Friday, May 4, 2012

Visual Journalism Roundup: Seeing Things

Things are winding down in University Land. I am glad to see the semester end, because there are other projects to work on. But I am having a difficult time letting go of my seminar, Drawing Conclusions: Illustration, Visual Journalism and the History of the Press. I say so for several reasons: 1) the course has represented a learning experience for all of us, especially me; this is an area of intense interest to me that I entered through a side door, as a practitioner, and the thinker/critic in me cannot get enough; 2) I have found fascinating new (to me) material in the history of photography-as-communication, including Errol Morris' new book, Believing is Seeing (2011), uneasy cominglings of photography and illustration in the second half of the 19th century, and the ghastly fun of the 1920s-50s tabloid photographers; 3) the student projects to grow out of the course can only go so far in the allotted time, and I'm excited by them; 4) a deeply significant tension between history and poetry–between Herodotus and Aristotle–is in play, but I worry not enough from the student point of view; and 5) finally, I fret that key issues raised by the material may not have been adequately articulated.

It's number 5 that has me writing this post. I know enough to recognize that what matters are the lingering questions, not the answers.

Thus I want to know: what questions will students take with them as they wander through these issues later, as citizens and professionals?

Context and Recap. By any standard, what we call “the press” is a recent development. Ancient governments issued written decrees or published notes from the court. But self-serving official pronouncements did not anticipate modern news. Handwritten news sheets called gazette appeared in sixteenth century Venice bearing news of war, politics and trade. These prefigured the timely, serially-published modern newspaper, which first appeared in Germany during the early seventeenth century. Such publications (generally, weeklies) were fueled by expanding literacy, emerging markets and innovations in typesetting and printing.

Suspicious local governments regulated papers heavily; thus, most reported news from abroad, not home. The institution of the press–the counterweight to the State and commercial power often called “the fourth estate”–began to evolve in Britain, particularly, during the period of the English Civil War in the 1640s and 50s. Local reporting and editorializing gained a foothold. Despite later setbacks, an empowered English press proved durable. Those traditions were exported to American colonies.

The American newspaper becomes recognizable to a modern reader with the advent of the penny press in the 1830s and 40s, so named because it undercut the price of six-penny papers. Michael Schudson writes in Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (1978) that "The penny press invented the modern concept of 'news.' For the first time the American newspaper made it a regular practice to print political news, not just foreign but domestic, and not just national but local; for the first time it printed reports from the police, from the courts, from the streets, and from private households. One might say that, for the first time, the newspaper reflected not just commerce or politics but social life."

Also from Schudson: "The penny papers made their way in the world by seeking larger circulation and the advertising it attracted... Advertising... took on a more democratic cast."

The significance of advertising was not limited to its economic effect on the newspaper business. It represented a different form of content. James Gordon Bennett (the godfather of the penny press and the founder of the New York Herald) limited its presentation to dense typesetting. Subsequently, the inclusion of cuts (small illustrations) and display type (large headline elements) would increase the effectiveness of ads, creating more demand for visual interest on the page. Notably, from the middle of the 19th century on, most innovations in newspapering–at least those that sold more papers–would grow out of design practices, not editorial ones: dynamic contrast of scale in typesetting and variable optical value; the growing use of illustration, cartoons and photography; new platemaking techniques; and the advent of color printing and the illustrated Sunday Supplement.

The technical innovation of wood engraving, credited to English engraver Thomas Bewicke (circa 1795; at almost exactly the same moment as Senefelder developed lithography with Bavarian limestones and grease pencils) enabled industrial image production in Europe, then the United States. The London Illustrated News began publication in 1842; Harpers' Weekly debuted in 1857. For a sketch of relevant information in printing history, consult an earlier post, Notes on Platemaking and Printing.

The relationship between "the special artist," the bullpen guy back at the shop who refined the drawing, and the engraving team is a fascinating one. It is a mistake to think of the onsite person as the total, true source, insofar as the pencil sketch leaves a great deal out that others must fill in. People are not cameras; they do not record mechanically. Fashioned pictures are made things.

