A Platform Of Our Own: The Ubiquitous Photo Magazine
Photo magazines are nearly as old as the camera itself. For nearly 150 years of the camera's 200(ish) year history, a photo publication has been around to feature images, artists, and innovations. Born out of necessity, no other art form has utilized publications like photography. The existing art world's refusal to view photography as a genuine art medium made it difficult for photographers to showcase their work in traditional art arenas, like galleries. Thus, the photo magazine was born.
Photo mags and journals have worked to meet two essential needs for photographers - a place to showcase images to the public and as a common room for photographers to share their ideas and techniques. They could be picked up by anyone and sent anywhere, effectively weaving together a community that reached across borders and seas. Photographic periodicals were found all over the world and were a great way for photographers to connect and collaborate.
(L) Mrs. Nakayama, 1949. Photo by Ihei Kimura (R) Cover of picture post January 1951
In post-war Japan there was an explosion of photo publications that featured famous Japanese photographers such as Kimura Ihei and Ishimoto Yasuhiro alongside prominent American/European artists like Eugene Atget and Berenice Abbot. Japanese magazines didn't just feature foreign artists, but were an easy way to see just how much the Allied Occupation affected their world view. Many artists, professional and amateur alike, tested out similar styles and methods being used in the West. Now there was more artistic freedom: prior to the war, publishing nudes, no matter how fine art, was unheard of. With magazines opening up a channel to other parts of the world, the West was now also enjoying an Eastern flavor of photography. Post-war Japan was hardly the first time photo magazines facilitated inter-cultural meetings and collaborations.
The Second World War forced many European photographers to flee to America. What followed were different styles influenced heavily by graphic design and philosophies like that of the Bauhaus. Once on American soil, they worked with American photographers to usher in the "Golden Age" of the American photo magazine. From the 30s to the 50s, photographic publications exploded. Millions of copies of various magazines made their way into people's homes and newsstands. You could not miss the importance and influence of magazines like Life, Look, Harper's Bazaar, Direction, Vu, and many, many other photo magazines. Their sheer number greatly speaks to the importance of photography as a way to consume art, design advertisements, and chew on important topics of the day.
During this prolific time, many of the enduring photographers and photos we think of were developed. Many standards were set and formulas for success were born. However, it wasn't a time free of controversy. Life was, without a doubt, the definitive platform for photo essays and they were unafraid of covering difficult topics. Yet, they seemed to fall victim to prejudices of the time. Even with Gordon Parks on their staff, the first African-American staff photographer for Life, their coverage of African-American life were sparse and, at times, utilized stereotypes. Fortunately for Parks, Life wasn't the only magazine that wanted his talent on their pages and he was able to display his highly humanitarian works for other magazines like Ebony.
This ability to move around from publication to publication and jump from genre to genre was, to me, what made the "Golden Age" of photo magazines so special. Vogue, a staunch fashion magazine, was unafraid of publishing harrowing documentary photos when the cultural climate called for it. Fashion photos were just as prevalent in Life as photo essays. Editors wanted photographers for their style, not because they exclusively did portraits or photo essays. They allowed each other to try new things and trusted that something great would develop from it. I fear that differs from today's culture, which is highly driven by developing a "brand" rather than developing a style. Client's look for a photographer who will do exactly what they see on social media, whether or not it matches the photographer's personal style. They are looking for the "Wedding" brand or the "Travel" brand replicated time and time again on social media.
That interchange of genre, style, ideas, and techniques is what made a photo magazine so beat. It was the whole reason photo magazines began - as a way for photographers to connect with each other on these things when they weren't welcome. Photo mags opened up a door for intercultural viewing and collaboration: in doing so we were given a "Golden Age" of photography innovation and prominence here in the US. With the advent of the internet and social media, photo magazines are a shadow of their former selves. However, I feel that their lessons and ideals can still be utilized today. Using social media and the internet as a place that celebrates our stylistic differences could become just as powerful as the photo magazine in its prime. Check back in on the 28th for my in-depth look at Camera Work, an early American photographic journal that paved the way for photo mags to come.
- Ashley Anderson
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Collins, Ross. “ A Brief History of Photography and Photojournalism .” History of Photography and Photojournalism., https://www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~rcollins/242photojournalism/historyofphotography.html.
“Gordon Parks.” Gordon Parks Foundation, https://www.gordonparksfoundation.org/gordon-parks/biography.
Inforefuge. “The Emergence of Photojournalism and Its Effect on Society.” InfoRefuge, 12 Nov. 2007, https://inforefuge.com/emergence-of-photojournalism.
KLEIN, MASON. Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine. YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2020.
“Listing of Historic Photography Magazines with Links to Scanned Issues.” Shadows and Light, 21 Feb. 2021, https://icatchshadows.com/listing-of-historic-photography-magazines-with-links-to-scanned-issues/.
“Photojournalism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/technology/photography/Photojournalism.