The Golden Age of Photojournalism

21 April 2015

By Naomi Phelan MA

History of Art Blogger for Artists Info

Work is in full swing at the moment as students approach their End of Year shows and university places are in the balance depending on final grades. Next year’s timetables are appearing on my desk and it appears that I will now be teaching the History of Photography and the History of Graphic Design alongside the History of Art and the History of Fashion. I have always enjoyed these subjects and have dipped in and out quite frequently when discussing the contextual side of things during sessions.  As part of my research and preparation for next year I have been looking at ‘The Golden Age of Photojournalism 1930s- 1950s’ which is a genre of photography that I have always found fascinating, and thought I would share some of my findings with you. I would love to include so many more amazing photographers of this genre for you to see but unfortunately I am unable to do so, as a result I have included some of the truly greats of this period, and hope that I will inspire your enough to want to go and seek out the rest.

First and foremost I found that there was an ‘Ethical Framework for Photojournalism’ which reads as follows:

  • Timeliness — the images have meaning in the context of a recently published record of events.
  • Objectivity — the situation implied by the images is a fair and accurate representation of the events they depict in both content and tone.
  • Narrative — the images combine with other news elements to make facts relatable to the viewer or reader on a cultural level.

…But that was just the starting point. This is what I actually found out ……… and I am loving every minute of it! I hope you do too.

Although photojournalism is thought of as a 20thCentury genre, newsworthy events were in fact photographed as early as the 1850s, although only engravings were used in newspapers. The first known photojournalist being Carol Szathmari (Crimean War 1853-6) closely followed by Matthew Brady during the American Civil War.



By the 1880s onwards the first printed photographs were to found in newspapers, with The Daily Graphic (NY) publishing the first halftone (rather than engraved) reproduction of a news photograph, and just three years later in 1887, flash powder was invented, enabling journalists such as Jacob Riis to photograph informal subjects both indoors and outside – (How the Other Half Lives)


Up until the 1920s sensational news stories, which depended on eye catching headlines rather than any form of well-researched information (sometime known as Yellow Journalism) were still illustrated using engravings. However a sudden burst in technology during the 1920s, which included the invention of the wire-photoso enabling images to be transmitted quickly (1921), the development of the 35mm Leica camera – portable and easy to use (1925) and the invention of the Flash Bulb, which could be taken out on location (1927-30), meant that photography soon started to become a form of visual recording that could equal painting, but was far more practical for field work. And it was indeed this ability to go out and about that suited the climate of the day.

During the 1930s Roosevelt set up an initiative known as the ‘New Deal’. Its aim was to motivate and encourage America back into work after several years of economic (Wall Street Crash 1929) and agricultural disaster (dust bowls) brought the country to its knees. As part of the New Deal programme the government introduced the Federal Arts Project which employed Artists, Photographers, Musicians and Actors to both inspire people and record the journeys that they were taking during this time of hardship.Two photographers that took part in this project - considered one of the largest communal documentary efforts ever presented, were Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.


Walker Evans


Dorothea Lange

The Golden Age of Photojournalism has been placed primarily during the 1930s and the 1940s, which was a period that was defined by the heavily illustrated magazines and newspapers available throughout Europe and America. Magazines such as Picture Post (London) and Paris Match, Life and Look (both USA) and the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung / Berliner-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Berlin) all sought to satisfy the viewers need to understand the new world in which they had found themselves. Newspapers (The Daily Mirror – London, The NY Daily News) also took to publishing this new genre of photograph – although print finishes varied according to the quality of the paper.

Added to this the ‘Golden Age’ can also be summed up as the natural offspring of Magnum, a photographic agency founded by four immensely talented artists (Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David "Chim" Seymour)in 1947 as a response to the atrocities of the Second World War.Needless to say, the photos speak volumes.

Henri Cartier Bresson is considered one of the fathers of Social Photography – the equivalent of ‘Genre’ painting in Fine Art, and his work was epitomised by six main elements that consistently define his work and provide the basis for some of the most famous and extraordinary photographic images of the 20th Century. The six main elements are:

His ability to …..

  • Focus on geometry (diagonal lines, symmetry, spirals etc.)
  • Be patient
  • Travel widely
  • Stick to one lens
  • Be unobtrusive
  • Not crop


Hungarian born Robert Capa is perhaps the best known War Photographer to date. Working for over 20 years in the bloodiest and most forsaken places of this war torn planet, his awesome iconic pictures set the bar. His cameras did the talking and he himself is quoted as saying "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough“. Amongst his travels he covered The Spanish Civil War, The Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion, World War II including the Liberation of Paris and the Indochina War. He died just as I think he would have wanted to – camera in hand, on location,by stepping on a land mine in Indochina. A truly amazing man!




