grossman, who was the target of harassment by the
FBI for his role in The Photo League. The "New York School" of photographers
adopted an expressionistic approach to documentary photography. Some, like
Frank, applied it to traditionally journalistic subject matter like parades and
political events. The New York School tried to express action rather than
traditional formalism's contemplativeness.
The "existential imperative" of the abstract artists was a far cry from vastly
popular "The Family of Man" show. Organized by Edward Steichen, director of
photography at the Musuem of Modern Art (MoMA), "The Family of Man" consisted of
503 photographs by 273 photographers. The exhibition was both good and bad
for photography. The exhibition enticed many people to visit a museum who had
never gone before, and what they came to see were not paintings but photographs.
Its popularity was so great that the United States Information Agency sponsored
a seven year international tour. On the negative side, it downplayed the
individuality of photographers in favor of a meta-narrative of humanity. For
Badger, it was "the embodiment of fifties photo-journalistic values, their
zenith. It was also the last great fling of this mode, a mode that was becoming
less relevant both to photographers and, though more gradually, to the
Steichen, an acclaimed photographer himself, sought the best photographs,
whether by professionals or amateurs, to represent his concept of the
universality of humankind. As his search for images progressed he became
increasingly dependent on professional photographers. Steichen traveled through
Europe in 1952 to meet with photographers and used Frank as his translator. But
his best source for photographs was actually the archives at LIFE. In 1953 Wayne
Miller, Steichen's assistant, searched through more than 3.5 million images in
their files. Miller also searched through the National Archives, Library of
Congress and the files at Look. Without much success with the government files,
he turned to the photo agencies Black Star, Magnum and Sov Photo. This
contributed to the number of photographs in the exhibition which were made
outside the United States.
The reaction to the exhibition, and the spinoff book and touring exhibition,
was favorable for years but dissent began to be heard as the U.S. got farther
away from the 1950s and into the 1960s. The body of work became a "counterpoint
for rebellious comment." Steichen's theme may have worked in the mid-1950s,
but as more and more people recognized social inequalities his theme seemed more
like an act of American propaganda. His goal for the unity of images--that no
image stands out but contributes to the whole experience--may have been the flaw
of his work. Independently strong images were eligible for exclusion if they
gathered too much attention. One such image which was initially included but
later removed was of a black man brutally restrained to a tree. It was removed
because so many people stopped to examine it that Steichen felt the flow of the
exhibition was being lost.
Szarkowski argued "The Family of Man" marked an important moment in
In this sense "The Family of Man" was perhaps the last and greatest
achievement of the group journalism concept of photography--in which the
personal intentions of the photographer are subservient to a larger,
overriding concept. The exhibition thus ran counter to the ambitions of
the period's most original younger photographers; and in spite of its
artistic quality and enormous success, it had little perceptible effect on
the subsequent directions of American photography.
The group concept remained as the operationalization of professional norms, but
photojournalism lost the positive public exposure it once had. Photojournalism
had been progressing over the last few decades and its culmination was "The
Family of Man." It presented the best of the picture magazine style of
photojournalism, but these picture magazines and their style were dying.
Newspaper photojournalism remained despite a lack of creative leadership. It was
in this environment, the retrospective of American photojournalism which "The
Family of Man" provided and the declining popularity of picture magazines, which
Robert Frank went to work on a personal project to document the United States.
Included in the exhibition was work by many well-known photographers, including
Robert Frank. Frank's Americans is a pivotal moment in photojournalism because
of his approach and the controversy it caused. His style as an alternative form
of photojournalistic expression was vastly overlooked. Frank's style was not
totally new in itself. It was similar to, if not inspired by, the work of others
in the New York School. What Frank was able to successfully do was create a
poetic collection of images around a theme, America, but at the same time allow
the readers to construct the story a single image at a time. Unlike many of his
peers, most notably Diane Arbus, Frank did not concentrate on the bizarre
elements of society but instead chose very conventional subject matter.
Creatively, Frank traveled far in his photography before he made The Americans.
One of his early instructors was Michael Wolgensinger, a proponent of a "New
Photography" in Europe. Similar in principle to the f-64 group in the United
States, this particular movement emphasized accurate representation of subject
and image sharpness. They were the Ansel Adams photographers of Europe. Frank's
early photographs reflect their principles. Some of his subject
matter--journalistic photographs of holiday celebrations and local
festivals--would be a constant point of his interest to him
He traveled to New York for a visit, arriving in March 1947. He quickly found
work from Brodovitch to photograph for the magazines Harper's Bazaar and Junior
Bazaar. The following year, 1948, he traveled to Peru and Bolivia, and in 1949
Frank made his way through France, Spain, Italy and back to Switzerland.
