Magazines: The Photographers’ Press in the United States and Great Britain During the Transition Decade of the 1960s

David Brittain. Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History and Science. Editor: Michael R Peres. 4th edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007.

In a seminal essay called “Mirrors and Windows,” John Szarkowski argues that there was a “sudden decline” in the fortunes and prestige of mass market pictorials such as Life, in the late 1950s. In former times, magazines had supported great photographers from Beaton to Bourke-White. But in response to the pressures of competing for advertisers, jobbing “amateurs” entered the profession, replacing the great talents. Szarkowski, a renowned curator, notes that the most ambitious photographers of the counter-culture viewed this new situation as an opportunity to pursue their artistic destiny elsewhere. The decline of the pictorials, then, instigated a transition during which the identity of the American photographer shifted from artisan to artist.

As is universally acknowledged, one of the models for the new American photographer (and an inspiration to young photographers, internationally) was the individualistic Robert Frank. The U. S. publication, in 1959, of his book The Americans, might be said to represent the start of the trajectory that ended with photographers being elevated to a new social status. Not only did The Americans set a high standard artistically, it also sent the signal that artistic control was possible, but only outside the constraints of the mass media and commercial photography. The sixties was a decade of transition in American photography. The milestones would include the founding of the Society of Photographic Education (SPE) in 1962, by such key figures as Minor White, Aaron Siskind, and Nathan Lyons; the 1962 publication of Marshall McLuhan’s book The Gutenberg Galaxy; The Photographer’s Eye curated by John Szarkowski at MoMA, New York in 1964; the publication in 1964 of The Painter and the Photograph by Van Deren Coke; the release of Antonioni’s iconic film, Blow Up in 1966; and not forgetting the other MoMA exhibition, New Documents in 1967. The exhibition launched three talents—Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus,—who would come to personify the poet-photographer of the post-Life era.

By the middle of the decade some of the conditions were in place to support independent photographic practice: an expansion of the provision for photography in higher education, offering some employment prospects, two major museums with dedicated departments and acquisition budgets, and the beginnings of a publishing culture for photographers’ books. But much else would be needed if young photographers were to survive outside of the commercial systems. Photography as art was still in search of a scholarly discourse and the market for original prints was in its infancy. This meant that the sixties was a decade of promise and disappointment for photographers.

Szarkowski’s main claim that magazines were in decline, and were no longer recognizing or attracting independently minded photographers, may have been true of big titles such as Life, but publishers and photographers alike were adapting and finding new audiences. Even as photography was beginning to become more widely exhibited and reviewed, reputations were still being made in glossy magazines such as the new color supplements in Britain and youth magazines such as Nova in England and Twen in Germany that were commissioning the most innovative photographers. A regular contributor was Diane Arbus, one of the sensations of the 1967 New Documents exhibition.

Before photography galleries became commonplace, the news kiosk was the photo gallery of its day. Many new photographers emerged out of the media because magazines were central to the economy and identity of photographic culture, and this is reflected in the fact that some of the first art exhibitions and publications originated with magazine assignments. Photographers still admired the old-style Life, not least because the magazine made the profession seem respectable. In Britain photographers cherished a similar fondness for Picture Post (closed in 1957) in which Bill Brandt and others came to prominence during the war years, marking a “golden age.” In the 1960s magazines—but also catalogs and annuals—were still very important for the interchange of issues, ideas, and images among young photographers, providing them with a cast of indomitable role models. Readers and editors alike scanned pages for the best images, often removing them for future reference and memorized the bylines of the photographers they admired. Long before most learned of Walter Benjamin’s notion of the reproduction as a popular art gallery, the illustrated press made photographers feel connected, even as they were scattered. In an address to the readers of Camera Arts, in 1980, the celebrated editor Jim Hughes sums up the impact of the magazines on his generation of photographers. “Via the medium of the printed page and in the quiet of my own room, I was moved by the eloquence of Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand, W. Eugene Smith, Lisette Model, Ansel Adams … and so many others … I began to comprehend that there was art in life.”

