PRINT May 2018



Cover from PM, January 19, 1941. “One Photographer’s Explanation of Why France Fell.” Photos: Lisette Model.

Artist as Reporter: Weegee, Ad Reinhardt, and the “PM” News Picture, by Jason E. Hill. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018. 375 pages.

“WHO WANTS YESTERDAY’S PAPERS? Who wants yesterday’s girl? Who wants yesterday’s papers? Nobody in the world!” So sneered Mick Jagger back in 1967.

While it’s true that old newsprint may serve to wrap fish (or, as one of my former colleagues at the Village Voice colorfully put it, “wipe a bum’s ass”), anyone who has ever been hypnotized by an unspooling roll of microfilm, sneezed in a musty newspaper morgue, or suffered the pain of brittle paper crumbling to the touch can attest that Mick was wrong.

Yesterday’s paper is the very stuff of history. As the art historian Jason E. Hill notes at the conclusion of Artist as Reporter—his dense and chewy analysis of the 1940s progressive New York City tabloid PM—during the course of his page-by-page research, the newspaper, “that most ephemeral of all media,” became “a thing.

Page from PM, January 19, 1941. “One Photographer’s Explanation of Why France Fell.” Photos: Lisette Model.

Newsprint as object? As objet d’art? The Museum of Modern Art in New York demonstrated as much with the wall of frenzied front pages, taken from the late-1970s New York Post, installed as part of their recent “Club 57” show—descendants of Picasso’s more tasteful 1913 papier collé Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper. Of course, some fifteen years before Picasso, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal inaugurated a color Sunday supplement for the masses, a tradition briefly revived with the twelve issues of the nearly-as-florid hippie-modernist San Francisco Oracle, the trippiest of underground newspapers, published from September 1966 through February 1968.

PM was also a newspaper with an aesthetic. A “dissident mutation”(per Hill) in a mediascape colonized by Henry Luce, the inventor of Time and Life, who was also PM publisher Ralph Ingersoll’s erstwhile employer, PM was declared modern art even before it was introduced to the public. In April 1940, Ingersoll organized an exhibition-cum-competition at MoMA that proposed journalistic representation as something more than that. The call for entries reproduced a Daumier wood engraving; the show’s title, “The Artist as Reporter,” is echoed by Hill’s book.

Modern and art were elastic concepts: That same spring, a few weeks before MoMA opened its epochal exhibition “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art” (which, among other things, featured a bit of performance art in the spectacle of José Clemente Orozco painting a mural in public view), the museum turned itself into a working newsroom, offering cash prizes for topical drawings that dealt with subjects ranging from lynchings and train wrecks to European refugees and MoMA’s own recent Picasso retrospective.

A newspaper is a collective enterprise. PM, which hit newsstands on June 18, 1940, with the front-page headline that Paris had fallen to the Nazis, was, like the Oracle, a paper that advanced a shared worldview. It was unabashedly anti-Fascist and pre–Pearl Harbor pro-intervention, as well as prolabor, pro-Roosevelt, and predicated on the primacy of the visual. Backed by Marshall Field III—the Chicago sportsman, philanthropist, and multimillionaire scion of a department-store fortune—who was an early supporter of community organizer Saul Alinsky, the tabloid (which went for a nickel, more than twice the price of New York’s circulation champ the Daily News) accepted no advertising and devoted over half of its space to images—drawn as well as photographed. One of PM’s most inspired bits of visual reporting was a double-page spread published on October 6, 1941: “Men Who Draw Walt Disney’s Animated Cartoons Report Their Own Strike.”

Page detail from PM, June 6, 1941. “Men Who Draw Walt Disney’s Animated Cartoons Report Their Own Strike.”

With its roster of left-liberal journalists (Max Lerner, Leo Huberman, and I. F. Stone among them); its stellar news photographers (briefly Margaret Bourke-White and especially Weegee, along with others, like Morris Engel and Helen Levitt, associated with the New York Photo League); its regular columnist Dr. Benjamin Spock; its fierce political cartoonists (including Theodor [Dr. Seuss] Geisel and Arthur Szyk); and its sophisticated comics (most famously, Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, but also Vic Jordan, an adventure strip about Europe’s anti-Fascist underground, as well as occasional contributions fromSaul Steinberg), PM has been remembered as the voice of the Popular Front, if not a tabloid analogue to the WPA. Not for nothing did Ingersoll call PM, which was the first newspaper to regularly credit its pictures, a “New Deal for Photographers.”