What does a pencil sketch provide that a more finished work by the same person does not, and vice versa? As somebody who works onsite, I can say that patterns of emphasis show up in sketches that are sometimes flattened out by subsequent work, producing both gains and losses.

As noted, we've explored the Civil War battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg, for Southerners) as a pivot point in the history of illustration, photography, and representations of war. Alfred Waud was there (above), but the lasting images of Antietam were those made by Alexander Gardner, working for Matthew Brady. Note: the tiny little house form you see in the upper right corner of the Waud is the whitewashed Dunker Church that serves as a backdrop to the Confederate dead in the famous photograph below.

Below, a long citation from John Nerone's excellent essay, "Newswork, technology and cultural form, 1837-1920" that speaks to the extended transition from news illustration to photojournalism.
The integration of photography into newsgathering and reporting moved crabwise for half a century and more. One version of this history has it that photography's adoption was hampered technologically. Simply put, a technological barrier existed in the printing of photographs on the same page with text. This account is sort of true. Early on techniques were developed for printing photographs alone–hence the popularity of cartes de visite even before the Civil War. It was difficult to do the same thing in a newspaper. Instead, to reproduce photographs, it was necessary to engrave them onto wood or some other medium. The illustrated press that resulted strikes present-day readers as stilted and immature–photojournalism waiting to be born.

But on closer inspection it is clear that this is not the story. The illustrated news aimed to do a different task than photojournalism. The photos that a photojournalist publishes are meant to provide a trace of an event. The illustrated news was meant to provide a virtual presence. The theory was that the visual memory provided by a good news illustration would be similar or identical to the visual memory that one would have acquired by being present at an event.
The illustrated news was also a form of report. A good news illustration was the result of a complicated process of gathering visual elements through sketches and other methods of visual recording, including photography, and composing them into a master record. Some of the resulting illustrations were complex works of visual reporting, compressing time and space and offering commentary and contextualization. 
The final description captures the process that any contemporary illustrator uses to describe events or processes in a nonfictional context.

I recommend the essay to anyone interested in the topic. (Anthologized in Explorations in Communication and History, edited by Barbie Zelizer; Routlege, 2008.) Nerone isolates the practices and ideologies associated with correspondents versus reporters, and assigns those roles to illustrators versus photographers in the early days of photographic newswork. We chewed on those issues in class, and considered the correspondent/reporter question across a number of media.

We explored the international dimension to news illustration, particularly in China, in the person of Wu Youru. I researched Wu's work in Shanghai last year; that trip became the basis for Spartan Holiday No. 1, "Shanghai Pictorial." Above, a Wu illustration from 1890.


We were graciously entertained by curator Philip Hu at the St. Louis Art Museum, who showed us a breathtaking collection of Japanese war prints, a fascinating blend of journalism, propaganda and a beautiful print tradition. These prints were produced for a voracious public, eager to learn of Japan's exploits in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Charles Louwenhaupt, a St. Louis collector, had built an extraordinary collection of these prints before graciously donating them to the museum. Philip Hu has begun work on organizing a major show of these prints for several years from now. Can't wait.

Jacob Riis commanded our attention as the pioneering muckraking author/photographer in his 1890 book How the Other Half Lives. Riis published many books, but his work was grounded in newspapering. He used photography as a reporting tool, not an aesthetic one. His work exposing the realities of tenement life in New York (which he himself had experienced) changed the role of photography in reporting work, even as he disappeared from photographic history until after World War Two.

We also explored the ghoulish photographic bonanza that was tabloid journalism in the 1920s through the 1950s, the inheritor of the tradition of the illustrated press. (The New York Daily News began life in 1919 as the New York Daily Illustrated News, but the second modifier fell away quickly.) Above, the scandalous cover showing the electrocution of Ruth Snyder, the real-life inspiration for The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. The photographer Tom Howard snuck a camera in taped to his leg, and pulled up his trouser at the critical moment to take the shot.