The decline of Life (whether as a result of TV or not) coincided with an expansion of the alternative press in major cities across America, Europe, and Australasia. This global network of small magazines catered to specialist literary, cultural, and political audiences and included a number of titles produced by art photographers. The best known and most established is Aperture. Like Aperture, many of the magazines that comprised the photographers’ press possessed names evocative of the technology of photography such as Image, Halide, Camera, Photography, and so on. And it was in the pages of these titles that some of these best young photographers of the 1960s were first introduced to their peers as authors, as opposed to jobbing illustrators.

As the interface between image-makers, audiences, and taste-shapers, photographers’ magazines participated in a climate in which art photography became institutionalized during the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the titles were so marginal they hardly comprised a network; nor have they been well chronicled by histories of photography. More accurately, they belong to the social history of photography as collaborative projects.

There is no agreement about what to call such a publication: terms include portfolio or folio magazine, art photography magazine, and photographers’ magazine. Database evidence suggests that the decade of the seventies saw the biggest expansion in small photographic magazines. The sharp statistical blip coincides with the expansion of photography courses in higher education, in the United States especially, and might reflect evidence of publishers targeting new academic markets. Less is known about the scene in the 1960s, which (in the United States at least) was a golden age for the photographers’ press. A survey in a 1978 issue of the trade magazine, Printletter, reveals that about ten “art photography magazines” survived from the 1960s from Italy, Japan, the United States, the UK, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Germany. It is not known how many folded or did not respond to the survey, or indeed how many worthy of the name were still in print, but were excluded because they were classified as something else. Most of those listed were, in fact, commercial operations. While many of these contained informed commentary about photography, they were run for the benefit of publishers, rather than photographers who regarded them with some suspicion.

For the purposes of this essay, let’s assume the photographers’ press of the 1960s is distinguished by a few titles (perhaps as few as 20 in English) that were edited, for love not money, by photographers and their supporters. It would be foolhardy to hazard any general observations because so many variations existed within the type: in ownership, editorial philosophy, geographical spread (whether regional or national), frequency, and quality. To complicate matters, a title also tends to change radically with each new editor or new owner. Aperture is typical in some ways but untypical in others. The first issue announced itself with a cover picture of a sign-post indicating dozens of destinations that symbolized the adventure ahead. Like many magazines it was founded (in 1952) in a flush of idealism at a meeting of friends. The difference is that these included the most influential figures of the day, such as Ansel Adams, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Barbara Morgan, and Dorothea Lange, who were all part of Stieglitz’ circle. They were keen to launch a magazine fashioned on Camera Work. Stieglitz’ lavish periodical “fought” for the art of photography (1903–1917) with firebrand conviction, intelligence, taste, and high production values. While it was common knowledge that Camera Work only survived because Stieglitz subsidized it, this was no deterrent when it came to launching Aperture. As a result of chronic underfunding the quarterly scraped by, once saving money on repro with a text-only issue, eventually becoming bankrupt in 1977 before being rescued. Aperture was also unusual because it was under the control of one editor for the first half of its existence (Minor White died in 1976). It was suspected that White got to exert such enormous control over the editorial in a contra deal for donating his time. Most titles are not as well known as Aperturenor so long-lived. Much has been written about Aperture as the ultimate modernist organ. I believe that this reputation was attributable partly to a combination of tasteful presentation and impeccable production standards. By floating reproductions inside generous white margins, the design evoked an original black and white print set in a matte; it seemed to demand that the reader take a step out of the noisy modern world into contemplation. The photographs tended to be “timeless” and “universal” subjects taken in recognizable genres (still life, nude, landscape, and so on).

More by example, than anything, Minor White established an agenda that was adopted and improvised upon by most of the editors that came along in the 1960s. First, that the mission of the photographers’ press was to complete the daunting task begun with Camera Work: to win academic respectability for the art of photography, improved social status for art photographers, and to cultivate a sophisticated audience to support their cultural activities. Secondly, that excellence must be a high priority. By far the most important of these was the pedagogic insistence that photographer/readers must be active in the realization of these objectives. Aperture’s campaign to get photographers to convert indifferent audiences into “visually literate” ones began in the 1950s, and was inspired by Henry Holmes Smith.

It has always been a matter of speculation what, if any, influence small photography magazines have on the direction of the events they mirror. Compared with the circulation figures of Life, the average photographers’ magazine addressed a ridiculously small audience (measured in the low thousands or lower) and this tended to be restricted within the country of origin. Yet its loyal and passionate audiences were the ones that serious photographers wanted to reach and their contributors included the most influential figures of their day such as Szarkowski who was a regular contributor to Contemporary Photographer and then later to Creative Camera.

