PRINT February 1982

Altered States: Newspaper Photographs

PHOTOGRAPHY TOOK A WRONG TURNING when the Victorians tried to imitate allegorical painting. Documentation and description of the external world are its true characteristics. Photographers today who are encouraged to photograph “their inner sensibilities,” as they have been by one commentator, are being conned. The results, notably in much of the exhibition “Mirrors and Windows,” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, are romantic nihilism, miles off the map marking the varied routes in the same direction taken by such photographic geniuses as Lewis Hine, Alfred Stieglitz, Bill Brandt, Brassaï, W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Much of the photography in the mass media, vacuous and stereotyped to the point of screaming, will seem as remote from their enduring work as the self-indulgent fantasies in fashion in the photographic galleries today. But there is a living connection, for the newspaper photograph at its best is also an unforgettable observation.

Part of its power lies in this, part in the multiplication of the image, part in the ease with which we are able to recall a single still image: in this it leaves more identifiable traces than a moving image. The still news photograph may be enhanced by its composition, but a poorly composed, newspaper photograph can have effect. I have suggested in my book Pictures on a Page that we should reserve the term “decisive moment” for the rare combination when a photographed moment of news value forms the geometrical equilibrium which was in Cartier-Bresson’s mind when he used the term. He was talking of a visual, rather than a dramatic, climax, a picture rather than a story.

The news photographs on this and succeeding pages may be more or less familiar, but once seen they will all easily be recalled. There is arguably no more than one decisive moment among them, in my definition: Romano Cagnoni’s Biafra photograph. On this page we have two newspaper photographs, one, loosely composed, of a hostage, and one averagely good portrait of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Either image must form part of the American consciousness and perception of Iran. Coupled as they are here, they stimulate many emotions. They accuse. The coupled photograph is a device of photojournalism of great potential for truth and for propaganda.

The Ayatollah is shown in multiple image to remind us of the ease in newspaper journalism of repeating the same image in many newspapers at one time and also at different times, a point of significance to be noted on the following pages.

Harold Evans is the editor of The Times, London, and author of Pictures on a Page (New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1978).

Thanks to Associated Press, Camera Press, Gamma, UnitedPress International, Eddie Adams, Romano Cagnoni, Horst Faas, John Paul Filo, Don McCullin, and Huynh Cong (Nick) Ut for use of their photographs.