Frank was gaining recognition in Europe for his photography. In 1949, an
overview of his work was published in Camera, and in 1955 he was included in
"Photography as Expression," an exhibition in Zurich. By now his work reflected
different ideals than the outdated European New Photography.
The year 1955 was important for Frank not only because he had work in the
Zurich exhibition and "The Family of Man," but more importantly he received a
Guggenheim grant. He was already living in the United States when he received
the grant and he planned to "produce an authentic contemporary document, the
visual impact should be such as will nullify explanation...." His grant was
renewed in 1956 and he spent 1957 printing and organizing his photographs. The
influences of commercial and journalistic photography on him contributed to his
coherent sequencing of photographs in his plan for the book. After having
his work rejected by LIFE and being unable to find a book publisher in the
United States, Frank turned to Robert Delpire. Following the 1958 release of his
book in France as Les Americains, Frank found a U.S. publisher to print it 1959.
Critical comments of the U.S. in Les Amercains were replaced by each image's
title, year photographed and subject's location, on the pages facing the
photographs. The original introduction was replaced with one by Frank's new
friend, Jack Kerouac. They became friends after the photographs were made, but
Kerouac had a similar experience of America as seen from the road. He writes in
that misspelled Kerouac form of his:
Anybody doesnt like these pictures dont like potry, see? Anybody dont
like potry go home see Television shots of big hatted cowboys being
tolerated by kind horses.
Frank's American males are not cowboys tolerated by horses, but a tattooed man
in a Cleveland park, a black man in leather on a motorcycle, a cowboy leaning
against a garbage can in New York City (see image #5), a Jehovah's Witness in
Los Angeles, and a Jew on Yom Kippur. The men and women in his book are
typically American even though they never appeared on the cover of LIFE. They
are on the streets and parks but not in the magazines and newspapers. Frank used
his Leica to get closer and more intimate with his subjects than press
photographers were getting to their subjects with press cameras and "objective"
The book was not an immediate success because Frank's aesthetic style and
content flew in the face of most photography. His approach was not well known
outside of the confines of the New York School. The New York Times gave a Frank
a good review, but Popular Photography devoted several pages to a harsh critique
of his work. A later issue included a letter to the editor by Herb Keppler of
Modern Photography, who said his magazine was in agreement with Popular
Photography. These magazines favored the more conservative and formalistic
photography of Smith and Adams. Frank was accused of focusing on the rare and
unusual negative aspects of America. They may have been negative, but they were
far from rare and unusual. He showed politicians making deals instead of kissing
babies (see image #6), and blacks serving whites (see image #7). Many
journalistic events were covered, political conventions and car accidents, but
in a manner not covered by the press. While the mainstream press looked for
simplistic images to tell a story, Frank stripped away the veil of professional
objectivity. Instead of weeping family members to represent the loss of life, he
shows roadside crosses lit by a stream of light from the sky (see image #8). The
American flag is regularly presented in a variety of situations to demonstrate
how Americans use the flag for "show" but don't really seem to believe in the
supposed American ideals of freedom and equality.
Frank's subjective approach stands in contrast to the call for objectivity in
1950s photojournalism. Being "objective" was one way photographers thought they
could earn respect in the newsroom. The well respected photographer Joseph Costa
wrote in 1954 that photographers needed to become more journalistic. "Emotional
reaction alone is seldom enough; the good photo-reporter must also develop his
ability to think objectively," and "it is a part of his job to report all of the
facts so that the editor may have the material with which to produce a
well-balanced, objective report." Despite this advice, posing is still
considered acceptable "if [the photograph] does not look posed." Costa's
argument, which was widely accepted by photojournalists in the 1950s and is
still even promoted by many editors today, complicates the idea of truth.
Frank's images in The Americans were perceived as not only aesthetically
radical, but so subjective that he was accused of not presenting the truth about
Frank's photographic style was never adopted outright by mainstream
photojournalists, although he did become a major influence for younger
photographers. Both Popular Photography and Modern Photography, magazines for
the amateur photographer, condemned Frank because of his content and technique.