I want to speculate upon the successes and failures of two key titles of the photography scene in the 1960s. Contemporary Photographer was published between 1960 and 1969 in New York and Boston and was Aperture’s rival for a while. Contemporary Photographer was more pluralistic than Aperture and is interesting because it tried to encompass all styles of art photography during the 1960s. The last two editors were Lee Lockwood and Carl Chiarenza.Creative Camera may be one of the first of the photographers’ magazines to appear outside America. Because of its monthly frequency, the magazine could be (and was) even more eclectic in its tastes. Creative Camera was founded in London in 1968 by a photographer called Colin Osman. But its editor, Bill Jay, began commenting on the English scene a year earlier at the helm of Creative Camera Owner, Creative Camera’s predecessor. In many ways Creative Camera looks like a British version of Contemporary Photographer. The logo is similar and Jay’s crusading tone is identical to Lockwood’s. With its iconic silver cover, Creative Camera was thinner than the quarterlies and more disposable looking.

The editors of these magazines saw it as their mission to rally their readers round the cause of “good photography” through the cultural isolation of the 1960s. Editorials testify that this was an era that was full of false dawns on both sides of the Atlantic. The photographers who subscribed to Contemporary Photographer and Creative Camera experienced contrasting cultural situations but thought of themselves, for a short while, as a community—united perhaps by their frustrations and marginalization. These magazines helped to focus that sense of community, acting as a mirror to enable this community to see an image of itself. Contemporary Photographer’s perspective was limited to developments on the East Coast of the United States where Lockwood and Chiarenza were based. It did not cover Europe. By contrast, Creative Camera focused on Europe and the United States. Europe had its émigré photographers and its classic pictorials as well as a great heritage of avant-garde photomontage. Readers were probably more excited about reports from America where exciting trends were being set. American contributors included John Szarkowski and Peter Bunnell of MoMA and Robert Frank had a column for a while. For Jay, America represented an encouraging model for the future shape of what in Britain was called “creative photography.”

Editors were good at informing their communities of readers about what had to change and why and were, I would argue, very effective at motivating them to participate in change, or at least to feel they were involved in change. To compensate for their comparatively small audience numbers, the photographers’ magazines had one advantage: that was an intimacy between editors and readers that helped them work together to try to change things. The intimacy of the small magazine, then as now, is in contrast to the “editorial distance” of the daily newspaper. Editors and readers were the same people and used the same language. The editors of Lightwork addressed their readers as equals when they apologized for offering to pay $10 for each photo they printed: “That’s shamefully little but it’s the best we can do …” Small magazines make effective catalysts because readers and editors share the same values, if not the same opinions. Editorials, some almost confessional, promoted a sense of community and common ownership. A leader in The Boston Review of Photography January 1968 refers to the magazine as “your magazine” and as a “workshop for the entire photographic community.” The inaugural issue of the newsletter, Minority Photographers Inc., answers the rhetorical question, Who are we? “… photographers who have joined together in a mutual effort to overcome discrimination in the exhibition of their work …”

The bond between readers and their titles was strengthened in the knowledge that the magazines were produced by photographers for photographers. At its inception, Creative Camera instigated “postal circles,” urging keen photographers to form social networks of up to 15 people. Each put one print each into a box and circulated it, offering and receiving constructive criticism as it went. In ways like this the magazines acted as catalysts and their editors became well-known activists within their communities. A magazine came to stand for something that was rare or missing in the commercially driven mainstream such as a commitment “to provoke rather than to inform” (Contemporary Photographer) or to “quality” over “quantity.” Readers were prepared to lend support because editors and the contributors were all in some way committed to photography and prepared to forfeit financial gain to prove it. Boston Review’s editor writes, “… letters from readers constitute my salary as Editor, I consider myself well paid.” The editors of the Toronto-based Impressions announced, “The only ideological bias of the magazines is against commercialism …” In contrast to the mainstream magazines, the photographers’ press carried no advertising. Big business prospered by selling photographers essential materials, but refused to support these magazines. Some editors bemoaned their enforced marginal status but others celebrated it. An editorial in Contemporary Photographer, “The Uses of a Small Magazine” announces that “owing allegiance to neither advertiser not to mass readership …” a small magazine can remain, “serious and non-commercial.”

