Shifting Lines: The Increasing Consideration of Documentary Photography and Photojournalism as Fine Art Photography, Part II

© Abraham Zapruder, film still from John F. Kennedy assassination, 1963

This post starts where yesterday's left off. These posts collectively are an examination of how the 1970s in particular played an important role in forming the contemporary photographic landscape of more elastic and overlapping definitions between documentary photography, fine art photography, and photojournalism that we live in today.


During the 1970s documentary photography and photojournalism increasingly infiltrated the art world. A number of factors combined to accelerate this development.

John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 is often cited as the beginning of television’s ascendency as the primary source of news for increasing numbers of people. The tragic day in Dallas entered the American memory through televised images and news coverage as much as by photography and radio broadcasts. Sales of televisions accelerated during the mid-1960s and by the beginning of the 1970s televised news coverage had surpassed newspapers and magazines as the public’s major source for news.

Television took so much advertising revenue from newspapers and news magazines that many print venues collapsed, including the great picture magazines such as Life, which folded in 1972. With the pressure placed on the print industry by television, magazines and newspapers increasingly looked only to the bottom line for editorial decisions, and cut many photographic projects. As Louis Baltz writes, "In 1945 Americans communicated the appearance of the world's great events to each other through the medium of still photography; by 1975, by and large, they did not." (Louis Baltz, "American Photography in the 1970s," American Images: Photography 1945-1980, 157)

uncredited image from the site www.yesterdaysmagazines.com

At the same time the economics of the magazine and newspaper industries limited options for photographers in photojournalism and documentary photography, an economic infrastructure developed to help support photographers as artists. Opportunities for displaying photography as fine art work expanded, museums began to include photographs as art more frequently in their collections and exhibitions, developments in printing allowed photographer's to use artist's books as a cost-effective forum for distributing their work, the National Endowment for the Arts provided funding for many fine art photographers, and universities hired many photographers as professors in the expanding field of secondary education in photography.

After the closing of Alfred Steiglitz’s gallery 291 in New York in 1917, few U.S. galleries in the following decades showed photography and none exhibited photography exclusively. The Limelight Gallery in New York City and Carl Siembab’s gallery on Newbury Street in Boston showed photography and occasionally held one-person exhibitions of photographers, but it was not until 1969 that Lee Witkin successfully opened the first commercially viable New York art gallery exclusively showing photography as fine art work. During the 1970s a large and active market for contemporary photography developed and Baltz recounts that, "While it was extremely difficult to see photographs exhibited as art on New York gallery walls in 1967, by 1977 it was extremely difficult not to." (159) 

John Szarkowski, from the page www.obit-mag.com

By the 1970s, the photographic print had been firmly established as a unique and collectable object by museums, a process that aided in the raising of market value for photographs. John Szarkowski helped to complete the transformation of the photographic print into an art object, a “passage from multiplicity, ubiquity, equivalence to singularity, rarity, and authenticity.” (Christopher Phillips, "The Judgement Seat of Photography," The Contest of Meaning, 16)

Szarkwoski replaced Edward Steichen as director of the photography department of the museum in 1962 and also replaced Steichen’s legacy of disregard of the qualities of the “fine print” by combining two ideas of Steichen’s predecessor, Beaumont Newhall. Newhall’s early articulation of a program for the isolation and expert judging of the merit of photographs based on aesthetic factors intrinsic to photography allowed for the print to be seen as a singular, unique work, not as a mechanically reproducible item. In Newhall’s vision, an anointed expert - such as himself - could use self-enclosed and self-referential aesthetic factors separate from real world events to judge photographs as works of art. During the second phase of his career, Newhall approached prints with the supposition of creative expression in their making. This not only allowed photographs made outside of the art world to be included as part of art photography history - such as those of Mathew Brady and Charles Marville - it also provided an argument for the uniqueness of the photographic print for Szarkowski to build from in its submission that “each print is an individual personal expression.” (22)

© Mathew Brady, Confederate dead behind a stone wall at Fredericksburg, VA, ca. 1860- ca. 1865

Szarkowski brought back both Newhall’s idea of the expert assessment of formal factors and the supposition of creative intent in the making of the photographic print as part of his ambitious attempt to establish photography in its own aesthetic practice. Szarkowski’s creation of “cult value,” as Walter Benjamin described it in his seminal 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” around the photographic print helped to reorder photography along the lines of other media in museums by establishing a sense of rarity and “aura” around the individual photograph.

