Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Photojournalism and the Tabloid Press

Photojournalism and the Tabloid Press

In this exercise we asked to look at Karen E. Becker's essay "Photojournalism and the Tabloid Press". An essay contained within the PWDP course reader "the photography reader" edited by Liz Wells.

Basic contention is that
Photography as a part of the world of journalism is considered by some to be a distraction from the intellectual application of the serious press and its use is to be limited within the industry. It is thought that the use of photography (in a trivial sense) is to gain popular appeal amongst tabloid newspapers which are seen as entertainment.

The conclusion is that
Photography in the elite press has attained a status of popular art by the use of well edited photo essays, with high quality imagery. However within the tabloid press the output is often heavily overworked with flat composition or haphazard candid shots by impulsive photographers consumed by events. Tabloid press photography is populist, is a vehicle for the news, and often supports and contradicts the standards of journalistic practice.

The Conclusion adds to the opening statement ?
Becker uses the conclusion to bring together the researched elements of the essay to justify her opening statement. Her thesis is that the tabloid press uses photography in a popular sense rather than through the intellectual discourse of the elite press. Her conclusion has clearly set out examples of how she believes this is taking place.

Main part of the essay 

The early picture press
Becker takes us through the early history of illustrated publications stating that the earliest illustrated magazines were launched in the 1840's. They included The Illustrated London News, L'Illustration and Harpers Weekly to name a few. Although photography arrived in 1839 the techniques for reproduction in newsprint had not been invented and the method of illustration was from wood engravings up until 1873. Artists covered news events and a team of engravers would work through the night to meet the press deadline. Photography was being used for image capture although the cameras “likeness” was considered too stiff and the camera too much of a machine. The engraver often using a photograph as a referent with a note attached describing the process as being “from a photograph”. With the invention of the half-tone process for newsprint the immediacy of the photograph became prominent. Colliers Weekly employed English photographer James Hare as its primary correspondent during the Spanish American War (1898) and it was his success together with technical innovation that promoted growth and the potential for advertising in newspapers and magazines. Becker does however state with reference to Kahan 1986 and Hassner 1977 that there is little evidence that photography had increased magazine sales although advertising revenue had increased from 360 million to 542 million dollars during the period from 1890 to 1900. Becker does not state why the sales increased.

The tabloid = sensationalism=photography
In this section Becker describes a number of instances where the early tabloid press starts a trend of using photographs to deliver sensational coverage of news events that were to many outside of the established ethical practice.
It was in the 1920's when large sensational photographs first appeared featuring violence, sex, etc. which according to press historians in the US was a low point with loose morals and loss of ethical standards that could threaten public and private life with the New York Daily Times being the main culprit. At around this time with increasing sales figures it became clear that a divide existed between the elite and the tabloid press, the tabloids profiting from the trite, superficial and the tawdry through events and personalities. Ever on the lookout for news worthy events the tabloids looked at the world of the judiciary and legal bodies where photography was banned. Examples are given by Becker of a photomontage being made of a semi naked woman in court and the trial of Ruth Snyder in 1928 when a photographer smuggled a camera into the press area and photographed her execution. "DEAD" was the heading over the image in the Daily News extra edition which sold one million copies. Becker quotes William Taft in 1938 who believes that "the free use of photographs in picture newspapers and magazines has in measure defeated their own object, presumably that of disseminating news" His contention is that photographs are glanced at, the journal thumbed through then thrown away and that the pictorial press must address this if they are to command the respect of intelligent people.

The daily press 'supplements' the news.
Becker reiterates some of her previous text with a note that photographs were rare in daily newspapers in Europe and North America up until 1920 with the exception of the tabloid press.
The daily newspapers of the late nineteenth century had begun to print weekly supplements that were illustrated predominantly with photographs and the major New York newspapers all had a Sunday supplement printed on the rotogravure presses and were a response to the popularity of photography. An interesting comment is how the daily editions developed a format for their supplements to insulate them from being downgraded by the photograph.

The picture magazines' legacy
Although not a part of the history or study of the tabloid press Becker takes us through the history of the mass circulation picture magazine, discussing its photojournalistic discourse through practice and aesthetic values. Most notable (during the 1930's) they introduced the genre of the photo essay as a way of documenting both the ordinary and the extraordinary in the same light. Previous assumptions that 'high' culture was the home of the aesthetic were now challenged and the photography of these journals was accepted as popular art and became a subject for museum collections. The status of  photojournalism had reached unprecedented heights with rising circulation and the acceptance of the mass produced as popular art meant the photojournalist was considered an artist. This elevation of the genre had done nothing for the tabloid press whos work was still considered as 'low' culture.

The contemporary domain of the tabloid.
This short section looks at the elite and tabloid press, their 'look' and content and how the overlap is differently presented. The news stand is a common ground for selling the elite and the tabloid and it is here that they share a look. The front page in each is almost always a poster like format with a large photograph, a headline and a single story. The tabloid look will often be brash with typically a celebrity being revealed with a style associated with a tabloid. The broad categories for a front page are; ordinary people in a newsworthy incident, celebrities and an event and it is within the style of photography used to depict these that one can make an analysis of its value. The following three sections look at these categories in more detail.