Editors devoted themselves to mapping the transition years, highlighting new developments that would interest and possibly hearten discouraged readers. Contemporary Photographer sounded upbeat about the New York scene in the early 1960s: “Photography as a fine art is only now crossing the threshold of its potentiality … but its future promises even greater things.” The fortunes of independent photography in Britain did not look up until the 1970s. But things were changing in the late 1960s. When Jay could not report good news from home he referred readers to encouraging trends in New York or Rochester, home of the George Eastman House.

By highlighting the lack of many crucial things for the health of photography—great pictures, great photographers, mature critical writing and so on—the magazines put the onus on readers to supply these missing essentials. Contemporary Photographer appealed to “serious photographers” for photographs and manuscripts but mostly for dialog in the form of comments on the contents of past issues. Their failure in attracting critical and other texts may explain why these magazines may now seem so improvised and parochial.

Editors recognized that the single most important missing element was a sophisticated audience for photography and made this one of their favorite topics. Lee Lockwood once quoted Walt Whitman, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences too.” Without an audience there could be no “print-buying public,” Lockwood notes.

Contributors to Creative Camera and Contemporary Photographer urged photographers to start a dialog with the public. Young photographers were regularly applauded for trying, the more opportunistic the better. Lockwood reported favorably on an initiative by three young photographers who exhibited at the New York School for Social Research in 1962. Each produced and marketed a small portfolio comprising ten photographs. Each was signed and numbered and cost $25.00. Lockwood supposed that this innovation might have implications for other “serious cameramen” who would prefer to avoid soul-destroying commercial work. In a time of “shrinking markets for photojournalism … the small, personal portfolio such as described above may one day be one way out of the dilemma.”

Bill Jay endorsed such enterprise too, but he had his eye on the eventual prize of state subsidy from the Arts Council of Great Britain. If this body already distributed funding to the fine and performing arts, then why not to photography? In one 1969 issue Jay reported the encouraging news that an Arts Council committee had been set up to “discuss the place of photography in future art gallery programmes.” “It’s a big step forward,” he conceded. But then he cautioned that no one with “vision and passion” about photography was represented on the committee. Jay was the master at stirring up passions. “The fate of photography in this country is at stake,” he concluded.

All magazines need role models, and the photographers’ press needed people that would willingly inspire readers and give them hope during this testing decade. The past was a great source of colorful, crusading characters, and editors and photographers alike rummaged through the back catalogs of photography for material. As a result Contemporary Photographer published the first monograph of the photographs of Charles Sheeler. The English photographer Tony Ray-Jones tells readers of Creative Camera that the 1930s photojournalist, Bill Brandt, was a major influence and Diane Arbus is said to admire August Sander, a German portraitist of the prewar era. Of course the thriving media scene produced its own cast of young, up-to-date role models, which inspired young photographers, often luring them into the media with its promises of globe-trotting adventures. Lee Lockwood and Bill Jay were both active in the commercial media and knew many of the photographers and the realities of the magazine world. These included upcoming talents such as Don McCullin, Phillip Griffith-Jones, and Bruce Davidson. The decline of Life coincided with the rise of art directors, such as Willy Fleckhaus at Twen and Michael Rand at the Sunday Times magazine, who were presented to readers as allies of photography.

Mainstream magazines traded money for images. By contrast the photographers’ press traded images for cultural capital and access to appreciative, well-connected audiences. While Contemporary Photographer and Creative Camera took full advantage of what the mainstream could offer in terms of resources and talent, their editors were selective about the kind of image-makers they published. It is noticeable that the personality of the photographer was as important to these editors as were the images. These young, glamorous image-makers were enlisted to help reinforce some of the values of the community such as independence, altruism, tenacity, and self-sufficiency.