They believed Frank's version of America was anti-American. In addition, they
were opposed to the grainy appearance of photographs and their almost
unformalistic compositions. The magazines favored the sharp and finely grained
images of photographers who did not critique their country.
Frank documents what it is to be American and by doing so actualizes the role
of the photojournalist. To claim that he is not a photojournalist is to take a
narrow position on what photojournalism is and should be instead of what it can
be. A loose definition could be: A photographer who records social existence,
without significant alteration of the scene or image, with purpose of presenting
the images in a journalistic medium, such as newspaper, magazine or book. The
traditional definition of a photojournalist, reporting with a camera, tends to
be based on what is typically done on the job--the occupational habit--and
ignores the marginalized practices as well as the possibilities. Frank succeeds
because in the creation of his images he was not constrained by the demands of
an employer, so he was able to open himself to the possibilities of each moment
in the photographic process. His images are no less truthful than most newspaper
photographs. They may be more truthful because he shows the pimples on the face
of 1950s American domesticity. Yet because his work was not in the occupational
norm, Frank's photography is rarely considered photojournalism.
Photojournalists appeared to have little use for this style when it originally
hit the scene in the 1950s-and they still haven't adopted it in whole. To have
adopted this style in the 1950s would have required them to overcome several
obstacles. First, they would have had to quickly adopt the miniature camera.
Frank began using a Leica in the late 1940s but most newspaper photographers
were still tied to their press cameras in the 1950s. Although news photographers
witnessed the results of war photographers working with miniatures, the
transition to the miniature was more active in the 1960s. This delay allowed the
traditional techniques of photojournalism to become more standardized. Second,
they would have had to relearn the art of seeing. This approach required a more
critical eye to detect the unfolding of life rather than the ability to
construct it. The ethical photojournalist who did not pose pictures and who was
also more knowledgeable in aesthetics, through a college education, did not
really develop until decades later. Third, the photojournalist would have to
convince their editor of the validity of this approach. Editors remain largely
untrained in photography and journalism programs almost always support print
reporting over photojournalism and broadcast reporting. This situation was even
worse in the 1950s. Editors' illusions of objectivity and their perception of
photography's role as an identifier were opposed to the alternative form of
Journalistic publications have usually discouraged any convergence of
photographic reporting and artistic styling. As a result, according to Kent
Brecheen-Kirkton, "subtle or sophisticated compositional techniques are
virtually absent from news pictures as are any other indications that would
remind viewers that the producer of the photograph is a skilled
practitioner." A similar situation exists in photojournalism research.
Photojournalism scholarship is underdeveloped because it exists on the margins
of both journalism and art. These disciplines tend to focus their research on
written reporting, in the first case, and painting and sculpture, in the second
case. There is little bridging of either photojournalism and art in practice or
in research. The work of Robert Frank provides an example of how they were
bridged. His work isn't typically viewed as photojournalism because the work is
inherently opposed to it, rather, the historical constructs which have defined
photojournalism have limited its scope. By using an historical approach the
scholar of photojournalism can learn not only what happened, but also under what
conditions did something not happen. In this case, what did not happen was the
expansion of photojournalism to include gritty aesthetics and subjective
photography. In 1947 Robert E. Girvin argued newspapers had not used photography
for social documentation because editors did not perceive it as a medium for
storytelling. This is acutely accurate at most newspapers in the United States
today. Photographers who have adopted this approach are still considered to be
working on the margins of photojournalism. Images
Image 1 Image 2
Image #1 by Milwaukee Journal
Ken Kobre, Photojournalism: The Professionals Approach (: Focal Press, 1995), .
Image #2 by W. Eugene Smith
Jim Hughes, W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance; The Life and Work of an
American Photographer (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1989). No page
numbers are attributed to those with images.
Image 3 Image 4
Image #3 by Peter Stockdale
John Loengard, LIFE: Classic Photographs (Boston: Little, Brown and Company,
Image #4 by J.R. Eyerman
Image #5 by Robert Frank
Robert Frank, The Americans, 2nd ed. (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1969).
Frank did not include page numbers past the introduction.
Image # 6 by Robert Frank
Image 7 Image 8
Image #7 by Robert Frank
Image #8 by Robert Frank
Image #9 by Robert Frank
Ibid. END NOTES
 Frank Scherschel and Stanley E. Kalish, "News and Press Photography," in
Graphic Graflex Photography: The Master Book for the Larger Camera, eds. Willard
D. Morgan and Henry M. Lester, 8th ed. (New York: Morgan and Lester), 254.
 Gerry Badger, "From Humanism to Formalism: Thoughts on Post-War American
Photography," in American Images: Photography 1945-1980, ed. Peter Turner (New
York: Viking, 1985), 12.
