Reportage and the hand held camera
Rick Tardiff

Looking back at the history of photography there are many events that shaped the course of image making. Photographic pioneers from Nicephore Niepce to Ansel Adams to Walker Evans and Robert Frank all impacted our techniques and visual understanding. Alfred Steiglitz and Minor White gave us our soul and a mantle to place our photographic trends.

One of the most significant events of the past 150 plus years was the break-through of the small hand-held camera and with it the need to capture images and tell stories. It became an instrument to record events that affected lives and the human condition. The hand-held camera with its portability and inexpensive film allowed the photographer to make thirty-six exposures and position themselves within the flow of events, following as they happened. Gone were the days of carrying heavy, bulky equipment and the slow set-up time of large format view cameras.

Leica, Zeiss Ikon, and Rolleiflex all produced equipment capable of performing in low-light situations, avoiding attracting attention and producing sharp images and giving birth to a new breed of photographers.

Hungarian born Andre Kertesz used the hand camera and a reportage style to capture everyday subjects. His first camera was an ICA 4.5 x 6cm glass plate camera and he spent his time photographing the peasants, the gypsies, and the landscapes of the Hungarian plains. One of his first photographs is that of a young man asleep in a restaurant.


This early image shows the genius of Kertesz, the diagonals in composition, the rhythmic balance of forms, and the sense of a certain familiarity.

That Kertesz used cameras with plates until 1928, when he bought his first Leica and afterwards, is barely noticed: his shots were natural, realistic, and poetic, “I took photos with the Leica before the invention of the Leica,” he would say later. Kertesz turned out to be solitary, with an affinity to solitary people. He photographed through a window, shooting downward: he photographed roofs, shadows, and dreamy nocturnal ambiances. Andre Kertesz was a quiet but important influence on the coming of age of reportage and the art of photography. His subtle and penetrating vision helped to define a medium in its infancy. Very few artists are able to witness the formation of their own artistic medium. Kertesz was not only able to witness much of the beginnings of hand-held photography, but had a profound effect on it.

Another example is this 1931 image “Shadows.”


This image clearly shows his humor and subtle humanity with a play on light and shadow. The Leica’s small size and rapid operation perfectly suited this kind of photography. Among photographers who were aided or influenced by him in Paris at this time were his fellow Hungarian Brassai and a young French student, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Bresson went on to become a major force in the use of the small camera and photo reportage. HCB presented a photographic approach, which suggested that intelligent camera work could usurp for the professionals the candid, which so often fell in the laps of the amateur. Cartier-Bresson is also known for the term “the decisive moment “ In my mind that is when everything in the viewfinder makes sense to the eye. The many elements of design, composition of form and the narrative are exactly right.

HCB spoke of recognizing –simultaneously and within a fraction of a second-both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. Below we see one of his images where even the dog is in accord with the performance.


Mass circulation picture magazines emerged between the wars, first in Germany, soon thereafter in other European countries, and by the late 1930’s were established in England and the United States. These magazines established new genres of photo-reportage - notably the photo essay and the practice of documenting both the famous and the ordinary citizen in the same light.

The following is my example of photo-reportage and the use of the hand-held camera to make a picture story:

This series of images show the hand held camera’s flexibility, and its almost stealth like ability to be part of the moment. It did not intrude on an artist’s concentration but captured it. Put together in a picture story format it tells a story to the viewer.

This could run as a feature of an artist working in his studio in the final months of his life. All that is missing is some text to establish a photo essay of a


kind reminiscent to the days of Life and Picture Post.

No other medium did more at the time to promote reportage than Life magazine. In 1936 Publisher Henry Luce brought Life to


the news stand with the ideology that “fifty or twenty years ago people used to write essays for magazines. The essay is no longer a vital means of communications. But what is vital is the


photographic essay.”

A wild success at the news stand, Life became a fixture in middle class American living rooms, its circulation peaking at 8.5 million copies a week. Its estimated


readership was 24 million people. Photographers like Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Robert Capa, Walker Evans, David Douglas Duncan, W. Eugene Smith and countless


more all contributed to the magazine's success. The famous photo essays of Smith, Country Doctor, Story form Minamata, Eisnstaedt’s famous VJ day image, White's first cover of the Hoover Dam, Capa’s war reportage and so many more. Magazines like Life in America, Picture Post in England, Biz in Germany and Vu in France, were just some of the outlets for the new breed of photographers who took advantage of the hand held camera to engage in the art of story telling through images…reportage. Life popularized the photo essay and emphasized pictures that tell stories.

America moved on and focus began to change, readership diminished as a generation brought up on the immediacy of television and airplane travel found the photo-essay an inadequate and worn out experience.

This affected the ability of the photographer to get his images to such a large audience but it had little effect on the hand held camera. The small 35mm camera with its ability to shoot with available light gained in popularity of photographers of all genres. It became an extension of the artist, a flexible tool that could be taken anywhere and capture images of subjects in just about any venue.

One photographer took his on a road trip across America, Robert Frank used his small camera to capture America with its flags, televisions, jukeboxes and roadside attractions. He established a new iconography composed of bits of bus depots, lunch counters, strip developments and funerals. Frank was followed by Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, all testing the line between reportage and personal expression. The subjective realism/documentary style of Kline, snapshots of the social landscape with Winogrand and Friedlander’s urban landscape, the small 35mm camera was a vital extension of the photographers eye.

With the new documents and the social landscape exhibitions, photography became more complex and sophisticated. Trends towards personal journalism started to appear. Some, like Arbus, and Winogrand, used the guise of reportage to present a highly subjective view of the world. The demise of the picture magazines meant new vehicles for a new generation of photographers and their hand held cameras. Images can be found in books and exhibitions as frequently as it is reproduced as news.

As we traveled through Structuralism, Postmodernism and beyond, the hand-held camera has taken its place in the photographic arena, film or digital it is a tool for all artist to use, not only for the capture of information, but self-expression and the creative process.


As long as we try to make sense of being on this planet we will continue to collect, as the hunter/gatherer, images and works of art that depict the human condition. This reportage or trying to tell our story by using images will continue and evolve as we do.

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