Editors and readers valued photographers that did not “sell out,” who kept their integrity. Both Robert Frank and W. Eugene Smith were regularly covered in the photographers’ press as men of integrity. It was not just editors who invoked the personality of talented photographers. In the essay “Mirrors and Windows” John Szarkowski observes that Smith “came to be regarded as a patron saint among magazine photographers, not only because of the excellence of his work, but because he quit Life magazine in protest not once but twice …” Smith’s name was routinely invoked in the context of articles that carped at the press for interfering with pictures. In one such piece, in which Bill Jay challenges young photographers to change “the commercial world,” Smith is described as a “constant source of inspiration to young photographers.”

Frank was known to consider magazine work to be a sell out. He reinforced his contempt for magazine photographers in an unprecedented series of Letters from New York that were published in Creative Camera throughout 1969, which must have been awe-inspiring for young readers. In Frank’s world view the line between art and commerce was clearly drawn. In one letter he describes meeting a well-known Life photographer at a Bill Brandt exhibition, who tells Frank that he “doesn’t buy” Brandt. “Of course Mili and Life and 500 other editors wouldn’t buy it either … you have to be an artist to do that kind of stuff.”

Lee Lockwood’s notion of the ideal young photographer is profiled in an issue of Contemporary Photographer along with a sketch of the daunting tasks awaiting him. The young photographer must articulate a “personal vision” of the world, Lockwood states. This would involve following the “pure” path that avoids “non-commercial photography” and salaried photojournalism. Because these were pioneering days, new photographers needed to act as activists too because outlets for their photography were scarce. Audiences would need to be awakened from “visual lethargy” induced by a media that has abandoned its commitment to hard-hitting, truth-telling photo-essays and dumbed down.

One can only speculate about the effect of this kind of rhetoric on young photographers. Lockwood’s last issue as editor contains the thoughts of one ambitious young photographer who was trying to measure up to these impossibly high standards, both morally and artistically. If the values Lockwood articulated in his editorials can be said to reflect those of the photographic community, then Charles Harbutt embodied many of them. He was young, a Magnum member, therefore independent of big media and more likely to be motivated by something higher than the quest for financial reward. Harbutt has evolved an experimental type of picture essay, and so has pushed his medium toward a “personal vision” that is transcendent of the limitations of the press. His mentor was no less a person than Smith. Furthermore, Harbutt was altruistic; he was giving something back to the community in the shape of a new concept. Harbutt’s essay, “The Multi-Level Picture Story” (which would be reprinted in Creative Camera two years later) was written in the spirit of a colleague sharing advice with his peers. By contrast with Frank, who seems sure of his place, Harbutt emerges as a man in transition, caught between the moral imperatives of photojournalism past, with its stress on intuitiveness and reverence for the mass audience, and yet burning to take creative control of his work, to create a “personal vision.”

The article focuses on an 8-page picture sequence titled, The Blind Boys. The multi-level picture story attempts to bridge a gap between the “simple picture story” and something transcendent that can “tell ‘stories’ on deeper levels.” Most of the article is taken up with describing how each of the “six levels” might be interpreted to complement the whole. Toward the conclusion Harbutt admits to a personal “quandary” which seems to be between heart/intuition and head/intellect. If the essence of photography is “life as it is lived” then the multilevel picture story has failed, because the intuitive rapport between image-maker and subject has been submerged by the complexity of the design.

Harbutt believes his pictures “do not have real existence unless they are published.” Journalism is “socially useful and making photographs is more than valid …” For Smith, staying with Life was a sell out, but Harbutt is torn. He enjoys the editorial process but agrees that caption writers and designers can interfere with or contradict the photographers’ message. “This is a particular problem in the contemporary magazine field …” admits Harbutt, and that is why “the ‘multilevel picture story’ is a rarity in photojournalism.” Finally he renounces the experiment. Which route will he follow: the heart or the head? Will be stay the artisan or become the artist? “I have not resolved the problem as yet,” he concludes. Harbutt was fortunate to be offered this platform for his views and we are lucky to have them on record. The photographers’ magazines give us access to the human face behind the official rhetoric.