 Basil L. Walters, "Pictures vs. Type Display In Reporting the News,"
Journalism Quarterly 24(3), 195.
 Barbie Zelizer, "Words Against Images: Positioning Newswork in the Age of
Photography," in Newsworkers: Toward a History of the Rank and File, eds. Hanno
Hardt and Bonnie Brennan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995),
 Robert E. Girvin, "Photography as Social Documentation," Journalism
Quarterly 24(3), 207-208.
 Duane Featherstonhaugh, Press Photography with the Miniature Camera
(Boston: American Photographic Publishing Co., 1939), 24.
 Jacquelyn Balish, Leica World (New York: American Photographic Book
Publishing Co., 1957), 169.
 Richard Lacayo and George Russell, Eyewitness: 150 Years of
Photojournalism (New York: The Time Inc. Magazine Co., 1995), 68-73.
 Ibid., 67.
 Featherstonhaugh, 16-18.
 Scherschel and Kalish,, 268.
 Ibid., 253.
 Frank Noel, "News and Press Photography," in Graphic Graflex Photography:
The Master Book for the Larger Camera, eds. Willard D. Morgan and Henry M.
Lester, 8th ed. (New York: Morgan and Lester), 269.
 This is a theme which runs through numerous writings on LIFE's
photographers, especially those about W. Eugene Smith. For an insider's view
see: Loudon Wainwright, The Great American Magazine: An Inside History of LIFE
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986).
 Floyd G. Arpan, "Can Press Photography Be Taught?," Journalism Quarterly
24(3), 239- 242. Arpan argued it could with the proper equipment and a competent
 Scherschel and Kalish, 254.
 Lacayo and Russell, 125.
 John Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows: American Photography
since 1960 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978), 16.
 Ibid., 16-17.
 Martin Gasser, "Zurich to New York: 'Robert Frank, Swiss, Unobtrusive,
nice...'," in Robert Frank, Moving Out, eds. Sarah Greenough and Philip Brookman
(Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 41.
 Wendy Kozol, LIFE's America: Family and Nation in Postwar Photojournalism
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), viii.
 Ibid., 9.
 Jane Livingston, New York School: Photographs , 1936-1963 (new York:
Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1992), 292-293.
 Sherri Geldin, foreword to Forces of the Fifties: Selections from the
Albright-Knox Gallery, by Donna De Salvo (Columbus, OH: Wexner Center for the
Arts, The Ohio State University, 1996), 7.
 Dorothy Seiberling, "Baffling U.S. Art: What it is About," LIFE, 9
November 1995, 69.
 Ibid., 69.
 David Moos, "Details of the Self: A Context for Abstract Expressionism,"
Forces of the Fifties: Selections from the Albright-Knox Gallery, by Donna De
Salvo (Columbus, OH: Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University,
1996), 23. Moos uses the term "existential imperative" to describe the force
behind "artists engaged with pressing painting to its limits of free expression.
 Eric J. Sandeen, Picturing an Exhibition: "The Family of Man" and 1950s
America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 40.
 Badger, 13.
 Sandeen, 41.
 Ibid., 157.
 Szarkowski, 17.
 Gasser, 43.
 Ibid., 48.
 Ibid., 48-49.
 Robert Frank, "Statement 1958," Photography in Print: Writings from 1816
to the Present, ed. Vickie Goldberg (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico
Press, 1981), 400.
 Sarah Greenough, "Fragments That Make A Whole: Meaning in Photographic
Sequences," in Robert Frank, Moving Out, eds. Sarah Greenough and Philip
Brookman (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 97-98.
 Jack Kerouac, forward to The Americans, by Robert Frank, 2nd ed. (New
York: Grossman Publishers, 1969), vi.
 Joseph Costa, "Press Photography and Photo-Reporting," Graphic Graflex
Photography: The Master Book for the Larger Camera, eds. Willard D. Morgan and
Henry M. Lester, 10th ed. (New York: Morgan and Lester, 1954), 280-281.
 Kent Brecheen-Kirkton, "Visual Silences: How Photojournalism Covers
Reality with the Facts," American Journalism 8 (Winter 1991): 33.