Finally, our work addressed some of the writers and illustrators of the New Journalism, described in more detail here, and also explored contemporary variants in reportage illustration. The tradition is coming back, abetted by the low cost of production and distribution in the online era. The Lynn Pauley illustration below brings us back to questions about reporters and correspondents. Pure objectivity is impossible. Pure subjectivity is incomprehensible. What do we want from this kind of news? What can we know, and how much should we feel?

Images: Timothy O’Sullivan, Alfred Waud, in Devil’s Den, Gettysburg 1863, a red-blue anaglyph version of two stereoscopic photographs, uniting photographer, illustrator, and a disorienting historical moment; Designer uncredited, Guns in the U.S. Navy information graphic, The New York World, July 3, 1898 (reproduced in the book The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898-1911) by Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano; Johann Carolus, publisher, the German language Relation, published in Strassbourg,1609; generally recognized as the first newspaper, it first appeared in 1605, and was quickly followed by many more such publications; The first issue of the Baltimore Sun, published May 17, 1837; Nemesis steamer destroying Chinese war junks in the Canton River during the First Opium War; Illustrated London News, November 12, 1842; Alfred Waud, Attack of the Louisiana Tigers on a Battery of the 11th Corps at Gettysburg, (July 1, 1863) ink and Chinese white on brown paper; the wood engraving in Harpers of the same scene, published as a half-page illustration on August 8, 1863, the third consecutive issue to provide extensive coverage of the battle; D.B. Dowd, At the Royale, Election Eve, Election Sketchbook, published by the St. Louis Beacon, November 4, 2008; Alfred Waud, Battle of Antietam, wood engraving published by Harper's Weekly, October 11, 1862; Alexander Gardner, Confederate Dead near Dunker Church, Antietam, 1862; A. Berhaus and C. Upham, Washington, D.C.––The attack on the President’s life––Scene in the ladies’ room of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot––The arrest of the assassin; from sketches by our special artist’s [sic] A. Berhaus and C. Upham; Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 16, 1881, an image cited by Nerone in a footnote to support the claim he makes re: careful reconstruction; Wu Youru, A Balloon Race in America, FeyYingGe Huabao No. 3, October 1890; Migita Toshihide and Akiyama Buemon, Big Victory: Our Fleet Sank Two Russian Ships, the Varyag and Korietz Respectively, on February 9, 1904 at the Port of Jinsen (Chemulpo),1904; Jacob A. Riis, Dens of Death, circa 1890; Tom Howard, The Execution of Ruth Snyder, The New York Daily News, January 13, 1928; Robert Weaver, suite of images from What's Come Over Old Woolworth?, Fortune Magazine, January 1969; Lynn Pauley, on assignment for the New Yorker, Bombed Murrah Building, Oklahoma City, 1994.


Jim O'Boyle said...

The question of what we want from reportage illustration interests me as someone who is entering that field (approximately). As you say, “Pure objectivity is impossible. Pure subjectivity is incomprehensible.” I think this is true, and also really promising from a romantic perspective. Those conditions make it very difficult for artists to calibrate their mode of operation - or even establish a sense of clear intent. But the ambiguity there also provides the grounds for art.

I think the answer to this question, insofar that it has one, is dynamic and always contingent upon the time and societal circumstances. For our current age, I think it has something to do with the way we consume news. The news is probably the closest to a form of entertainment than it has ever been. The profusion of online sources and topics allows people to curate their exposure to current affairs. One can cruise a blog about recent developments in the vibrant field of basket-weaving and feel informed about a very specific topic tailored to their own interests. Most of us are not merchants or mercenaries - our welfare no longer depends upon timely knowledge of happenings in trade or war, etc. We have the luxury of perusing alternative news sources and processing affairs at our leisure. As such, the news has, as a general trend, become more interested in its accessibility and entertainment value, as a modifier to perfunctory fact-dealing.

The place of the editorial and reportage illustrator is thus secured for now. The threshold to entering objective, un-embellished reporting seems higher than ever to a society that can find news of ostensibly equal importance and greater amusement just a few clicks away. Yet a piece that is strictly subjective carries itself like a private diary - fit for an obscure blog and probably un-relateable.

