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Visualizing World News in the Age of Digital Circulation
By Zeynep Devrim Gürsel
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
What Precedes the Digital News Image?
Not all photographs are news images. How, then, do certain photographs become news images? Through circulating in particular types of networks. Another way of asking this question is, What precedes the news image? This chapter provides a particular history of news photography, focusing on how images move and acquire value. The objective is not to repeat the already well-told story of what preceded the news image historically, not what illustrated the news before photography, but rather to highlight the infrastructures that enable the production and circulation of news images as a form of visual worldmaking. This chapter lays out the professional history against which my fieldwork was conducted. In the second half of the chapter I describe, especially for readers not familiar with the photojournalism industry, the processes by which a photograph can generate revenue as a news image and the different attitudes toward profit that I encountered.
In the summer of 1839, at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris, the process behind daguerreotypes, named after their inventor, Louise Daguerre, was declared "a free gift to the world." As visual culture theorist Ariella Azoulay reminds us, "the same country that bestowed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, France, also nationalized the invention of photography in order to bequeath it, without delay, to all of humanity." That the invention was a free gift to the world is significant because the French government gave Daguerre an annuity in exchange for the patent, thereby acknowledging the commercial value of photography. Mathematician, physician, and Deputy of the Pyrénées-Orientales François Arago details this arrangement in his report to the French Chamber of Deputies, stressing that Daguerre himself had not wanted a lump sum "which might give the contract the character of a sale." Arago continued, "It would not be the same with a pension. It is with a pension that you reward the soldier, crippled on the field of honor, the official, grown gray at his post," and thus, he reminded the deputies, they had honored the families of major scholars after their deaths. From the beginning, then, photographic technology was considered to be a discovery of global interest and something whose significance lay beyond its financial profitability.
Despite the attention attracted by daguerreotypes for accurately capturing the world in unprecedented detail, these photographs were singular material objects. As such, they had limited circulation, and this kept daguerreotypes from reaching large audiences and becoming news images. The excitement generated was about the process and promise of photography, not about any one particularly significant photograph. Almost as soon as the process was made public, photography studios were established in urban centers worldwide. Soon both studios and peripatetic photographers began producing and circulating images of distant elsewheres. By the 1850s a new feverish excitement accompanied the first reproduction of photographs. As historian Rebecca Solnit puts it, "Photographic reproduction would make the world's images and experiences as available as the Manchester mills made cotton." Through the development of photographic reproduction a new, though long anticipated, object emerged: the photograph as commodity. Views of the world could be mass-produced and sold. For larger and larger audiences, the world became a visually knowable object, and photography emerged as a visual medium of worldmaking.
Photographic history can and has been told as a series of technological innovations or a collection of great names or iconic images. Yet each technological innovation had to be preceded by a shift in imagination, and each great photographer rose to eminence in a particular sociohistorical context in which certain images could be deemed iconic. The telling of what precedes the digital news image in this chapter underscores the entangled political, technological, and commercial histories behind changes in visual worldmaking. What follows is a very brief history of photojournalism from its beginning to the early twenty-first century and the years immediately preceding my fieldwork, which saw the transition from analog to digital technologies. Just as significant as the invention of photographic reproduction technologies in the 1850s, the transition to digital reproductions allowed images to circulate in completely new ways and through a whole new range of networks, giving rise to new kinds of image brokers. Digital technologies changed the photojournalism industry radically, yet the elements central to a genealogy of digital news images — contingencies and confluences of capital, technology, transportation, political power, and military campaigns — are the same ones that were central to many other moments of innovation in the history of photographic representation. We are still witnessing radical shifts in the use of new visual forms in journalism and debating their respective commercial and journalistic value. I anticipate that these same elements will be central to future developments.
