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Photo-History's reception


Jean-Louis Marin-Lamellet
Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 8
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Dear Margaret, 

Thank you for this wonderful presentation. I’ve learned a lot.

I have two general questions for you:

  • Do you have more information about the reception of Photo-History? In particular, I’m curious to know what were labor unions’ reactions (if any) to the pictorial? Photo-History was conceived as a didactic periodical. Have you found traces of (working-class) readers’ reactions by any chance?
  • How do you account for such a wave of pictorials in the late 30s? As you mention in your talk, the success of Life explains the appearance of so many pictorials but there must have been more general reasons.

Thank you again for such an informative talk!

Margaret Innes
Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 8

Dear Jean-Louis, thanks so much for these questions.

Photo-History seems to have enjoyed a very positive reception among left-wing media outlets, but I haven't been able to track the magazine's reception among labor unions or at an individual level. Each issue was reviewed at length in the Daily Worker (the communist party's paper of record), in a narrative style that mimicked contemporary film reviews. PH was also reviewed in some of the more progressive labor newsletters, although these weren't necessarily representative of its reception among working-class readers. The magazine also received some attention from MoMA's photography curator, Beaumont Newhall, and the left-leaning amateur photographers of the New York Photo League, but I don't have subscription figures or much more evidence of the magazine's broader popular reception. Part of this is due to the scarcity of archival records, which I've pieced together from the papers of various individuals linked to New America. I'm still not sure where the records of Photo-History are housed (or if they exist). 
As for the rise of American photo pictorials in the late 1930s, there were indeed many factors in play, including a wave of European émigrés with publishing experience (like the German editor Kurt Korff, who had worked on BIZ) who relocated to the US in the mid-1930s. Korff played a role in shaping the early development of Life magazine, but this infusion of industry savvy might have helped spur the growth of the pictorial market more generally, too. The amateur hobbyist market also remained remarkably strong in the US throughout the 30s, despite the Depression, so amateur photography continued to grow in popularity in these years. This might account for the appetite for pictorials among American readers by the late 1930s, which accelerated the growth of the market in the years leading up to WWII. Thierry Gervais offers a great overview of this period in his book, La fabrique de l'information visuelle (Éditions Textuel, 2015). But I think you're right to ask about the more general reasons for this publishing surge, and I'll have to keep thinking about these dynamics.