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To See Life Steadily And See It Whole: Picturing The News

From Dorothea Lange’s "Migrant Mother" to the hooded captive at Abu Ghraib, Cookman traces the photojournalist's desire to effect a change for good.

  • Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother (1936)

    Image 1 of 5

    Photo: Library of Congress

    Dorothea Lange's photograph of Florence Thompson and her children has come to symbolize the Great Depression and its impact on ordinary Americans.

  • Walker Evans, Floyd Burroughs (1936)

    Image 2 of 5

    Photo: Library of Congress

    Walker Evans, a member of the Farm Security Administration's photo team, lived with and photographed Floyd Burroughs and his family in Hale County, Alabama, in 1936.

  • Walker Evans, Allie Mae Burroughs (1936)

    Image 3 of 5

    Photo: IU Art Museum, Henry Holmes Smith Archive

    Walker Evans lived with and photographed Allie Mae Burroughs and her family in Hale County, Alabama in 1936 as part of the Farm Security Administration's photography team.

  • Jacob Riis, photo of tailor

    Image 4 of 5

    Photo: Museum of the City of New York

    Newspaper reporter Jacob Riis photographed the denizens of New York's Lower East Side, including this tailor in his home, a coal cellar.

  • Lewis Hine, girl worker in North Carolina cotton mill

    Image 5 of 5

    Photo: Library of Congress

    Lewis Hine photographed this girl working in a North Carolina cotton mill as part of his crusade against child labor in the early twentieth century.

In his recent book, IU professor Claude Cookman examines the humanist tradition that informs photojournalism as it is practiced in the US.

American Photojournalism: Motivations and Meanings (Northwestern University Press, 2009) revisits some of the most iconic images in the news—from Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother to the hooded captive at Abu Ghraib—to demonstrate their common origins: photographers’ desires to effect a change for good.

Looking Out And Looking In

Some of us consider the photograph a pure transcription of reality. Others take the postmodern view: That a photograph is more indicative of the photographer’s own subjectivity. Cookman asserts that the contradiction may have been best addressed by Henri Cartier-Bresson. The French photographer, who is widely considered the father of modern photojournalism, was the subject of Cookman’s dissertation at Princeton.

“Long before the LCD screens that people have on the backs of their cameras now,” Cookman explains, “Cartier-Bresson remarked that it’s very appropriate that when you look through the viewfinder of a camera you have one eye open to see the world, and one eye closed, because that’s when you look back at yourself.”

Shooting For A Change

In a field that’s often valued for the degree of neutrality exercised by its practitioners, Cookman argues that photojournalism has long been the occupation of those who are far from neutral. “Many photographers want to make the world better with their pictures. That’s not an objective stance.”

Cookman traces photojournalism’s humanist tradition back to newspaper reporter Jacob Riis. Committed to improving living conditions for immigrants who lived in tenements on the lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 20th century, Riis taught himself photography when he became convinced that words were inadequate to convey their abject situation.

Touring the country with his lantern slides, Riis heightened awareness to the extent that certain public health, housing, and employment reforms were launched. His resulting book of photographs was later published as How The Other Half Lives.

An Abiding Humanism

In American Photojournalism, Cookman follows the social documentary tradition—from the Farm Security Administration photos that brought the face of the Depression to the popular press, to images of the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—all the while noting the technological advances that have constantly transformed this medium from within.

Cookman’s saga is enriched by the fact that, like the photojournalists he’s chronicled, he is not an impartial observer, but has in fact spent two decades at a photography editor’s desk. He’s worked at the Associated Press in New York, at The Miami Herald, and at the The Louisville Times, where in 1976 he shared in a Pulitzer Prize for Photography, for a series that documented the highly contentious court-ordered integration of schools in Jefferson County with schools in Louisville.

A Happy Complement

With Matthew Arnold’s quotation as a guide—“To see life steadily and see it whole”—Cookman’s photojournalistic interests follow the path of the human condition. The photographic representation of a happy middle-class family sits at opposite end of the social documentary tradition from the portrayal of urban blight or racial strife, but Cookman has bookended his recent scholarship by examining both extremes.

In An American Family: Three Decades with the McGarveys (National Geographic Society, 2009), Cookman’s text accompanies Pam Spaulding’s pictures of a Kentucky family at home, on vacation, and on special occasions over the course of thirty years. Cookman’s contribution to Spaulding’s unique anthropological document complements his investigation of the photojournalistic enterprise.

Claude Cookman has taught visual communication and the history of photography at Indiana University’s School of Journalism since 1990. He is currently writing a book about magazine photojournalists working in the French humanist tradition.

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Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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