Imagine being a painter during the time of the Impressionists. What a rush that must have been, being in the midst of these daring painters and interacting with them. But I was a photographer. And I was a photographer during the golden age of photojournalism, and it was really something.
Photojournalism -- telling a story through pictures -- probably started with Mathew Brady in the American Civil War. But what brought it to flower was the birth of Life Magazine during the 1930s. Life Magazine brought the world, in pictures, into your home every week. The pictures ranged from straight black and white reportage to beautiful color photos to illustrate a story of science or a look at rare flowers. The pages were huge and full of pictures. And the pictures were chosen for maximum impact, often spread across two pages.
It was the goal of every young photographer to work for Life or to have one of your pictures published in the magazine. I've been on a few assignments for Life and I've even had a few pictures published. NBC sent me to California to bring this look to their advertising for the 1959-1960 TV season.
But what I really gained from this is a different approach to my photography. Every time that I pick up a camera, I imagine myself on a Life magazine assignment. So, when I look through the viewfinder I try to imagine what sort of story this picture will illustrate.
To me, photojournalism isn't just a job description --- it's a mindset.
Life Magazine folded around 1971, and nothing has ever come along to replace it. If you've never seen Life Magazine, you will find it very educational to dig up a few copies and spend some time perusing them. Now think about how your pictures would fit into this showcase. It may give you a new perspective on your photography.
These pictures were shot over a period from 1958 to 1963, when I was drafted into the army.
Today, in the golden age of the Internet, there is no modern equivalent of Life Magazine with its rich and varied pictorial content. There are lots of web sites with pictures, but there's no real emphasis on telling a story. Photojournalism has been replaced by Instagram, selfies, celebrities showing off their rear ends, and other tributes to a world with a short attention span.
Today's photographers are lost in a search for technical excellence, discussing things like raw processing, blown highlights, and bokeh, where the out-of-focus areas of a picture are more interesting than the in focus part. For a photojournalist, the emphasis is on the strength of an image and its storytelling qualities.
I wonder if there's a place for something like Life Magazine on the web, and what form it might take.
Some technical notes: The original pictures were shot with miscellaneous Canon rangefinder and SLR cameras. The film was most likely Tri-X or Plus-X, developed in UFG. The prints were photographed with a Sony DSC-R1 camera and post processing was done with LightZone 3.
Copyright 1957-2023 Tony & Marilyn Karp