A SHORT HISTORY OF PHOTOJOURNALISM
It may be hard for the twenty-first-century reader to imagine journalism without pictures, and yet newspaper photography began only in the early 1880s. By some accounts, the first mechanically reproduced photograph in a newspaper, "A Scene in Shanty Town," appeared in the New York Daily Graphic in 1880. The Leipziger Illustrierte published photographs using a similar technique in 1882. Because of the excessive costs of halftones, photographs were not used regularly but rather employed for special occasions, such as coronations. It was not until 1896 that the New York Times used illustrations regularly in a weekend supplement, indicating that the visual was a key aspect of journalism. Eventually "picture newspapers" began to appear. The first few "picture newspapers," such as the Illustrated London News (1890) and the Daily Mirror (founded in 1904, the first newspaper to be entirely illustrated by photographs), were published in England. Excelsior in Paris and the Daily Graphic in New York soon followed.
The story of transportation is central to developments in photojournalism in terms of both how images circulated and the obstacles faced by traveling photographers. After all, photographic negatives, even once they were easily reproducible, were material objects. For news images to have the tremendous affective and political impact that scholars often highlight and analyze, they needed first to get to one or several publications. Hence, from the time news publications began using photographs, photographic agencies played an important role in their distribution. By 1894 a photographic agency, the Illustrated Journals Photographic Supply Company of Ludgate Hill, guaranteed images from any part of the United Kingdom in twenty-four hours, thus tying the visual news cycle to the means of transportation available. Many more photo agencies sprang up between 1904 and the beginning of World War I. Soon, people developed ways of transmitting images over telegraph wires and radio waves so as not to have to wait for trains and ships, substituting communication networks for transportation networks. In 1907 the first picture was sent by telegraph from Paris to the Daily Mirror in London. The New York Times sponsored a daredevil flight from Albany to New York in 1910, and its crash resulted in the paper's first front-page news photograph. In other words, this story of a first involved a medium of communication, a newspaper, sponsoring a feat of transportation, knowing that whether it succeeded or failed, it would make for a newsworthy photograph. The flight resulted in a representation that then circulated as both news and an implicit advertisement for the publication.
By 1913, pictures were being transmitted across the Atlantic by cable, though costs were practically prohibitive, making few international events worthy of news images. In other words, what had to precede a news image was an intricate distribution network dependent on new kinds of publications, commercial interests, and transportation methods of the day.
The invention of two German portable cameras, the Leica and the Ermanox, and the first flash bulb, both in 1925, changed photojournalism significantly by allowing photographers to master time and space, since they could now shoot around the clock in a far greater range of places. Photographers in the late 1920s could take their cameras to places where older, bulkier cameras had been prohibitive obstacles, such as the front lines of war, and they could cover events that took place outside of daylight hours.
Parallel to these technological developments, politics in Europe prompted many accomplished Jewish photographers (such as Alfred Eisenstaedt and Erich Salomon) to immigrate to America. Other emigrants from Europe brought the picture magazine as a media genre to the United States. These photographers contributed their significant talents to the formation of the popular picture magazines Life and Look (both founded in 1936). These American magazines were following earlier examples set by European magazines such as the Münchner Illustrierte Zeitung (1928), the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung (1928–29), and the French Vu (1928), all of which contributed to the rise of the photo essay and the development of a less posed style of photojournalism. New genres and styles of documentary photography emerged as the range of image-able events expanded and the number of publications for those images grew. On both sides of the Atlantic, the 1930s and 1940s were a golden age of documentary photography. Photography acquired the status of an influential medium in which to tell the most important stories of the day. For example, in the United States the Farm Security Administration established a photography program to document rural poverty, and the Photo League brought together established and novice photographers to document life on the streets in the various working-class neighborhoods of New York City.
Photography's popularity, however, did not mean it was immediately accorded journalistic value. Communications scholar Barbie Zelizer convincingly argues that "[t]he '30s constituted journalism's last stand before photography became an integrated part of the field." In 1933, AT&T sold its picture telegraphy service to Associated Press, which launched AP Wirephoto in 1935, resulting in a far greater distribution network for images. AP Wirephoto had the ability to transmit images across very large distances and thus was able to cover the news across extensive geographies, a capability that became particularly important for covering a war that took place on four continents and several different fronts. The AP Wirephoto meant images could travel as quickly and as far as text, which in turn could travel at the speed of electricity. By 1938 pictures constituted almost 40 percent of the content in American dailies. Moreover, photography was one way newspapers could compete with radio for the public's attention.
