Mike's article (just below this one) on photography magazines was coincidentally timely for me. Throughout this summer I've been up to my waist in a research project involving photo hobby magazines of the 1950s and 1960s, specifically U.S. Camera magazine. I'm particularly interested in this period for two reasons. First, because it was a relatively prosperous, relatively peaceful, and generally optimistic time in America. Second, because it was also the period just before electronics deeply penetrated cameras. Photography was still a largely mechanical and chemical undertaking that did not demand the prerequisite aptitudes that later eras would require. (That's a significant point, more closely related to my project, which I'll discuss in greater depth in a future article.)
My moldy magazine musings have treated me to many collateral retro delights thus far, some of the best of which I plan to share with fellow TOP readers in the coming weeks. But here are just a few gems to get started.
Let's begin by cutting straight to the chase of photo mags, shall we? If you were following photo mags you know where you usually started your monthly reading, don't you? That's right, you probably started reading a photo mag by perusing the ads in the back. They were troves of tiny-print "deals" on photo hobby treasures (right, from U.S. Camera, August, 1955).
Photography in that period was far more gadget-laced than it is today (if young people can imagine that). In addition to "best prices" on cameras there were mountains of darkroom gadgets all of which promised to help make you a star in your camera club.
The next attraction was the product ads. Magazine ads were the primary ongoing promotional vehicle for camera companies during this period. Television was still new in the 1950s. Kodak ran some television ads, usually near summer and the holiday seasons, in the 1960s. Of course radio was useless for promoting photo products. So we see a variety of large ads for new products each month. This was how folks learned of new products.
Ad designs seemed to be straddling styles much the same way that art of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to straddle the old and new. For example, we see a rather instructional ad for the Rolleicord V (the consumer version of the Rolleiflex) in simple pen-and-ink.
Just a few months later, in February, 1956, we see this ad for Nikon’s S-2 rangefinder:
Note not only the "modern" design of the ad but also the selection of the photographs that the silhouetted figures are viewing. That image of what appears to be a Mies van der Rohe building really jumps out at me as an icon of "tomorrow." This was a period in which contemporary art was beginning to emerge as a powerful force not just in the art world but also in graphic design. Nikon's clearly trying to make a statement that it's the brand for the future.
Finally we get to the actual editorial content. Yes, there were plenty of "how-to" articles in each issue. But there were also frequent articles dealing with broader and deeper issues of photography in general. U.S. Camera, in particular, often held symposia featuring many of the noted photographers of the day. For example in this same 1955 issue we have such an article titled "Interview with Three Greats" in which Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham an Ansel Adams discuss topics such as "What are the important trends?" and "What did the F/64 group mean?"
The caption reads: "HERE is a picture of the symposium held in Dorothea Lange’s studio for U.S. Camera. The people left to right are Herm Lenz, moderator, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams."
Photography had widely recognized "greats" still living in the 1950s and 1960s and U.S. Camera seemed to exploit them well for such discussions. By contrast, today we really don't have many such figures left. Many of today's best known photographers are principally photographic artists who really have little relationship to photography per se. We do still have treasures such as Bruce Davidson (who recently offered some thoughts about his work on Leica's blog) but they're not being replaced.
One last point worth noting: the camera magazines of the 1950s and 1960s looked terrible compared to today's magazines. The type is rough, the graphic line screens are coarse, the layouts are often nutty and the paper can be frail. Comparing a 1950s photo magazine to, say, an issue of today's British Journal of Photography is a breathtaking object lesson in the progress that printing and repro technologies have made in 60+ years. Really remarkable.
The future of photo magazines
There's little. It's no secret that magazine sales, in general, are in decline, with 2011 newsstand sales reported as being down between 8.9% and 9.2% (depending on the reporter). There's no question that (to cop a line from the film Men in Black) "that ain't gonna grow back." The Web and the growing list of "app" magazines are certainly responsible for part of the decline of photo magazines. The paper publishing medium is relentlessly giving way to the digital medium—which, frankly, is a win-win. With such high-resolution displays flooding the marketplace, and the common availability of relatively cheap broadband data transmission, publishers can produce and distribute a much richer product more quickly than ever. Readers reap great benefits. Advertisers reap great benefits. The planet's environment gets a much-needed break. Printers, paper companies and magazine distributors are the losers. Oh well.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Ed Cornachio: "U.S. Camera? How about Issue #1 when it was spiral bound, and Ed Steichen was one of the editors. (Number 2 was the last to be spiral bound.) I have issues 1 through 15 (missing #4). Interesting stuff."
Featured Comment by Jim Hughes: "Ken: Thanks for giving U.S. Camera its due. As you may know, I started my career in photographic publishing at U.S. Camera Publishing in 1966, when I became editor of its smaller circulation (and by then, more serious) magazine, Camera 35 (my contribution was to try to make it even more serious by putting even greater emphasis on portfolios and photo essays).
"U.S. Camera began as a high-quality spiral-bound Annual in 1935. Photographs were printed well, and large. Tom Maloney, a young advertising man with the vision to put Edward Steichen in charge of choosing pictures, said he lost $5,000 on that first edition. I have copies of the first few Annuals on my library shelves (protected in plastic bags!) and I still regularly study them. In 1938, Tom decided to add a periodical, and started U.S. Camera the magazine as a quarterly in the fall of that year. The 11.5x12-inch publication was priced at 50 cents, and sold out its entire run of 25,000 copies. At the beginning of 1939, with the second issue, the magazine became a bi-monthly. I am fortunate to possess two bound volumes representing the full run of the bi-monthlies, which to my mind represent a high point in photo magazine publishing.
"Indeed, it was the high standards of those early magazines that in great part inspired the objectives I set for myself, years later, as editor of the original Camera Arts magazine, which remains my proudest accomplishment.
"But it is Tom Maloney who remains one of photography's most unsung of heroes. He helped establish Ansel Adams' Yosemite Workshops. He published Ansel's book on the Japanese-American detainment camps, Born Free and Equal. He suggested Edward Weston for a Guggenheim and published his California and the West. He was responsible for Edward Steichen becoming director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art. I could go on, but you get the idea....
"And Maloney did all this in his spare time. His primary business was advertising and public relations. Remember Sylvania's 'Blue Dots for Sure Shots'? How about Sherwin-Williams 'We Cover The World'? Those were Tom's campaigns. And it was his advertising work that supported his photographic 'hobby.'"