By Eugene Struthers
The possibility of capturing a world frozen in time was only achieved because of light, easy to use handheld cameras, high speed lenses and films. It also required a new generation of photographers who were capable of using new techniques and developing ground-breaking procedures.
The German Ermanox was the first camera which permitted a photographer to work under poor light conditions. It appeared in the market in 1923 and was soon followed by the Barnack's Leica. The cameras of this generation allowed and defied photographic reproduction. They allowed the photographer to be spontaneous in the available light, to react quickly to any given situation they saw through their viewfinder. People, objects and places were now frozen in time. Photojournalism was ready to take its first step forward as a new form of visual communication. In the 1920's an emergence of a new kind of journalism had surfaced. A kind of journalism in which pictures played as an important a role as the written word. A new generation of photo-essays and pictorial stories had appeared almost simultaneously in Russia and Germany. The two countries in Europe which were experiencing the greatest social violent change and movement of its time. "To crush traditions. Photograph the people and things just as they are! This became the slogan for the new movement, a common meeting ground for a basis of ideas. Ideas that were decisive for the emergence of photojournalist," wrote Tim Gidal in his book Deutschland - Beginn des moderenen photojournalismus.
Deep within the misery, suffering and decay of the trenches of World War I, the traditional social and spiritual values of the bourgeois 19th century had died. A new world was emerging from the social injustice. In the 1920's photography had joined the printed word as a herald of new ideologies and mass movements. The camera produced pictures which were credible, which were unique. It gave photojournalism a platform of a powerful communication medium, one in which it was capable of heavily influencing public opinion. The principal defenders of modern photojournalism originated in Germany with the Munchner Illustrierte Presse, Berlin Illustrierte Zeitung and the Dephot service They were the first to print candid and natural photographs by Erich Salomon. Salomon specialized in capturing images which for the first time showed the elite and powerful of the period in unofficial human situations. Other great pioneers of this new style were Wolfgang Weber, Martin Munkacsi, Felix H Man and the Hungarian born photographer Endre Friedmann who later became famous as Robert Capa. All went on to appear in these magazines. Why did they stand out as great photographers? To put it simply, their pictures had a common thread of historical events, characterized by a new objective vision of life's reality. They all captured unique unrepeatable moments which reflected tragedies, hope, sorrow and joys of human life.
The main feature of this new style was not only to capture an instant in time but also to capture and portray the character of the moment. The photographer did not want to be a mere uninvolved observer. These photographers entered the undergrowth of human existence. To experience from an inside view, to report in the heat of war, and to capture what they saw. The basic character trait of such a documentary photographs were tainted by the photographer's emotional involvement, intelligence and judgment. These new style photographers tried to experience what they saw through their camera's lens.
These photographic reportages, photo-sketches and photo-essays required the photographer to offer a deeper and effective frank presentation of the theme than that of a given single image. The photo-essay became the foundation to modern photojournalism. It became an equal account, a combined product of the picture editor and the photographer. The picture editor became the most important element in the success of the photo-essay as he was the one who gave the photographer the assignment, developed the theme for the essay, selected the pictures and arranged them to give the essay drama and rhythm - creating sensationalism.
Illustrated magazines started to appear all over the world in the 1920's. Magazines were no longer restricted by the length of their text - but were now influenced by the dynamic pictorial story itself. In Russia photojournalism became marked by an effort to offer an involved report. The photo-essay was known as the "fotoocherk" (photographic sketch). However, the Soviet Russia discovered and utilized photojournalism systematically as a state-controlled tool of propaganda and public education. The essentials of photojournalism were devised and developed in Germany.
The development of photojournalism as a progressive humanistic medium had lost its fertile growth when the Nazis came in to power in Germany. Instead, in the hands of the Nazis ideologist was used and developed into a representation for the promotion of their totalitarian ideologies. Many of these men and women who helped photojournalism progress in Germany were forced to emigrate. Felix H. Man went to London, Munkacsi to Paris, Erich Salomon moved to Holland, Stefan Lorant first of the great picture editors sought asylum in England, Eisenstaedt moved to America. It was through these men that photojournalism was able to take root and develop in America and Great Britain.
In 1936, a new brand of picture magazine appeared on the American newspaper stands. This magazine was called "Life" and its program was : "To see life; to see the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things - machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man's work - his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the woman that men love and many children; to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed, to see and be instructed."Life met with great acclaim and exceeded the wildest expectations of the editorial board. Its photo-essay layout deviated from the German and Soviet page layout of a single page with several images on one page. Life ran a large picture format on several pages. Requiring the reader to turn the page to see and view the next image. The American reader had an appetite for large format photography, crystal clear attractive images with a condoned flash. Capturing the atmosphere of the scene started to gain ground in America only after 1938 when the first issue of the London Picture Post appeared. The picture editor at the time was Stefan Lorant, he gave the London Picture Post its edge, identity and character. The German exile Alfred Eisenstaedt had done the same and was instrumental in the success of photojournalism in America.
It was Lorant who had sent Robert Capa to cover the Spanish Civil War and it was the Picture Post which was the first periodical to show war as it was - brutal, vicious and indiscriminate. However, the American magazines would sometimes carry cue -and - flash photography produced by stand cameras. As the American reader preferred spectacular views to that of raw reality.
During World War II, modern photojournalism had reached maturity. Photographers were able to give readers an eye account of war and the struggles for survival. It gave birth to one of the greatest eras in the entire history of the medium, that of humanist photography.
Photojournalism as a subject is one of humanity, to portray and defend human dignity, to appeal to reason and logic, to undercut the human soul and capture the screams of pain and cries of happiness, to venture into the environment of human existence and represent an accurate portrayal of our everyday life, to convey a common universal message of life, to showcase our interaction within a given society, to display the multicultural environment in which we walk and live within each day, to show injustice and give a voice to the poor, dead and dying, to capture decay and progress, to educate and facilitate what it is to be a human being irrespective of colour, sex, religion, intelligence or wealth. Not to show-case beautiful pictures but rather to facilitate human communication, to make man an eyewitness of his time.