Traditionally, small magazines have been the mouthpieces for art movements because they are well suited to the role of catalyst. The editors of the photographers’ press understood this when they appointed themselves in charge of bringing their photographer readers through transition. There is evidence that they were resourceful at selling the dream of a bright future for non-commercial photography. They harnessed the resources of their communities and ruthlessly exploited the glamour and myths of the mass media, as well as its shortfalls. One of their biggest assets was the voice of the grassroots art photographer. Editors such as Jay and Lockwood spoke with the voice of their readers and they often succeeded in transforming their frustrations and aspirations into actions; for instance, getting together with others to stage exhibitions or lobby an authority. This voice—fatalistic and alternating between carrot- and stick-wielding—became the voice of the art photography establishment. It is detectable in the rhetoric of photography’s greatest proselytizers from Stieglitz to Ansel Adams and including John Szarkowski, who were all photographers first and foremost.

A more ambivalent asset was a strong, moral role model. Based on an amalgam of Robert Frank and W. Eugene Smith, this complex “black and white” photographer appeared in countless guises and was courted by editors because he testified to the existence of a path outside “commercialism.” While many young photographers were doubtless inspired by qualities such as independence, focus, and moral courage, these were also difficult to emulate and could be divisive, as photography historian Ian Jeffrey has observed. He once speculated that many young photographers of the period may have simply given up, fearful of being unable to make the sacrifices demanded. Harbutt’s essay is valuable because not only does it give a human dimension to the high ideals expressed in editorials such as Lockwood’s, but it illustrates, quite movingly, this dilemma. By taking the pure path, into books and exhibitions, a photographer might exchange a mass audience for an elitist audience but trade a cherished social role for the loneliness of the poet.

The magazines promoted an “us and them” mentality, but that is a function of any small magazine. But they also championed a very restrictive range of artistic identities. Even though Harbutt had the skills of an editor and designer, he seemed unwilling or unable to imagine himself transcending the role of picture-taker/artisan. By contrast, outside the narrow world of photography, artistic identities were in flux as boundaries were perceived to be melting between high and low cultures, artist-as-author, and author-as-consumer. This was the view of Susan Sontag in her influential 1965 essay, “Against Interpretation.”

One of the key roles of the photographers’ magazine was as a benchmark of high standards and best practice. But there was mystery and some anxiety surrounding the criteria that editors (and curators) used to elevate average photographers to great ones. How much was it to do with personality or how one earned a living? This uncertainty was satirized in an article in the Californian artists’ magazine, The Dumb Ox, in an exchange between two editors. “Most people have very bizarre opinions about things but are socialized into suppressing those views,” James Hugunin observes. “Like how many people would have the guts to say that Jack Welpott’s most recent photographs belong in a camera club salon and not in an art museum? Well, even I don’t have that much guts!”

While Aperture and Creative Camera both continued to publish into the 21st century (albeit after a succession of identity changes since the 1960s) many of their rivals closed. Contemporary Photographer folded in 1969 but not before producing one final issue that neatly symbolizes the end point of the trajectory begun in the late 1950s. The editor, Carl Chiarenza, made a special point of inviting women writers to contribute to this predominantly male domain. More pertinently, the Boston art historian Samuel Edgerton takes photography a significant step out of the ghetto toward the cultural mainstream. Edgerton suggests that the “specialism” of photography as an art was not derived from its technical and chemical processes (as argued by formalists), but rather that it was encountered in reproductions. Acknowledging McLuhan (“the medium is the message”), and with a nod to Walter Benjamin, Edgerton notes that museums confer status on photography, but the ideal context is “the medium of its original appearance”; i.e., printed matter. In challenging norms, this final edition of Contemporary Photographer (appearing a year after Aspen published Barthes’ essay, “The Death of the Author”) anticipates the pluralism of the 1970s.

The photographers’ magazines delivered their audiences to the altered cultural climate of the 1970s, but did not die; new ones adapted to changing situations. But many of the values that the magazines of the 1960s represented—photography as an autonomous art, the photographer as author, and the original print as the marquee of genius—were soon eclipsed, first in the United States, then in Britain and then later further afield. As the critique of photographic modernism gathered momentum, from various “counter-hegemonic” cultural sites, the distinctive voice of the grassroots art photographer lost its prominence within discourse. By the mid-1980s the photographers’ press contained a diversity of titles that attested to the broadening of photographic discourse. Talk of a homogenous community of art photographers gave way to talk of multiple communities, each representing a competing yet complementary philosophy or practice.

Arguably, one of the most valuable things about the photographers’ press of the 1960s is that it represents an alternative photographic history, a kind of folk history, that takes its authority from the voices of photographers and their supporters.