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.