Photo essay aesthetics
Hi Maggie, thank you for a very sophisticated reading of US interwar pictorial media and the questions you raise about US national identity. I am trying to understand the language of the photo essay you show in Photo History, and what you call "copulative montage technique," as inspired by Eisenstein. What might have informed these layouts in the magazine world? Could you think of other influences as, perhaps, Picture Post? And what is the fundamental difference from Life's photo essays? In other words, does Photo History change our understanding/definition of photo essay, and how?
I also have a question about the comment on US mainstream periodicals as "Stone Age of human intelligence." Whose words are these? You mention that at this time one counted "1 pictorial for every 6 people." Do you think that this figure reflects a capitalist scheme that was populist but not educational, unlike Photo History? Thank you.
Hello Antonella, and thank you for these excellent questions! I will try to do them justice.
You're right to ask about other sources of influence drawn from print media. Before I get to that though, I'll just say that in the case of War in Spain, I do think that the layout was pretty directly inspired by Jacobs's understanding of Eisensteinian montage in this period. This Eisensteinian model was based on the idea that distinct signifiers combine to produce a new concept. Here's Jacobs's gloss on this idea (published alongside a translated essay by Eisenstein) in Experimental Cinema (1, no. 3, 1931): "[montage] piles up emotional effects by junction and multiplication, cumulation and conflict. Any effort to cut or substitute for an image in a sequence, or to speed or slow an image or sequence, or to juxtapose an arrangement, will indicate how organic the whole is and at once injure the esthetic value of the total." This idea of totality and the whole is really important with regard to Photo-History's long-form structure, and I'll come back to that in a moment. On a related note, Jacobs was experimenting with photomontage and layout illustration in this same period, and I think that the surrealist idiom we find in this work (which was not very good! See examples below from Direction magazine, Sep-Oct 1938 and New Theatre and Film, April 1937) helps throw the cinematic paradigm he applies in Photo-History into relief:
Nevertheless, you're still right. There's little doubt that Photo-History's editors were influenced by contemporary print media. I had not thought about Picture Post as a potential interlocutor, so thank you for that suggestion! It's unlikely that it would have been on editors' radar, however, as Picture Post appeared in October 1938, about six months after Photo-History's last issue. I think the more likely precedent or model for Photo-History would have been USSR in Construction, which introduced a special issue on Magnitogorsk ("The Giant and the Builder") in 1932, shortly after the influential Filippov photo-essay was published in AIZ (and widely reviewed in the Soviet press). Erika Wolf discusses the commonalities and differences of these two narrative modes in The Worker Photography Movement catalogue (and at greater length in her dissertation). Wolf points out that where the Filippov essay gave viewers a temporally contained, realistic account of the events of one day, USSR developed an extended narrative that was meant to reflect a historical process over the course of the issue. Subsequent issues published in 1932 and 1933 (and designed by Lissitzky and Tret'iakov, among others) also followed this long-form approach, and it seems highly likely that Photo-History's editors would have seen at least a few of these issues by 1937, although I have no proof.
But I think the distinction Wolf draws between the Filippov essay and "The Giant and the Builder" can help us think through Life's photo essay vs. Photo-History's long-form narrative, too. In Photo-History, the temporal framework of the narrative isn't restricted to a single event in time and space that develops across a few magazine pages; instead, it's meant to encompass the scope and machinations of a historical process (or "the forces behind the headlines" as editors put it.) In this sense, we might say that Photo-History's narrative ambitions are dialectical-materialist, as they try to represent the social whole, whereas Life's photo-essay is more idealist, insofar as it promotes the unique perspective of an individual, usually sort of famous, photographer. I'm not sure how useful this binary is, but Photo-History's editors certainly thought of themselves as dialectical materialists, fwiw.
To get to your last question: the remark about the Stone Age of intelligence comes from J.L. Brown's essay "Picture Magazines and Morons" in The American Mercury (Dec. 1938). It's extreme in its metaphors but pretty representative in its sentiment, echoing many similar indictments of photo pictorials that appeared in the American press in these years. The "1 in 6" figure was only meant to convey some vague sense of scale (my methods are far from quantitative!) but if you put that together with period critiques of pictorial mass media, I do think you end up with a pretty Adornian sense of "the popular" that is more about assimilating working-class subjects within an ostensibly classless society (i.e. obscuring class structures), whereas Photo-History's notion of the popular was defined by educational and social mobility (eroding class structures).
Thank you again for your questions!
I would also mention VU as a model - this title keeps coming up in this conference! - but it seems inescapable here. Do you know who the photographer is in those "War in Spain" spreads? It certainly looks like Capa - who, of course, was commissioned by VU to cover the Spanish Civil War. But more generally, those (fabulous!) layouts are strikingly similar to 1930s VU, and its politics sound not too dissimilar as well (VU was pacifistic and progressive but also fiercely patriotic). If Henry Luce was borrowing from VU as a model for Life, it seems plausible that Storrs Childs might also have drawn from the same source?
This is from VU, no. 461, 13 jan 1937:
(Photo, copyright: Musée Nicéphore Niépce)
Tim, yes, thank you so much, the VU connection is another one I need to consider! And you're absolutely right about the use of Capa photographs, although I haven't done the image research on that front. But to your point, Sally Stein has a fabulous essay on the Spanish Civil War in U.S. print media, and she points out that the last image in "To the Barricades," the man pointing the rifle, is a Capa ("Close-Ups from Afar, Contested Framings of the Spanish Civil War in US Print Media 1936-," in Jordana Mendelson, ed. Magazines, Modernity and War, 2008).
Looking again at the inside cover of War in Spain as I type, I also see that the publishers credit Living Age as their source for "The Death of a Militiaman," which I can only imagine refers to Capa. Photo sources are credited in the front or back matter of each issue, and while individual photographers' names appear in later installments, War in Spain seems to have drawn from photo services or other publications exclusively. For this issue, the editors cite: Black Star, Pix, Pictures Incorporated, Wide World, Publishers' Photo Service, European Picture Service-News Photos, International News Photos, Triangle, and Acme.
Thanks for pointing this out!