media economy photography

George Rodger’s lessons for contemporary photojournalism

Rodger 2

The 100th anniversary of Robert Capa’s birth this week has called attention again to one of photojournalism’s pivotal figures, one of the four founders of Magnum Photos. Cartier-Bresson is equally well remembered, but David ‘Chim’ Seymour and George Rodger sometimes less so. Yet there is much to learn from George Rodger’s career, in addition to the stories around his famous World War II and Nuba photographs.

I re-read Carole Naggar’s excellent biography George Rodger: An Adventure in Photography, 1908-1995 before interviewing her for Jonathan Worth’s #phonar course at Coventry University. Carole was a brilliant interviewee, and what she has to say is worth the 50 minutes of the interview:

There were a lot of issues relevant to the state of contemporary photojournalism in the book and interview, but here are some of the things relating to the industry that stood out for me:

  • Rodger was one of the photographers present at the creation of photojournalism in the 1930s, but he understood himself to be a “writer-photographer” who developed “package stories” that combined pictures and text – multimedia, if you like. These picture essays were also considered “stories with a point of view.”
  • Producing stories with a viewpoint was essential to Capa and Rodger because they thought photographers should be authors, not just illustrators who were inferior to writers. That meant photographers had to gain control of their work – own their own copyright, choose assignments and take pictures without censorship.
  • Rodger and many of his peers rose to prominence working for LIFE magazine, but they came to resent the fact they lost both copyright and their physical negatives to the publisher. Given the communication technologies of the day, it sometimes took months for photographers to get their work back to the magazine, and when in the field they never saw their tearsheets to see how their work was used.
  • In the aftermath of World War II LIFE magazine often assigned Rodger to social and society shoots, which he despised. One drew his “ironic contempt” – a story on dancing rabbits entitled “Rabbits Who Walk on Front Paws.” That LIFE would make the war photographer they lauded with a seven page feature a few years earlier cover such a story shows that fluff and trivia in the media is far from a new thing.
  • The magazine market in both Europe and the US drove the emergence of photojournalism, but in the late 1940s and 1950s it was already in decline, and circulation at outlets like Picture Post collapsed (from 1.38 million in 1950 t0 600,000 when it closed in 1957).
  • Those economic pressures meant Magnum members had to accept industrial reports and even commercial shoots as a necessity. Rodger, for example, took a commission from Standard Oil to photograph its installations worldwide, work he disliked intensely.

Together these points demonstrate that if there ever was a golden age of magazine-funded photojournalism it was extremely short, and shouldn’t be the model by which contemporary practice is judged. The conventional economic structure of photojournalism – when based on commercial media where journalism has always been cross-subsidised by advertising – has always been precarious. The on-going revolutions in our media economy pose many new challenges, but those challenges may not be as new as many think. And reclaiming and developing the idea of photographer as author of a package story with a point of view would be a very good thing.