Requiem for photojournalism: New publications and exhibitions

“Today the photo magazines have all folded or been turned into vehicles for lifestyles and personality portraits”


The paparazzi may be in deep disgrace at the moment, but their close relations, the photojournalists, have never been more highly regarded. The BBC is now running a six-part series, “Decisive moments”, a history of the subject this century. Don McCullin, Britain’s finest war photographer, has an entire exhibition devoted to his work at the Barbican. And now comes a fine coffee table art book compiled by veteran war photographers Horst Faas and Tim Page (to accompany a touring exhibition in the US over the next year) of photographers who died in Vietnam and Indo-China: Requiem (Jonathan Cape, £40). The photographer has achieved the status of a martyr.

War has indeed made the photojournalist into a romantic hero. World War II was—as the BBC series points out—the moment of the still, black-and-white photograph. The single images, Herbert Mason’s St Paul’s seen through the Blitz, Robert Capa’s blurred snaps of the Omaha landing and, above all, Joe Rosenthal’s shot of the marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima, became the defining icons of the war.

Photography, moving and still, did the same for Vietnam. But with a different result. The image that the military and public wanted in World War II was one of heroism, franker as the war went on, but not depressing. And the photographers gave them what they wanted, even to the point of faking the shots. Even the Iwo Jima photo was of a second raising of the flag, not the first, while Len Chetwun’s famous frame of British troops attacking in the Desert campaign was an entirely put-up job behind the lines.

The pictures of the Vietnam War, in contrast, helped change public opinion back home against the war. Don McCullin, Larry Burrows and Kyoichi Sawada’s record of exhausted US marines, mistreated prisoners and terrified civilians, the brute force of high technology against rural peasantry in a green and pleasant land, helped focus a growing mood of disillusion with a war that was costing too much in lives and resources. The images that haunted this war were the shell-shocked eyes of an exhausted GI, the execution of a prisoner and the screaming child burning from a napalm attack.

But does impact necessarily elevate photojournalism to the status of art and the journalist to the status of martyr? Right from their founding of the Magnum co-operative (how journalists of today would love to repeat that venture), Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa disagreed on the purpose of magazine journalism.

Cartier-Bresson, who had come (like Brassaï) from a background of Surrealism, thought the photographer should be invisible, waiting for the “decisive moment” when a juxtaposition of forms would reveal a situation or even a society. Capa thought photography should intrude, should zero in on its subject. “If the picture is no good, then you’re not close enough” was his famous dictum. The paparazzi chasing Princess Di might say the same. Indeed one of the French photographers arrested at the scene proved to have a distinguished record covering the war in Bosnia.

Capa, somewhat tenuously, is included in the roll of honour of the killed in Requiem—tenuously, because he met his death in the French Indo-China war in 1954, which may have been a precursor but had little to do with the photo-imagery of the Vietnam War. Requiem also bumps up the number of photographers killed to 136 by including photographers of the Indo-China war at one end and Cambodia at the other and by naming the killed from the enemy.

This is politically correct but hardly what made the photojournalism of Vietnam more significant than in the dozens of other wars that have marred this century. The Bosnian conflict saw more Western photographers killed at its height in six months than in the whole of the Vietnam war. Why the escalation, I once asked Don McCullin? “The armalite rifle,” he replied sharply.

War photographers were no longer seen as the relatively privileged observers, sharing the protection as well as dangers of troops, but as specific targets, more vulnerable because of their need to stick their heads above the parapet. Cambodia, where Errol Flynn’s son and a dozen other Western photographers were captured and summarily executed by the Khmer Rouge, ended the romance. Don McCullin withdrew from covering war after being badly injured under deliberately targeted fire in Latin America. Bosnia became a relentless catalogue of young photographers hoping to make their name as another Capa being picked off just peering out of their Sarajevo window.

Vietnam marked the end of an era for photojournalism in another way. The market for the still photographer, even more for those who worked almost exclusively in black and white, disappeared. To an extent that neither the BBC nor the Requiem book seem to appreciate, the best of photojournalism was the product of an age when magazines were prepared to devote a whole series of pages to a single photographer’s work. Robert Capa or Larry Burrows or even Eve Arnold could not have existed without Life magazine, any more than Don McCullin without the Sunday Times or the Observer being willing to give them a platform for their “view” of an incident or situation—peace or war.

Today the photo magazines have all folded or been turned into vehicles for lifestyles and personality portraits. Don McCullin now concentrates on landscapes and scenes of violence for police recruitment ads. Cartier-Bresson has given up the camera for the paint brush (although he still carries his beloved Leica around when he goes out—just in case). Eve Arnold and the other considered photographers are working on books, which remain the last means of expressing their particular “eye.”Television would never subsume the single image, so picture editors always said. And Vietnam seemed to prove them right. And it was true that the single image that most struck readers of the Gulf war was the abrupt picture of the Iraqi driver burnt to death by air fire while fleeing the allied troops. It helped stop the war before the generals wanted or President Bush anticipated. But the truth is that it is television that now moves people to care about famine or war.

