If you know my experience with old photography books, it is only logical to turn to magazines next and see how they fare at the distance of time. Do their topics seem outdated now? Their perspective silly? Do they provide a unique glimpse into what photography is, while giving us all a real-life demonstration of what endures? After all, magazines are meant to focus on the current and the fleeting, so this kind of fading of significance can only be expected. And it could help distill the significant out of the passing and lead us to a conclusion on the meaning of timeless art.
That’s how I started going through a stack of photo magazines dating from the 50s on.Frankly, the results were quite surprising. Yes, as expected, a great part of these magazines was about technologies you no longer need to master, like slide projectors, enlargers and small cameras with bellows you wouldn’t find in any store today. But the rest? The rest is so relevant and illuminating that I can wholeheartedly endorse collecting old photo magazines – and reading them, too – to gain insight on photography right now and on its future.
Just the issue of Popular Photography pictured above discusses Andreas Feininger’s career (name rings a bell? to me neither) and why centered-subject photographs can actually be so dramatic. It discusses the topic, still quite urgent today, of women in photojournalism and the reasons why, with so many female photographers, there are so few photojournalists among them. The conclusions, I am afraid, are very much valid today. And to top it off, there’s a thought-provoking article titled “What’s electronics doing to photography?” Yes, indeed. That’s in an issue published in 1954. So I have to say my respect for Popular Photography has grown as a result of my historical excursion through old magazines.
And it’s not just Popular Photography. All other magazines, some of them long defunct, offer similar timeless analysis, introduce for the first time or discuss photographs that are among the iconic images today (did you know that Doisneau’s “Kiss” was commissioned and staged?) and explain things in photography that I’d have killed to learn but thought they were well-guarded secrets, like Jerry Uelsmann’s exact technique step by step – for those who want to try it.
True, some of today’s magazines also publish in-depth analyses and review work that, I am sure, will turn out to be timeless. But while in olden days technology had its own section, now it takes up most of the printed-page real estate. Because that has become the driving force of its mass appeal. And the advertising! I can hardly pick up a paper body in a bookstore today without the feel that I am holding a product catalogue. The content that has the chance to be enduring is getting smaller and so its chances to be preserved are dimmer.
In general, this richesse of knowledge in old magazines left me pessimistic about the state and direction of photography today. Not because I think it has somehow degraded from its golden days. The feeling I take away from the comparison is that we’ve been running in circles. Yes, the medium has changed significantly with the advent of digital technology, but in general, I got the feeling that we are mostly reinventing the wheel today, by discovering anew techniques and approaches that were simply forgotten. While all art periodically reproposes and rethinks old ideas, it’s sad to see this is done out of ignorance and not because they are offered in new light.
I am definitely going to read up on these magazines.