It is still necessary for illustrators to walk the line between these two poles. But it is easier than ever for them to do so successfully. Viewers are more likely to engage with material that has a subjective lens. Ultimately, they have to learn the facts, but they have to be eased up to them through a medium of personality. It takes a spoonful of sugar.

This is exciting to me because of how it can unite people and paint a more vivid and nuanced picture of an event. Though it seems contradictory, a common subjectivity can emerge, and endow a greater understanding of an event through impressions that never would have been expressed under a strict adherence to objective fact. Conversely, subjective impressions in conflict with one another can provoke important dialogues and enrich the public’s awareness of the issues underlying what has transpired.

Of course, accuracy is endangered when we rely on the impressions of a single person. Worse, that person may have an agenda that creeps into the way the story is presented. Ultimately though, these risks are part of a worthwhile exchange. Truth is a goal, never a guarantee. At least subjective story-telling is upfront, by definition, about the possibility of human error.

Julie said...

Julie's post, part 1

I grew up believing in the best of journalism. My mom works for the Baltimore Sun as a photojournalist and my dad worked as a graphic designer for the Sun when I was small. For years, I was allowed to tag along at the reporters’ gatherings, or help my mom as she drove around the city on assignments. The sleekness of the cameras, the exciting newsroom banter: all of this struck me as thrilling and adult. It wasn’t until I was considerably older that the romantic myth of journalism began to fade away. I found out that local newspapers like the Sun were an endangered species, and faced the very real threat of becoming bankrupt.

When I was in middle school, the Sun was bought out by real estate mogul Sam Zell, owner of the influential Tribune Company, one of the nation’s biggest multimedia corporations. Since then, scores of reporters have lost their jobs, and many have taken significant paycuts. I have a vivid memory from my last visit to the Sun of the empty newsroom, filled with rows and rows of defunct computers. The computers were all labeled with identical signs that read, “No longer in use, please take away.” So much for a vibrant news culture. Only a few lone reporters remained, isolated from one another by a vast sea of cubicles.

So one of the biggest issues in the news industry today is the changing nature of the news: specifically, how news will be collected, distributed and valued by future generations. There is much talk of how social media will make printed news obsolete. This last thought is such a cliché that I hardly know what to think about it anymore. At home, conversations about the future of print media are almost always fatalistic. I have been raised to think very cynically about alternative forms of journalism; I have been raised to instinctually mourn the death of the “tried and true” papers that once thrived in cities across the country.

But until this class, I don’t think I ever gave serious thought about what I was mourning, exactly. I grew up loving the press and everything it stood for —it was so traditional, so authentic, so American— that I didn’t really think to question it. Schudson’s book was the first piece of writing to challenge my values: after reading it, I realized how recent the phenomenon of “professional” journalism was. All I’d been taught to respect as a kid (objectivity in reporting, ethical photography, the inverted pyramid technique) was developed fairly recently to give journalism more legitimacy as a profession. This isn’t to say that the journalistic method is phony, or gimmicky; it’s just not the only way to report the “TRUTH.”

Julie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie said...

Julie's post, part 2

I liken the process of becoming critical about journalistic truth to the process of becoming disillusioned with ones’ religion. My family didn’t worship God; we worshipped THE NEWS in all its shining glory. So to finally understand that there was nothing sacred or everlasting about the news was liberating. The news was just another human invention, another complex phenomenon shaped by societal factors.

Realizing this is kind of scary, because it means that it’s hard to know what information to trust, and harder still to “draw conclusions” about other cultures, nations and belief systems. I do not want to end this short essay on an obnoxiously open, relativistic “everything is legitimate” note. I still think that some papers have a higher level of accuracy than others. I still think that some reporters have more authority to speak on current events than others, and I still think that there’s a certain something in print media that’s missing in blogs, tweets, and television broadcasts.

