One week in pictures
Photography / Magazine art direction
Now we are deluged with more images than ever, we have lost faith in the power of the photo to express anything other than our personal reality. We don’t take the production of meaning seriously and we use pictures with less fluency and purpose than earlier generations of photographers, designers and editors. We don’t know what we’re trying to say and we don’t know who we are saying it for. We don’t value expertise and commitment and we don’t believe in the photographer’s mission – nor do we think it is likely to have any effect. Rick Poynor looks at one week’s magazine journalism, and finds that this ocean of pictures tells uncomfortable truths about who we are now
If quantity alone is the decisive factor, we live in a great age of photography. It has never been easier to take a picture, and everyone is doing it. In the bygone days of film, a camera was still something to be brought out for special occasions. Processing pictures cost money, so cameras were used sparingly. Digital changed everything. With lightweight pocket cameras and camera phones, snapping pictures became a daily activity for many, particularly the young. The result is a peculiar new kind of photographic ‘literacy’: more people taking more pictures than ever, yet a feeling that the individual picture, particularly the well taken picture, counts for much less than it did. A ‘photo’ is now just an easily deletable particle in an infinite stream of images that will probably never materialise as a print and be invested with meaning as an object.
The devaluation of photography can be seen most clearly in the places where the medium once thrived: in newspapers and magazines. These developments have been incremental, so it is easy to take the situation for granted without realising how much has changed. It is equally easy to assume that what we see in papers and magazines now is all that photography is capable of doing. The changes were already under way in the 1970s, as printed publications increasingly lost out to the visual immediacy of television, long before digital photography became the norm for professionals as well as amateurs. By the 1990s, photography as we had known it was struggling to hold its place. The past fifteen years, if you care about photographic reportage, have been calamitous.
It is not just that the pictures are often mediocre and formulaic. The problem also lies in the way they are used. There is good reason now to doubt that many of the art directors who commission or select these pictures, and the designers who lay out the pages, have any deep understanding of, or commitment to, photography’s possibilities as a documentary or narrative medium. But how can this be? Isn’t the sensitive handling of photographs one of the fundamental tasks of a fully competent graphic designer? It certainly used to be regarded that way. ‘Of all the related visual disciplines, photography is probably the one of greatest importance to the graphic designer,’ wrote Allen Hurlburt in Layout: The Design of the Printed Page (1977). ‘Working with photographers is one of the most important aspects of the designer’s work.’ Those observations hold even truer for anyone engaged in editorial design.
If you doubt the situation could be as bad as I say, do what I did. Go to the newsstands and buy a big pile of papers and magazines and spend some time sifting through them all.
First published in Eye no. 73 vol. 19.
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