Plain pictures of ordinary people.
Very plain photographs that present ordinary people. I think Becker is referring to the working class but she does not elaborate on 'ordinary' only indirectly by reference to living room, taxi driver and woman losing job discrimination suit. However, Becker is making the point that when the extraordinary occurs to the ordinary person it is a news story and the type of photograph presented is often taken in their house, on a sofa or in the kitchen. People upset or happy by the event looking straight into the camera have a resonance with the viewer and establishes them as equals, assuming the viewer is a tabloid reader. These type of photographs dominate although we are reminded of the I.D photograph, often used when there is tragedy and loss, and the action image where the ordinary person is involved in an event, thus making them newsworthy.

The celebrity photograph is often a behind the scenes look at the ordinariness of these people, often taken in their home, in a manner that shows them happy and relaxed. Becker assumes that we know the person is famous, although we need not know who they are, which is a strange assumption. The view into a famous persons home is seen as a privilege, and again I am confused by this, as a view into anyone's home is a privalidge. The recognisable photograph is often one of them in performance as either an actor or sportsman and  places them in context. The tabloid press are interested in the candid image although it is often less candid than may appear, being semi staged to give this impression and the hope that they will be seen and photographed. True candid images are not generally used on the day by the tabloids, this being the market for the paparazzi who market their work to a wider audience (and income) in weekly publications. The true candid image is often poor technically, due its grabbed nature but fulfils the need to have that moment when the celebrity was off guard. Sekula (1984) states that there is ".....higher truth of the stolen image". The grabbed candid is used by the tabloids in the news event.

The news event.
News can be defined in many ways but our general perception (for national tabloids rather than the regional press which Becker does not mention) is the core national and international events that receive universal coverage. Photographs of the event as it happens will have people acting totally unaware of the photographer, although it is likely the photographer will have a strategy on how they will cover the event. Candid news photographs will often have the trait of being less than technically perfect, especially when looking at events of famine, natural disasters and war. In addition the photographs may be taken in poor light and bad weather, rendering them grainy and poor focus. In the tabloid this distinct "look" is part of the tabloid style.

Reframing the picture in words and layout.
Becker starts to bring together the elements of her essay in this section with the explanation of how the text and its relationship to the image is important especially when in the tabloid press. The text can be dramatic and often more so than the image, with sensationalism at its core. The text, often large with punctuation marks consists of one word as a statement of fact. The I.D. photograph, the source often being the police used in a news story connotes criminal activity is enhanced by text anchoring the meaning in an event. Text when used with the ordinary subject tells us of the reality of what is behind the image and eludes to the truth. Text associated with the celebrity is of a varied nature and has less of a pattern. The tabloid press often use text that is a direct quotation and this is seen as having an added nuance as it becomes a testimony if it is of the person in the image. The photographer can also become a part of the text, with quotes from them or description of how they worked under dangerous conditions to bring the images to the press. This however is at odds with the ideal role of the journalist as one who is completely detached from the event as the photojournalist becomes involved. The image we see on the page is not always that seen by the photographer. The rectangular frame is often changed to suit a page layout, arrows and circles added, text overlaid and the montage the most extreme of manipulation. It will after substantial modification no longer be a window looking out to form a natural representation. Most of these contradict what the reader will believe as unmediated and as such not a true representation of the facts. The tabloid press have no regard for the original image (and sometimes the truth) and persistently overturn this notion.

Becker believes that "contemporary photojournalism has attained the status of popular art, outside the margins of the daily press", with the tabloid press inverting this cultural capital. Becker is looking for " cleanly edited photo essays" but instead finds "heavily worked layouts of overlapping headlines". She refers to the "decisive moment" (I assume as a HCB quote) with its idealised grace but instead finds flat, ordinary, haphazard and the awkward. The tabloid press therefore present us with photojournalism that is work of the serious and emotional while being against all the established standards and practices of the elite press.

My Conclusion on Becker's essay.
Becker has written a well thought through and realised essay. Her research backs up her claims and at no point is she entering into the unsubstantiated. My concern is that her collective use of the "press" has tried to encompass all daily, weekly and monthly printed output into one category, referencing the standards of the elite and the lack of acceptance by the tabloids. Her argument is seen from within the press industry with its standards but seldom does she refer to the commercial pressure being exerted on the tabloid press to sell copies and increase revenue and make a profit for the shareholder. Owners will be influencing the editorial content to achieve this and that influence is outside of a tabloid versus elite context and not referred to by Becker. In her defence on this issue it has to be noted that the essay was published in 1990 and was researched in the 1970's. Twenty four years separates Becker's essay and contemporary thinking/practices and this has resulted in my analysis being aligned to a contemporary view of the tabloid press.

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