Photography changes the look and content of magazines

Steven Heller

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Steven Heller [ BIO ]


Steven Heller

Steven Heller, co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author program and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism programs at the School of Visual Arts, was an art director at the New York Times for thirty-three years. He currently writes the "Visuals" column for the New York Times Book Review. He is contributing editor to Print, EYE, Baseline, and I.D. magazines, as well as the author and/or editor of over 120 books on design and popular culture.

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Steven Heller, author and/or editor of over 120 books on design and popular culture, looks back at how photography changed the both the look and content of magazines.

Photography changed how the world was recorded. Likewise the "picture magazine" changed how the world was seen. The photojournalist Edward Steichen referred to this genre as a "major force in explaining man to man," and in the decades before television, picture magazines awash with halftones, printed with luminescent inks on velvety paper, were veritable eyes on the world. Photography may have been static, but when edited like a motion picture and narratively paced to tell a story, images of never-before recorded sights offered audiences the same drama—and more detail—than any newsreel could. Innovative editors at the leading picture magazines advanced revolutionary storytelling ideas that altered the way photography was used and perceived.

As photography evolved from single documentary images into visual essays, the forms and formats of presentation changed as well. From the mid-19th to the early-20th centuries, the picture magazine evolved from a repository of drawn and engraved facsimiles of isolated Daguerreotypes into albums of sequenced photographic images and integrated texts, designed to capture and guide the eye, and to present current events of social, cultural, and political import.

While photojournalism (though not officially referred to as such) had been practiced since 1855 when Roger Fenton made history photographing the Crimean War, the ability to reproduce photographs was really only possible after 1880 when Stephen H. Horgan's invention of the halftone was tested at the New York Daily Graphic and ultimately improved upon by the New York Times.

It was in the 1920s, when compact cameras such as the Leica, made unobtrusive photography possible (while still providing excellent negatives for crisp reproduction) that picture magazines began to flourish. The weekly Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung (BIZ) was one of the most progressive of the early photographic picture magazines, whose photographers elevated candid photography into high art and viable journalism. BIZ captured the artistic tumult and political turmoil of the 1920s and bore witness to extraordinary global events as had no other picture magazine before it. Its photographers—precursors of the now pesky paparazzi—reveled in shooting candid poses of the famous and infamous. And in concert with a new breed of "photo editor” they set standards for the modern picture magazine built on what photographer Erich Salomon called bildjournalismus or photojournalism.

Editor-in-chief Kurt Szafranski and his colleague, Kurt Korff (both who eventually moved to Life magazine in New York), were early experimenters with the modern essay approach—a form that required a variety of pictures and concise captions linked together to build impact and drama. They applied what they called the principle of the "Third Effect," which meant that when two pictures are brought together and positioned side-by-side, each picture's individual effect is enhanced by the reader's interpretative powers.

A few years later, at the Münchner Illustrierte Presse (MIP), a popular Barvarian picture magazine, the energetic and ambitious editor and art director, Stefan Lorant, took the picture story idea and ran with it. Lorent hired an elite corps of photographers (including Alfred Eisenstaedt, who later worked for Henry Luce at Life), and let picture stories go on for as many pages as warranted. Lorant designed the layouts himself, introducing certain design tropes—including some that might be criticized today for their excessive use of geometric boarders, overlapping photographs, and silhouettes. But despite a tendency to fiddle, he acknowledged that his most successful layouts were those where he left pictures alone.

During the late 1920s and 1930s, the impact of German bildjournalismus had spread to many of the world's capitals. In Paris, Paris Match was arguably the most popular picture magazine, but the news weekly, VU, founded in 1928 and edited by Lucien Vogel, was the most innovative in terms of the picture essay. Vogel had always been more interested in politics than fashion and was fascinated by the power of photography to document and comment upon current events. The early issues of the magazine presented an erratic mix of politics, sports, culture, and spot news. And in later years photographers like André Kertész, Robert Capa, and Brassaï, provided memorable reportage.

Vogel knew the trick of how to make pictures tell a story. One of his pioneering efforts was the double truck spread, for which a strong photograph was enlarged to mammoth proportions to fill up two side-by-side pages. Pacing photos from large to small to huge to small again provided impact and surprise. He cropped, manipulated, and juxtaposed pictures freely, in ways that egotistic photographers would never tolerate today.

The picture magazine formats pioneered in Europe went on to strongly influence the content and design of popular photo journalist periodicals, such as Life and Look, in the Unites States. In addition, émigré photographers who fled from Europe in the 1930s brought their unique talents to the United States and further helped to define the genre.

Photography is a uniquely viable medium (and inexhaustible art form), but as practiced in these pioneer picture magazines the journalistic photo essay is all but extinct (except in coffee table art books). And, despite the attempts of contemporary magazines, the picture magazine—that weekly window of news and views—is an anomaly today.

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  • Vu, 1931
  • Vu, 1930
  • Vu, 1933
Cover of Berliner illustrirte Zeitung by Felix H. Man
Cover of Le Miroir, Trench Casualties near Combles, France
Cover of Münchner Illustriete Presse, Portrait of Mahatma Ghandi
  • Cover of Münchner Illustriete Presse, Portrait of Mahatma Ghandi, 1930

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