Photojournalism’s Golden Age

The Golden Age of Photojournalism 

They give us those nice bright colors/They give us the greens of summers/ Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day/I got a Nikon camera/I love to take a photograph/so mama don’t take my Kodachrome away.”
– Paul Simon, Kodachrome, 1973

(Rollin stone) want to see my picture on the cover
(Stone)Wanna buy five copies for my mother (yes)
(Stone)Wanna see my smilin’ face
On the cover of the Rollin’ Stone (that’s a very very good idea)

 – Dr. Hook, On the cover of the Rollin’ Stone, 1973. 

Throughout much of the 20th century pictures in newspapers and magazines provided the world with most of its  visual knowledge.  From natural disasters, war, politics, fashion, sports, and celebrity, popular culture was defined by  images displayed on the front page of the local newspaper or the cover of LIFE magazine.

The Golden Age of photojournalism coincides with the emergence of popular picture magazines such as LIFE, Look, FocusPeekFotoPic, and Click . 


The success  of modern-day photojournalism owes a great deal to the invention of the 35mm Leica camera in 1925. The Leica freed the photographer was lugging bulky large format cameras, lights and tripods  around from scene to scene. With the 35mm, photographers developed a less conspicuous, fly-on-the wall, approach to making images. For Towne, “With the advent of the first 35mm Leica camera in 1925, as well as the invention of the first commercial flash bulbs in 1927, the stage was set for the “golden age of photojournalism”.  This so-called “golden age” is considered to span the 1930s to the 1960s. The early 35mm cameras were the first that were small enough and light enough to easily carry into most environments.  This new photographic freedom combined with less laborious printing methods rocketed photojournalism into a powerful and common way to convey newsworthy events around the world.” For James Stovall, “Magazines distinguished themselves in the middle of the 20th century by becoming the major forum for a special brand of journalism – photojournalism. The use of photos by newspapers at the beginning of the century was quick and utilitarian. Newspapers concerned themselves with recording the day’s events, and they used photographs to help them do just that.

Although illustrated magazines had been in circulation since the 19th Century,  pictures magazines credit changes in photographic technologies with their growth in popularity. According to  Understanding Media: “The most influential picture magazine was Henry Luce’s Life, which regularly published between 1936 and 1972. Within weeks of its initial publication, Life had a circulation of 1 million. In Luce’s words, the publication aimed “to see life; to see the world; to witness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things (Encycopaedia Britannica).”

History of Life Magazine



First issue of Life is published

Life actually had its start earlier in the 20th century as a different kind of magazine: a weekly humor publication, not unlike today’s The New Yorker in its use of tart cartoons, humorous pieces and cultural reporting. When the original Life folded during the Great Depression, the influential American publisher Henry Luce bought the name and re-launched the magazine as a picture-based periodical on this day in 1936. By this time, Luce had already enjoyed great success as the publisher of Time, a weekly news magazine.From his high school days, Luce was a newsman, serving with his friend Briton Hadden as managing editors of their school newspaper. This partnership continued through their college years at Yale University, where they acted as chairmen and managing editors of the Yale Daily News, as well as after college, when Luce joined Hadden at The Baltimore News in 1921. It was during this time that Luce and Hadden came up with the idea for Time. When it launched in 1923, it was with the intention of delivering the world’s news through the eyes of the people who made it.

Whereas the original mission of Time was to tell the news, the mission of Lifewas to show it. In the words of Luce himself, the magazine was meant to provide a way for the American people “to see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events … to see things thousands of miles away… to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed… to see, and to show…” Luce set the tone of the magazine with Margaret Bourke-White’s stunning cover photograph of the Fort Peck Dam, which has since become an icon of the 1930s and the great public works completed under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Life was an overwhelming success in its first year of publication. Almost overnight, it changed the way people looked at the world by changing the way people could look at the world. Its flourish of images painted vivid pictures in the public mind, capturing the personal and the public, and putting it on display for the world to take in. At its peak, Life had a circulation of over 8 million and it exerted considerable influence on American life in the beginning and middle of the 20th century.

With picture-heavy content as the driving force behind its popularity,the magazine suffered as television became society’s predominant means of communication. Life ceased running as a weekly publication in 1972, when it began losing audience and advertising dollars to television. In 2004, however, it resumed weekly publication as a supplement to U.S. newspapers. At its re-launch, its combined circulation was once again in the millions.


Life Photographer Margaret Bourke-White


After learning more about the golden age of photojournalism, how would you describe the field today. For instance in an age of digital manipulation and social media, has the importance of photojournalism run its course or is it still considered a significant source of information in society today. Support your perspective using credible sources and examples.