The invention of photography has been a marvel with how people communicate across different mediums. Being able to physically see something can tell a lot more than having to describe it in no matter how many words. Photography in the world of news and journalism hit its stride in the mid-20th century where using photos to show what is happening in the world was essential. Fast forward to our modern era, photography has become so integrated into our lives that everyone has a camera in their pocket. Although this technological advancement is far beyond what it used to be, part of this usage of photography has been lost. While photos used to be an almost permanent piece of history, applications, such as Snapchat, have created the idea of the temporary photo. Photos that are now taken only last a few seconds and then are gone forever. When comparing photography between now and almost a century ago, it is possible to see some of the backward steps culture has taken.
A major turning point in photography was during the time in the 20th century now known as the “golden age of photojournalism”. This age occurred roughly between 1930 and 1960 and started was when magazines such as Life, Sports Illustrated, and Picture Post started to publish photos that would normally not be seen by the public 1. During the Great Depression, many photographers left their studios to document the lives of people who were affected by this event 2. One famous example of these everyday photos is Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” 3. This photo shows a high quality look at the normal day of a person in Western society. Looking forward, the everyday photos we see now are not taken by professionals and typically lack the impact in comparison to the 20th century photos. According to Nathan Jurgenson, “the temporary photograph’s abbreviated lifespan changes how it is made and seen” when looking at Snapchat in today’s age 4. The fault of photos not having as much of an effect on culture and people today is not entirely on people taking photos of inconsequential things, but the context in which they view them. As Jurgenson said, the temporality of the photo makes it so there is less effort put into composing and taking a photo as well as less effort in the viewing of the photo. With Lange’s photo, the printing of it encouraged much critical analysis of it upon prolonged viewing, but with Snapchat, people look at photos for less than ten seconds and forget that they existed. This simple viewing of photos between the “golden age” and modern age shows a major cultural shift in the communication of photography.
Moving past the “golden age of photojournalism”, much of these printed and illustrated photographs had been on a downward slope in terms of viewership with the rise of newer technology. During this time in the mid-20th century, photos in magazines were an essential read in that culture and were read by “one in three” during their peak 5. Then with the rise of television and other new forms of media, readership fell quickly and many of these once popular magazines ceased to exist 6. The rise of Snapchat is one of these forms of media that has cemented that printed photos can never have the same cultural impact like they once did. However, because there is this mortality to the photos, it shows us why permanent photos have a greater influence over culture. As people view photos by the hundreds without taking in each one for what it is, the permanent photos gain a stronger and stronger power, even through all of the years that passed. The communication styles between these two eras shifted from an in depth look at the real lives of people to sharing our lives with the least amount of effort. Jurgenson then says, “there is meaning in witnessing ephemerality itself, an appreciation of impermanence for its own sake” 7. Since we know of the history of photography and where is came from, seeing these temporary photos on Snapchat gives perspective to how this form of communication has come to be. Comparing our current culture to almost a century ago, there is this feeling of lost experience. Today, all of these temporary photos being taken very quickly gives the impression that people do not experience their lives as they are happening. Looking back, the power of photojournalism gives the impression opposite impression. When people viewed photos in magazines and publications they were given a rare look at an unseen side of other people’s lives. Now people have a growing apathy associated with other people solely from how photography has evolved. In 1973, Susan Sontag’s original publication of her book, On Photography, was released. In it she says that “it is a nostalgic time right now, and photographs actively promote nostalgia” 8. During that time the “golden age of photojournalism” has closely ended. It shows an interesting perspective because she acknowledges that the golden age had ended and that people are looking back to a time where photography was one of the most entertaining forms of communication. How we view it now is entirely different as photography is a wholly integrated part of our society and is seen mostly as something that is there to send to our friends rather than as a cultural piece.
Photography has changed dramatically over the last ninety years. Between the 1930s and 1960s photography was used to communicate in a very unique way through documenting the realness of people and having the mass public see this work. Today this realness exists in a different manner through temporary photos that do not carry much meaning to them at all. Before, as Susan Sontag describes, photography was seen as “each still photograph [being] a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again” 9. This notion has been essentially taken away with the introduction of Snapchat. Photographs are no longer a “privileged moment” and are not something we can continue to view. They pass by in less than ten seconds and leave no impact on us. However, through these differing views in communication people are able to appreciate the past and grow a desire to revive the almost forgotten form of photography. There is a large gap between where photography was at its “peak” and to where it is now. Just through the passage of time can photographs go from having a worldly effect on people to them having almost no effect on them at all.
1. Rachael Towne. “A Brief History of Photojournalism.” Light Stalking, September 18, 2012. Accessed March 20, 2017. https://www.lightstalking.com/a-brief-history-of-photojournalism/
3. Dorothea Lagne, Migrant Mother, February 1936. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/128_migm.html
4. Nathan Jurgenson. “Pics and It Didn’t Happen.” The New Inquiry, February 7, 2013. Accessed March 20, 2017. http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/pics-and-it-didnt-happen/
5. Phil Coomes. “Photography’s golden age.” BBC News, December 11, 2013. Accessed March 20, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-25087284
9. Ibid. 13.
Coomes, Phil. “Photography’s golden age.” BBC News, December 11, 2013. Accessed March 20, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-25087284
Jurgenson, Nathan. “Pics and It Didn’t Happen.” The New Inquiry, February 7, 2013. Accessed March 20, 2017. http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/pics-and-it-didnt-happen/
Towne, Rachael. “A Brief History of Photojournalism.” Light Stalking, September 18, 2012. Accessed March 20, 2017. https://www.lightstalking.com/a-brief-history-of-photojournalism/
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