David (Chim)Seymore, was a photographer of Polish origin, and like Capa tended to follow major events in Europe as they unfolded. In 1939 he documented the journey of Loyalist Spanish refugees to Mexico, and in 1940 was enlisted in the US Army, serving in Europe as a photo interpreter during the war. Actively covering the Spanish Civil War, Czechoslovakia and other traumatic happenings established his career as a photographer who was able to capture the essence or soul of a people and especially of children. In fact after the Second World War he was employed by UNICEF to record the journeys and experiences of the young refuges as they moved around Europe.



British born George Rodger, fervently believed that the Second World War should be recorded photographically. His ‘Blitz’ images persuaded Life magazine that he should become a war correspondent for them, and so it was that he went first to West Africa and then on to document the liberation of France, Belgium and Holland by the allied forces. Added to this he also covered the retreat of the British forces in Burma, and was given (the one off) permission by theChinese military to photograph and record the story of the Burma Road by travelling on it into China.  By 1945 he was part of the British Army Film and Photographic Unit which ventured into the concentration camps (Bergen-Belsen) to make testimony to the reality of the atrocities unfurling before the world. The experience was emotionally life changing as he came to realise that his harrowing career as a war photographer were over, instead he would go back to his now beloved Africa to record for National Geographic, the people and wildlife of a society - still intact, peaceful and visually stimulating.




Arthur Fellig (aka WEEGEE) was primarily a Street photographer who became well known in the 30s & 40s for his ‘press photos’ of the Lower East Side of New York City where he followed the city's emergency services and documented their activity. Much of his work depicted an uncomfortably realistic view of urban life, crime, injury and death on the streets. Weegee also published photographic books and worked in cinema, initially making his own short films and later collaborating with film directors such as Stanley Kubrick.


W. Eugene Smith was the child prodigy of Photojournalism, for by the age of 23 he had already published 370 photo essays and photographs in the most prestigious international magazines and was noted for his ability to capture life at the coal face (literally!). He is best known today for his picture essays which recorded the daily lives of working people for Life magazine. Following these unassuming characters as they went about their business and then presenting them to the world, Smith documented a long traditional, but changing world soon to be lost to modernisation. His work includes: Spanish Village, Country Doctor, Nurse Midwife, A Man of Mercy, Pittsburgh, WWII battle scenes (Pacific), and an amazingstand alone image called Tomoko and her Mother, Minamata, Japan (1972) which depicts a mother bathing her disabled daughter following the Mercury scandal in Minamta, when the city was poisoned by chemical waste being dumped into the sea. Tomoko’s blood-stream was poisoned via the placenta at birth and she was born deaf, blind and without the use of her arms and legs. Smith captures the moment when she was given her daily bath.


Other images by Smith

nao17 nao18


The last photographer of the Golden Age that I am going to look at is Margaret Bourke-White,who can really be summed up as the true ‘First Lady’ of photojournalism. First foreign photographer permitted to take pictures of Soviet Industry, First female war correspondent (amazingly hard hitting photographs), First female permitted to work in combat zones, First female photographer for Life magazine, and creator of the First front cover for Life(Fort Peck Dam) – photographed by her in 1936. Her work sustained much of the magazines visual output during these golden years and it can be said that on more than one occasion she somehow managed to be at the right place at the right time. Alongside the photographers of the Federal Arts Project, Bourke-White recorded the impact of the Dust bowls, and then went on to become the first female war correspondent, travelling in both Russia and Germany before arriving at Buchenwald to capture the opening up of the concentration camps. Her later assignments centred around the partition of India where she became equally well known for chronicling the violent struggle between the emerging nations on both sides of the border.



The image showing the women with the children depicts a German housekeeper who had suffocated the children first before killing herself just as the Allies entered Germany.

By the 1960s social consciousness was on the change. Bombarded for years with images from around the world depicting horror and the hopelessness of humanity, and cynical after both the Korean (‘50-’53) and Vietnam Wars (’61-’75) the public sought a different form of reality closer to home. America was economically on the up and modernity was bringing white goods, affluence and a new optimism to the people. Celebrities were in, conflict a thing of the past. Glamour now filled the magazine pages encouraging both America and Europe to look to the future. The Golden Age was over, tarnished, unpleasant and nothing more than a blot on the rosy landscape of prosperity.


If you have found these images as fascinating as I have, I would advise you to visit the Life website which will keep you going for hours! Also a really good book to purchase is the small cube shape book called ‘Century’. Before funding for art kits was slashed at college a few years ago, I insisted that every student I taught was given a copy of this book free of charge in their kit. I am glad I did, because it is one the best educations they could have received.


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