This week’s big news story for pop culture aficionados was the appearance of a newly verified photo of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. The image is only the third verified photo of this elusive figure, who as the story goes sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the talent that made him a musical icon. If anybody’s name should lead that headline it should be Johnson’s. But at least one photo industry report led not with the image’s subject, but with a name that has become, for better or worse, synonymous with images–and image licensing: Getty.
Verification controversy aside, Getty Images is one of the main providers of digital images. Not any specific kind of images, but simply images, and the breadth that such generality suggests is daunting. It means pictures from the latest Hollywood product to stock images as mundane as an artfully prepared double bacon cheeseburger, but also editorial images which over the years have defined the news.
We live in a conflicted age of image making. On the one hand, more images than ever are experienced in bits and bytes, on a computer screen or a smartphone. On the other, we live in a golden age of the photo book, where more and more excellent monographs are presented in ways that further not only the art of photography but the art of the book. Into this environment walks a massive 800-page tome.
Photo Journalism, edited by Nick Yapp and Amanda Hopkinson for h.f. ullman, is arranged chronologically and by themes like Revolutions, Entertainment, the Third Reich and the Role of Women. From the arrival of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, to the appalling images that came out of Abu Ghraib; from Billie Holiday to Amy Winehouse, Getty has it. This doorstopper of a photo book samples nearly two centuries of newsmakers as featured in the vast coffers of Getty Images.
The book has the kind of structure useful in a reference book. But even though I am a voracious consumer of images and photo books, Photo Journalism feels dry and somehow unsurprising. The publishers tried to squeeze too many images into crowded layouts. Given the format, which isn’t as massive, as, say, Taschen’s excellent London: Portrait of a City, it would have been better to use fewer images in layouts that allowed those images to dominate a page spread. The book seems tailored to an internet attention-span, but is too unwieldy to comfortably explore the way one can effortlessly browse a web site.
I wish there had been some way to tackle the collection with more serendipity–an app that pulls up a random image for the viewer would be a way to be continually surprised by the breadth of this collection. The determined photography lover will certainly find arresting images in Photo Journalism, but more than likely the clunky format will send them looking for a better presentation of the image—online.