Friday, August 19, 2016

Photos that Tell a Story: The Picture Post Album

     Robert Kee. The Picture Post Album (1989) Kee’s history of the magazine, Britain’s version of LIFE, which preceded it, but learned from it. Picture Post’s founding owner (Hulton) and editors (Lorant and Hopkinson) wanted to use photography as the medium for telling stories, not as an adjunct to text. They succeeded brilliantly, in large part because Hulton was a social reformer, and expected the future to be one of progress in equality and social justice.
     The Second World War began when the Post was barely eleven months old, and it became a major factor in maintaining British morale. It published pictures of all social strata at work and play, of soldiers and civilians experience of the war, mixed with a bit of discreet cheesecake and sentiment, and in every issue dealt with some more serious topic such as the future of health care, or the conduct of the war. The photographs were brilliant, and their layout and captions told the story. The amount of text apparently varied, but the Post published articles and short fiction too, as well as leaders (editorials). The magazine could be sharply satirical, as when it published black rectangles instead of the pictures about the home front that the editors wished to print but which the censors forbade.
     But the focus was the pictures, and this book shows us the range of subject matter and style. Many of it images have become the ones that we think of when celebrities and artists of the mid-twentieth century are named.
The photographers were among those who shifted photography away from vaguely conceived imitation of fine art in other media into its own realm. We now take it for granted that photography can be anything the photographer wants it to be, but that it works best as the record of a moment whose significance isn’t understood until it’s captured in a photo, that photography can distill meaning as well as any painting, precisely because it fixes what would otherwise be a distorted memory of a glimpse.
     The magazine morphed into the owner’s mouth-piece when Hulton disagreed with the post-war politics of Labour. He also pioneered the advertorial, a dubious honour. That wasn’t what the readers wanted, and TV with its illusion of immediacy cut into the visual reporting of illustrated news magazine. It died in 1957, a parody of itself.
Hopkinson’s Foreword ends with a hopeful claim that a magazine of high-quality photo-reportage and writing could be viable. He had no inkling of what digital photography and the Web would do to new media.
     A nostalgia trip for anyone who knew the magazine or the times in which it thrived, and a necessary record for those who did not. ***

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