Yet at the same time that the technology of the AP Wirephoto made photographs ubiquitous, there was much resistance to photography on the part of many journalists. Zelizer draws attention to how this resistance was expressed by "denouncing, disembodying, and deflating" photography. Those who were threatened by this alternative language argued that pictures would encroach upon the written word, the source of journalistic dignity. Even if pictures were accepted as a commercial necessity for a publication, many separated the photographer from the photographs, and some argued that any reporter with a camera could produce news images, denying the specific craft of the photojournalist. Finally, photography was embraced for its denotative dimension, which "positioned photography as a craft in need of the intervention of journalists, making it adjunct to that of word-journalism." In other words, photographs were begrudgingly integrated into journalism on the assumption that they needed to be accompanied by text. Zelizer concludes that the way in which the photographic image was accepted — reluctantly and in spite of opposition — affected the way it was understood by journalists. (As the reader will see in the chapters to come, almost a century later the struggle between text and image is still a core element in the culture of many news organizations.)
Susan Sontag argues that it is natural that photojournalism came into its own during wartime in the early 1940s, because "war was and still is the most picturesque and irresistible news." Whether or not one agrees with this argument about the seductive and picturesque nature of war photography, World War II was certainly a global news story and hence promised opportunities for images to gain great journalistic and commercial value. While the portable Leica and flash meant that World War II could be represented in ways that would have been unimaginable during World War I in terms of subject matter, significant changes also took place in the world behind the taking, selling, transmitting, and mobilizing of news images.
As wire services were able to provide the news publications that subscribed to them with images of most major news events all over the globe soon after the event, photographs gained more and more importance as a way of telling a journalistic story. Increasingly, important news stories had to be visualized. As news publications valued photography more, small, independent photography agencies and cooperatives were established that advocated for photographers and their right to greater editorial autonomy. Since wire services would cover all the major news, freelance photographers represented by small agencies could be sent on assignment for more in-depth coverage of stories a publication deemed particularly significant. Visual journalism increasingly became a way for publications to differentiate themselves from competitors. As a result, photography was more valued.
It was in this context that the legendary photo agency Magnum was established in the spring of 1947, with the hopes of granting photographers more agency. From its inception it was to be a cooperative of photographers, with small offices in Paris and New York. Photographer Robert Capa, most famous for his photograph of the Republican soldier being shot in the Spanish Civil War and already a well-known photojournalist at the time, presided over Magnum's creation at a meeting in the restaurant of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was to be a cooperative so that photographers would have the freedom to shoot what they wanted rather than being dictated to by magazine editors. Rather than an agency that primarily served publications, this was to be an agency whose priority was its photographer members. The basic idea was that a publication would send a photographer somewhere and pay for the expenses, but after having shot the requisite stories, the photographer could shoot for himself on the side. By keeping in close touch with the agency in Paris and New York, the photographer would know what the magazines were interested in, and the agency offices would know at all times what their photographers were shooting so they could find new assignments or place portions of the photographer's work in multiple publications. The major change would be that photographers rather than the publications that commissioned them would hold the copyright to their work.
Eventually, however, despite the enthusiasm for photography, the picture magazines established in the 1920s and '30s did not survive the appearance of television: Life and Look both ceased regular weekly publication in the early 1970s, and almost no picture magazines in Europe survived into the 1980s. Ever since there has been chronic talk of the death of photojournalism. Nonetheless photojournalism continued with new firsts such as the appearance of color photographs in dailies in the 1970s and the regular appearance of photographs in newspapers that had hitherto relied mostly on illustrations such as the Wall Street Journal and Le Monde.
Excerpted from Image Brokers by Zeynep Devrim Gürsel. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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