Today it is not journalism that uses single images–let alone the black-and-white pictures that made war photography–but art, that takes them precisely for their effect and their connotations. They have become icons rather than singular visions, more used in advertising than magazines. The job and the rewards for the photojournalist remain getting far closer to the subject, only now the subject is a princess and a lover, not the face of war nor, for that matter, the slums of Glasgow.

Most wanted list in San Francisco...

“Police pictures: the photograph as evidence” (until 20 January, 1998) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, looks as if it might be pegged to the current revival of film noir. But according to the show’s organiser, SF MoMA photography curator, Sandra Phillips, this exhibition of forensic photographs “Just turned out to look timely.” It is a project she has “been thinking about for along time.” Ms Phillips says, “When I first came to the museum I did a history of photography from California collections and I found myself in the State archives in Sacramento, where I found pictures of the Robert Kennedy assassination and pictures from the San Quentin prison mug-shot books from the 1890s. I thought they were fascinating both in themselves and for their angle on photographic truth.”

More recently Ms Phillips was approached by “someone who had been to Cambodia and found this archive of pictures from the Tuol Sleng interrogation camp where the Khmer Rouge brought so-called traitors to ‘confess’ before they were executed.” Most of the 15,000 to 20,000 prisoners held there were photographed and only seven are known to have survived. “These are pictures of people most of whom knew they were about to die,” Ms Phillips notes, “and that knowledge makes the pictures incredibly moving.”

Ms Phillips sees their combination of historic relevance and uncontrived emotion as an extreme example of the expressive character of “Police pictures”. Pictures of the Tuol Sleng camp, from the book by the American Chris Riley for the Photo Archive Group, were also shown at the Arles Photographic Festival this summer, as part of its theme “memory and responsibility”.

The show, she says, “is mainly about trying to single out who the criminal among us is and how photography is used to cement this distinction. That nobody up to now had actually approached this subject, which turns out to be huge, was amazing to me. My only hope is that I have made a reasonable first stab at it.”

The exhibition includes pictures of alleged criminals, from Alexander Gardner’s portraits of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirator in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination to surveillance images of bank robbers and anti-war demonstrators. It also includes “wanted” posters, crime scene snapshots and pictures of physical evidence, such as the devastation caused by the terrorists bombing of the World Trade Center.

“There is a lot of FBI material in the show that is not in the catalogue,” Ms Phillips points out, “because we couldn’t get clearance to print it in time,” including a bloody footprint from the O.J. Simpson trial and shots of the torn cloth used to bind kidnapped Northern California murder victim Polly Klaas and her girlfriends at the slumber party from which she was abducted.

Now that digital imaging makes all photographs potentially subject to undetectable manipulation, curators seem to be using anonymous authorship as benchmarks of what remains of photographic truth. Both “Police pictures” and Ms Phillips’s outstanding previous exhibition “Crossing the frontier”—a survey of what she called “land-use photographs”—have had a preponderance of images ascribed to “unknown”.

Perhaps the most exhibited cameraman in “Police pictures” is Arthur Fellig (1899-1968), New York’s celebrated crime photographer, who went by the nickname Weegee. Ms Phillips borrowed several images from the Weegee archive and collection at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. The ICP opens its own survey exhibition, “Weegee’s world: life, death and human drama” on 21 November (until 22 February, 1998). The show will make a five-year international tour whose itinerary, still being finalised, is slated to include London, Paris and San Francisco.

With over 200 images, “This is the most complete retrospective of Weegee’s work ever,” says ICP curator Miles Barth, “the first ever to be drawn from the photographer’s archive. It presents many of the classic photos and an almost equal number that people have never seen before. It is also a survey of well-known photographs which, until now, have been incorrectly captioned, titled and dated.

Many prints of Weegee’s work were made not by him but by photo agency technicians. They range in size from 4x5 inches to 16x20 inches and their condition varies. “He was not Ansel Adams,” Mr Barth quips, “he cared more about the information in an image than about the print as an object.” ICP’s show will also include Weegee’s films and an audio component that Mr Barth describes as “a rarely heard recording of Weegee talking about this work. It lasts nine minutes and will play continually in the gallery.”

“When we inherited the Weegee archives from his companion Wilma Wilcox,” Mr Barth explains, “we believed that he was possibly the father of modern photojournalism.” While this is debatable, given that Weegee’s tabloid photography treads a fine line between that of the paparazzi and reportage, Mr Barth maintains that “as history has unfolded, Weegee has achieved this position. It is a title he would have accepted reluctantly, and he certainly deserves it.”