Art 101

A Snap History of Photojournalism


A Snap History of Photojournalism
Sebastião Salgado's "Coal Mining, Dhanbad, Bihar, India, 1989"

Photojournalists simultaneously occupy two roles: on the one hand, that of the artist, who selectively creates a composition and manipulates the light, angles, and position of his or her subject, and, on the other, that of the news reporter who records a candid impression of the existing world. While the majority of photojournalistic images are published to illustrate a news story and then forgotten, some images strike a balance between form and content so perfectly that they redefine the meaning of fine art, from Sebastião Salgado's Coal Mining in Dhanbad, Bihar, India, 1989 to Peter Marlow's Cathedral series or Ayana V. Jackson's Tables Turned (Hotel des Milles Collines), Kigali, Rwanda, 2008.

In 1936, Dorothea Lange, photographer of the iconic image Migrant Mother, steered away from commissioned portraits of wealthy families and set out to capture the anguish of the Great Depression. After a long day of shooting the migrant worker camps of Northern California, Lange pulled over to the side of the road after spotting a makeshift camp of impoverished families. The image is an honest document of the brutal reality of the lives of the migrants and their families, yet Lange also humanizes her subject, presenting her with dignity; the photograph's power is not only a result of its subject matter, but also Lange's mastery of the medium.

Years before Lange held a camera, Alfred Stieglitz brought an attitude of seriousness and a rigorous methodology to photography through the founding of the avant-garde photographic journal Camera Work and the exhibition space Gallery 291. Leading a group of pictorialists who captured street scenes of New York at the turn of the 20th century, Stieglitz valued aesthetic form while also commenting on social divides. Highly aware of Stieglitz's work, Lewis Hine took photography in a direction that would not be recognized as groundbreaking until much later in the century. Through his images of child laborers and the conditions of migrant workers, Hine strived to achieve social change via photographic means.

As figures like Stieglitz, Hine, and Lange paved a path to establish photographers as the movers and shakers of history rather than simply its recorders, more and more people picked up cameras to capture the changing world. After the end of World War II, photographers Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, and George Rodger formed the cooperative agency Magnum as a response to the horrific events they had witnessed. Institutions such as Magnum were created to give photographers greater freedom and a means of protecting their work, allowing members to shift freely between the identities of artist and reporter. Over the course of his career, Rodger, for instance, captured everything from metropolitan skylines to African jungles to exclusive fashion events—but never strayed from his dedication to photography as fine art.

While the nature of photography has changed dramatically in recent years as a result of the advent of digital photography and the ubiquity of camera phones, artists continue to use the medium to create works that distinguish themselves from the ever-increasing stream of images circulating online. In his series Thrift Shop, Brian Ulrich depicts the effects of American consumerism on local communities, while artists such as Steve McCurry and Chris Steele Perkins travel farther afield to capture mesmerizing foreign worlds.

Browse this Artspace collection to see a selection of iconic works by eminent photojournalists of the past and the present.


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