This elevation of the print, in turn, helped to commodify photographs and govern a market for prints by defining and limiting the production of the original, which in turn helped solidify art photography as a financially successful gambit for gallery owners and artists. Peter Galassi, the recently retired veteran curator of the museum’s Department of Photography, shows the continued triumph of Szarkowski’s belief in the print as a unique object by claiming that “a photographic print is a much less predictable product than a print from an engraving or an etching plate” and in his belief that the likelihood of a photographer’s being “able truly to duplicate an earlier print is very slight.” (16)

In addition to the increase in opportunities to show work in galleries and museums and the establishment of a market for the photographic print as a unique object, photographers began to use the advent of cheaper printing methods such as pad printing, laser printing, dot matrix printing, and inkjet printing to publish their own books in the 1970s in order to claim a role beyond the major presses. W. Eugene Smith, for example, often showed work in Life magazine, but after its closure he published a final version of Minamata, his project on the mercury pollution of a Japanese fishing village, as a book in 1975. Increasingly, funding for book projects came from small presses, independent grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, and photographic equipment companies such as Hasselblad, as well as from the photographers themselves, allowing for the viability of the book form as a replacement for magazines as a venue for photographers. (Mary Panzer, Things as They Are, 25) Baltz describes the situation:

               Another development in American photography during the 1970's was the unprecedented
               quantity and quality of photographers' and artists' publications, some in the form of portfolios
               of original prints, some in the traditional form of a monograph by an established publishing
               house, but most often, in the form of inexpensively printed, self-published 'artist's bookworks'
               that dealt with a single subject or theme. (Baltz 160)

© W. Eugene Smith, from Minamata

As galleries, museums, and books provided new venues for photographers and prints rose in price as they became defined as unique objects, the National Endowment for the Arts provided grants to artists at unprecedented levels and universities added photography courses and programs in the 1970s allowing more room for photographers to make a living as fine artists. The NEA, before the ideological battles surrounding grants given to controversial artists such as Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe in the early 1990s, gave money to a significant number of photographers to help them support projects. As for working in higher education as a means of subsistence in the 1970s, Baltz writes, "Higher education was becoming both a major educator and employer of serious photographers. It is probable that teaching had supplanted commercial or magazine work as the 'other' work of most serious photographers by the mid-1970s." (157)

Szarkowski gave another reason for photography's changes in the 1970s. He fundamentally refuted the ability of photography to explain large-scale public issues and stories such as the Vietnam War or the ability of photo essays such as Margaret Bourke-White's attempt to explain the effects of World War II. "Most issues of importance cannot be photographed," he said, declaring the fields of photojournalism and documentary non-effectual in his influential Mirrors and Windows (1978). (Marien 382) Szarkowski believed, for example, that W. Eugene Smith’s efforts to characterize the historic culture of a Spanish village in seventeen photographs pushed the medium beyond its capacity. Szarkowski also pointed to “photography’s failure to explain large public issues” such as the Vietnam War. (382) He wished to cordon off art photography from the encroachments of mass culture by introducing a formalist vocabulary for examining the visual structure supposedly inherent in photographs and by denying the ability of a string of images to convey a narrative in the way that text can.

Szarkowski's comments, in a way, reflect a now long-standing trend towards a disbelief in photography which became widespread after World War II and continues today, an erosion of confidence represented by the long-standing debate about the authenticity of Robert Capa's Death of a Loyalist Soldier and other World War II images. This loss of confidence helped to create a distance between documentary photography and photojournalism and their traditional roles, facilitating their consideration as works of art or personal expression.

In sum, the 1970s brought together a confluence of factors that built on the historic flexibility of the ideas of documentary photography and photojournalism, their approximations to other photographic genres over time, and their early crossings into fine arts to further their ultimate inclusion as part of the fine arts world. We can easily imagine this quote from photographic historian Lili Corbus Bezner to include fine art photography as well: “Photographic categories such as 'documentary' or 'photojournalism' are not necessarily or immediately obvious to viewers; often we must be told which is which, a function of textbooks, museums, gallery owners, critics and historians. A single image can belong to more than one category, or its characteristics may change through time.” (Bezner 2) This process of shifting lines between genres, building over the course of the medium's history, was perhaps inevitable for an adaptable and experimental medium, considered to be both a truth and a lie, never sharply delineated as an art or a science.


A coda to this post / paper that follows these trends through the 1990s will be published early next week.