Hill’s take is more complex. Largely due to the tabloid’s photography critic, the photographer and independent filmmaker Ralph Steiner, and staff illustrator, the painter Ad Reinhardt, PM was also a primer for critical looking. Indeed, as Hill points out, despite having initially attacked the notion of the “artist as reporter” in a broadside published on behalf of the American Abstract Artists group, Reinhardt himself drew more than fifteen hundred cartoons, comics, and illustrations during the four years he spent at PM.

Both Ingersoll and Steiner saw PM as the antidote to Life and the Luce newsreel The March of Time. Steiner introduced Lisette Model’s photographs of grotesque vacationers on the Côte d’Azur during the mid-’30s as though they were political cartoons illustrating “Why France Fell,” and Helen Levitt’s photographs of Mexican poverty as a subjective form of muckraking: “What Mexico Is Depends on Who Sees It.” One photo-essay, “Where There’s Smoke There Must Be a Picture,” has four images—one taken by Weegee, another taken of Weegee taking his picture, a third of the second photographer, and a fourth of the fire itself, captioned, “It was a dud. But we covered it.”

Pointing out PM’s programmatic opposition to photographic objectivity and desire to explain how photographs might be manipulated, Hill reads the paper as a meta-exposé: “To whatever extent PM is today famed for its association with the documentary photographic culture around the New York Photo League, the tabloid was founded in 1940 on the basis of profound skepticism regarding modern pictorial (which is to say photographic) journalism’s claim to evidentiary certitude.”

Emphasizing spectatorship and mediation, explicating press photographs as authored rather than neutral, PM presented its star shutterbug, Weegee, as precisely an artist-reporter. Among the greatest of exponents of a sensibility I have described in these pages as tabloid-inspired “abstract sensationalism,” the naturally bohemian Weegee intuitively played the role of a photo-journalist. (As the newspaperman turned sociologist Robert E. Park had long since pointed out, journalism was—like artmaking—“less a career than a form of excitement and a way of life.”) It was Steiner who, with an assist from Reinhardt, created Weegee’s artistic persona, arguing for the sensitivity beneath his hard-boiled exterior and clearing the path for him to be appreciated as a self-reflexive modernist.

Reinhardt, who contributed a cartoon showing a female painter donning Weegee’s unshaven, stogie-smoking mask, emerges from Hill’s book as PM’s most complicated artist—solidifying his status as one of mid-twentieth-century American art’s central thinker-practitioners—not least because he did not at all regard his work for the paper as art. Producing for a mass audience, Reinhardt advanced a critical self-awareness found not only in his now-famous cartoon series on modern art (the eleventh installment of which was “How to Look at Looking”) and his acerbic guide to editorial cartoons, but also in the incidental “spot” drawings that Hill analyzes as images meant to reveal the conditions under which they were made.

Page from PM, September 1, 1940. Elizabeth Sacartoff, “It’s Art, But Is It a Taxicab?” Photos: Morris Engel.

In one collage, a clipped drawing of a nineteenth-century locomotive is framed within a Reinhardt drawing, in which a seemingly perplexed cartoon engineer—who, because of his proximity to Reinhardt’s printed name, might represent the artist—stares at the waving cartoon figure partially visible above the locomotive cabin. Sharing the caption “Some Vacation” with a story of stranded tourists returning from Florida to New York in a “rickety” recommissioned old train, the drawing—filled with spatial ambiguities that are increasingly ambiguous the more one looks—would seem to illustrate the problem of illustrating the news.

Hill, who is adamant in his insistence that Reinhardt was not, as some have assumed, patronizing his audience, argues that for Reinhardt in particular, and PM in general, the tabloid’s central preoccupation was not reporting per se. Rather, as it might have been for more theory-driven Europeans like Dziga Vertov or Walter Benjamin, it was “the historical and local contingency—the politics—of visuality.”

Artist as Reporter ends with Hill wondering if he has overread PM’s intentions through a Greenbergian lens in crediting its essential concern with the elements of its particular medium:

Has my experience of research, the phenomenology of my encounter with my object, led me too far in locating this modernist preoccupation with the medium—the medium of newspaper journalism, with its sketch reports, its pulp and ink and its page layouts, its photographs and its cartoons, its professional procedures—in PM’s journalism?

I’d say not. Amazing to excavate so radical and genuinely experimental a position in the moldering pages of an ancient five-cent fish wrap.

PM’s leadership may have skewed anti-Stalinist left, but Hill’s suggestion that the journal’s mission was to demystify what was not yet called “the media” has a Leninist undercurrent. Reading PM between the lines, we find the notion that to make a revolution one must first found a newspaper. We may further extrapolate the urgent need for a cyber PM today.

J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.