Photojournalism Enters a Golden Age

Article excerpt

Now in its 66th year, one of the world's oldest news photo competitions, "Pictures of the Year International" (POYI), enjoys new life in the just-opened Annenberg Space for Photography, here in the backyard of the entertainment industry.

The arresting images tell their own stories: a woman whose face has been melted by acid, Michael Phelps's hair's-breadth win in the Beijing Olympics, the aftermath of the China earthquake. At the same time, the exhibition itself is a good lens through which to view the swiftly evolving field of photojournalism, say photographers, educators, and industry analysts.

"We're moving into what I would call a golden age of photojournalism," says William Snyder, four-time Pulitzer Prize- winning photographer, who points to the "amazing proliferation of opportunities for visual storytellers to ply their trade." These range from self-publishing on the Internet to the explosion of reality-based entertainment.

This may seem paradoxical in an era of newspapers and magazines downsizing and disappearing "with discouraging frequency," says Mr. Snyder. At the same time, he adds, the overall culture has become saturated with visuals. Beyond that, the flowering of reality television and the overall cultural premium placed on real-time information has opened the way for a greater appreciation of the sometimes unsettling realities that lie at the heart of good photojournalism, he says. "Reality is popular now in a way that it certainly wasn't in the early days of photojournalism."

Launched in 1944 as an outlet for the best war reporting on the home front, the contest that eventually became POYI was born at the University of Missouri. While questions about photographic authenticity may seem to be more acute in the digital era where even the most casual amateur can easily alter pixels, the notion of telling stories through photos has been dogged by questions about human artifice from the inception of photography.

"There have been lingering questions about the authenticity of Civil War photographs and World War II concentration camp photographs just because the circumstances seemed unbelievable," says Pamela Venz, associate professor of art at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama.

Particularly now, in an era of self-publishing and so-called "citizen" journalism, with everyday folks feeding the news cycles with impromptu snapshots, today's credibility issues revolve around the idea of "experts," says Douglas Rea, professor of photojournalism at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. …