Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Part 3 – Publishing II – Essay on Photojournalism

‘Photojournalism & the Tabloid Press’ - Karin Becker
(in “The Photography Reader” ed. Liz Wells, pub. Routledge)
Summary of basic contention & conclusion
·     That photography is not taken as seriously as it might be in western journalism – particularly in the tabloid press; verbal forms of journalism are viewed as more serious.

·     That, within the tabloid press, both the presentation of the work, and of the photographers themselves, serve to undermine the ‘seriousness’ of photography by seeming to work against standards & practices of elite journalism.

The conclusion expands on the opening statements by developing reasons for the phenomenon identified in the opening, based on the analysis in the middle section of the essay – the nature of the layouts; the nature of the photographers; the serious/emotional nature of the photographs; the lack of ‘systematic critique’; and the tendency to undermine journalistic standards.  These are the factors that mitigate against a serious attitude to photography in the tabloid press.

The development of the argument
·     Illustrated magazines, which first appeared in the mid-19th century, featured engravings that carried an ‘aura of quality and distinction’, and the first photographs that were se4en later in the century were not necessarily regarded as a true replacement.

·     The first widespread use of photographs was associated with the tabloid press between the wars and was used in a ‘sensational’ fashion to help boost circulation in a highly competitive environment.

·     That approach was associated with low journalistic standards by the daily news press who began to use photographs in a different way, developing higher production standards in their weekly supplements that were designed to ‘complement’ the regular news.

·     This early divergence of approach may partially inform later attitudes and practice.

·     Mass circulation picture magazines also developed between the wars but, at a time when photography was also making its first appearances in the art galleries, managed to combine popularity and respect, leaving the tabloids excluded on the margins.

·     Analysis of contemporary tabloids (not set out in any detail) leads to a three-way classification of their use of photographs:

§  Plain pictures of ordinary people in ordinary situations whose newsworthiness is defined in accompanying text and whose ordinariness equates then with us.

§  Photographs of celebrities, often also presented in ordinary circumstances that make them ‘just like us’; frequently in the form of performance shots i.e. their recognisable ‘public face’; and occasionally (though these images are more associated with the weekly popular press) in candid shots, caught ‘off guard’ and presented as ‘stolen images’ that might reveal a ‘higher truth’.

§  The photo of a ‘news event’, which often involve ordinary people caught up in the event; frequently have ‘technical flaws’ that seem to enhance the candour; and are accompanied with words that often transform coverage to the ‘first person’, with the photographer becoming the subject and an implication that a truth is being revealed.

·     In the tabloid press, the accompanying text framing photographs is generally more dramatic than the photographs themselves and we need to recognise that what we are seeing is the work of the tabloid editor rather than the photographer.

Comparisons with other publications
There are two main, historical, comparisons made. a) The weekly supplements, which worked to weekly (not daily) deadlines; used quality paper; raised the quality of photographic production; complemented the daily news and prevent it from being ‘degraded’; and showcased ‘good photojournalism’. b) Picture magazines, which established new genres, such as the photo essay, with formal structural properties; helped bring about the acceptance of photography as popular art; made photography both popular and respected; raised the status of the photojournalist.

The writer seems to be using these comparisons to establish that the photograph can be used in a journalistic context and still retain qualities associated with a ‘serious’ approach operating within the standards of quality journalism.  The argument would be that, if it is possible for these publications, why not the tabloid press as well.  Photography’s acceptance in these serious journalistic contexts suggests that it is not, of itself, ‘sensational’ but is rendered so by the setting/manner in which it is presented.  She is supporting her main argument by confirming that it must be something other than the inherent qualities of photography that leads to it being taken less seriously in the tabloids.

Overall assessment of the article and the argument presented
This is, on the face of it, a coherent and well-structured argument, supported, apparently, by ‘evidence’ and ‘analysis’.  The notes at the end indicate that this is a shortened version of a paper presented at a seminar.  The sections beginning with ‘The contemporary domain of the tabloid’ are where she develops the ‘evidence’ and performs the ‘analysis’.  Whether or not the original version of the paper contained more information about her approach, we don’t know – but on page 297, the article refers to “The present investigation found ...”.  We have no information about how many tabloids were studied; how she approached the research; what formal analysis was undertaken; and so on.  Without that information, one could dispute the descriptive nature of what follows in her commentary on the use of photos in tabloids and the categorisation of the images.  Since that forms the evidential basis for supporting her article, one could say the whole conclusion is flawed.  That said, if we work on the assumption that this is an academic piece, which has been subjected, at some point, to adequately rigorous interrogation/qualification, then we can follow and support the basic structure of the argument.

Karin Becker, the ‘Photography Reader’ tells me, is Professor of Visual Culture Studies at the College of Art, Crafts and Design, Stockholm, Sweden, and is on the Journalism, Media and Communication Faculty.  She expresses thanks, in the notes, to nine people who have supplied her with examples of tabloids from USA, England, Australia, Austria, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.  In another note, she acknowledges some national/cultural differences of style between tabloids in the countries studied.  Once again, the indications are that this is a serious piece of work, conducted by an experienced academic, working in her field of specialisation; and one would be led to accept her argument on that basis.  But, as with the Berger essay earlier in the course, I do find myself reflecting on the extent to which ‘values’ seem to be present in critical writing on photography, even when they’re not stated.  Her opening statements make some bold ‘claims’ about the inferior (my word) position of photography in the world of serious journalism.  Even if that were true in 1990 (and perhaps other commentators my start from a different viewpoint), is it true today?  Although she makes some comparisons with other publications and their use of photographs, there is no indication that she has undertaken the same analysis of photographs in the ‘serious’ daily press as that undertaken in the tabloids.

If, as I do, one approaches an essay such as this from the viewpoint of concerns and issues with the standards and values of tabloid press, one is likely to be inclined to accept the logic of Becker’s argument and support it.  If it were being read by a tabloid editor, he/she might well question the quality of the research, the assumptions and values behind the analysis, the motivation and interests of the writer, and so on.  He/she might well conclude that this is just another overpaid and underemployed academic making a lot of noise about something that is none of their business and which they don’t really understand! (Presumably accompanied by a series of ordinary-looking photographs of Becker, each captioned and headlined in a suitably sensational manner!)

So I find myself, as with the Berger essay, concluding that much learned writing on photography – perhaps on visual culture in general – is ‘value-led’.  If it is well-informed, well-structured, well-written and open in its values, then it can still be valid, relevant, interesting and perfectly acceptable.  But the ‘slipperiness’ of the world of the creative arts does take some getting used to!

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