The difference now is that I take more time with the news. I don’t scarf down headlines greedily; I consider the language choices the reporter made, and the paper the words are printed on. I think about how someone who doesn’t speak English or didn’t grow up in this country might understand the story I’m reading. And then I wonder how the paper that’s in my hands will be interpreted in a hundred year’s time.

This semester, I especially enjoyed the sessions where our group spent hours poring over periodicals and taking meticulous notes on details we would normally overlook. What was the ratio of text to image in The National Enquirer, and how did this compare to The New York Times? What was the difference in layout between a copy of the Ladies Home Journal from decades ago, and an issue from last year? The questions were numerous, and we tried to answer them with detailed statistical analyses and careful observation. We were archaeologists of our own culture, and it was exciting. I’d like to keep that inquisitive spirit up for as long as I can.

miki said...

part 1: What questions will I take with me? What resonates with me? There are so many directions to go with this (very helpful) post, and I’m a lousy content editor, and seem to have lost the ability to (what’s it called?) transition or segue, so: apologies for the nature of my writing.

Jim and Julie have done a bang-up job (that’s a compliment, for anyone unfamiliar with the phrase). I kind of wish I could just say “ditto” and thank them! But, for what it’s worth, here are (some of) my two cents…

We live in a society that, with an explosion of new technology, has had to reconsider issues of validity and verification and the value of expertise and professionalism, and is still grappling with them. It happened when the printing press and cheap paper emerged, it happened when television emerged, and it’s happening again with the internet and our multiplying gadgets for accessing it. I’m glad that there are more people involved, both in witnessing and reporting news, as well as in creating through writing and image-making. And I’m very glad that the barriers are more permeable, both so more people can do these things and share them, and so we are enriched by their contributions. Yet, is more better? We’re in a state of flux; I think that it’s early days yet, and we are adjusting. Yet now (as ever) is the time to think critically.

What we’d grown accustomed to—the authoritative printed page, the omnipotent talking heads on screen—are being discarded (a bit too baby-with-the-bathwater), and new media are increasing in prominence. I haven’t learned how to use the newest image-sharing device (what’s it called?) nor how to “tweet”; the latter because it seems silly and a total time-suck. Yet I’ve heard that consumer issues are being resolved with an unheard-of rapidity, as companies recognize the damage that a single tweet (on repeat?) can do to their bottom line. Forcing companies to be responsible for their products and responsive to their consumer base; that’s powerful and definitely not silly. I am grateful that “citizen reportage” forces greater honesty and responsibility.

miki said...

part 2: I value expertise and knowledge, and I am grateful to those who work hard to understand something as well as possible and present what they know with care. Finding sources we trust is a task each person has to undertake, although I don’t think we just look for trustworthiness; we look for media that is enjoyable, convenient, timely, and enhances our personal identity and social network. One definitely has to learn how to be selective, even to the point of “turning off” or “tuning out” sometimes. There are people willing and able to be curators and editors, collators on behalf of those of us seeking a considered opinion and limited selection. But I think it’s essential for each of us to do two things: be critical thinkers/viewers on our own and be open.

I think this course has helped me become a more critical viewer of images, and certainly more knowledgeable. I like knowing more about how and when and why images were created and the transitions in image production that have occurred over time. I will be more consciously considering what is selected for a picture, and contemplating what is or may have been left out; what is emphasized and how, and contemplating why. Having become aware that photos, like statistics, have a veneer of factuality and objectivity and validity, a realness that we don’t assume of other created images, I will be more skeptical.

What resonates for me from this course right now are: the return of the illustrator as correspondent/journalist (I wish we’d explored even more of this than we did); as an artist, how to share the subjective, emotional impact of a situation in a rich, communicable way; and this interesting age in which we live, when images are everywhere and seemingly infinite. It’s a great time to jump into the visual world as a student and professional, and it’s an interesting time. I’m curious about how people choose the material they engage with, and to see what new filters will develop, how we as a society deal with issues of veracity and authority.

How does the phrase go, about wheat separating from the chaff? I think things will sort themselves out and we’ll be all the better for these changes.