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Things as They AreReview - Things as They Are
Photojournalism in Context Since 1955
by Mary Panzer
Aperture, 2007
Review by Meryl Spiegel
May 20th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 21)

Reviewing this ambitious survey of photojournalism since 1955 presents a challenge for anyone, photographer or not, who sits down to digest its 400 pages. Borrowing its title, Things As They Are, from a quote by Sir Francis Bacon which served as documentary photographer Dorothea Lange's favorite motto, the volume sets out to canvas the changing face of photojournalism spanning 50 years through 2005.  In most cases, one or two photo essays have been chosen to represent a given year. In the preface, Michiel Munneke, managing director of World Press Photo and its chairman Gerrit Jan Wolffensperger state, "it is not intended to be 'the best', but rather to tell the story of photojournalism through the selection of published features."

At the outset, the enormity of the publication's mission is immediately reflected by the heaviness of the book. Staring at the cover image of three masked youths bending over to grab and throw small objects at the viewer, I asked myself, "is this the way things are?" The only answer I was able to summon is it depends on where one is standing and when one happened to be standing there. Leafing through the pages, I searched for more information about the photograph and finally discovered (on the back flap) that the photograph, entitled Youths Practice Throwing Contact Bombs, was taken in Manimbo, Nicaragua in June, 1978 by Susan Meiselas. Based on the physical violence that has been erupting in so many pockets of the globe since 1955 and the barrage of images and information assaulting us daily on television and the Internet since that time, I conclude that this image is apropos to epitomize Things As They Are. 

Venturing further, the tome is divided into five ten-year periods including When Magazines Were Big, The Vietnam Era, Heroes and Anti-Heroes, New World Order, and Rise of the Reporter Artist. Within each section a myriad of photo-essays from around the world have been selected. Truly international, the book features many photojournalists and magazines that were unfamiliar to me as an American. Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain's '66 black & white essay published in Du, a Swiss cultural magazine, mirroring the harbor city of Valparaiso is a case in point. Another intriguing example is the gentle reportage by Hiroji Kubota exploring Bangkok in '76 for Japan's left-wing monthly journal Sekai.

Juxtaposed to these exotic spreads, however, familiar American ground is duly represented. Examples include the well-worn images of the Kennedy Assassination by Abraham Zapruder, published in Life in '66; and the waist-high portraits of men and women who constituted the '76 political landscape by Richard Avedon, originally published in Rolling Stone.

Moreover, many iconic photographers such as Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Eugene Smith, and Mary Ellen Mark are featured yet the work chosen is not their common fare; in other words, their "most famous" work, repeatedly anthologized in photographic journals. A prime example is Cartier-Bresson's surprising color series on China struggling as a new nation which appeared in Life in '59. A longtime fan of the legendary French photographer, I wasn't aware of his color work until perusing Things As They Are. According to the text introducing the essay, he later destroyed most of his color transparencies.

Another extraordinary entry for the same year presents W. Eugene Smith's series on Pittsburgh entitled Labrynthian Walk. Upon retiring from Life, Smith struggled with the independent project for four years until it finally covered 38 pages in Popular Photography. However, because he considered it a failure, the series has rarely been shown since.

Although Smith's rich black & white signature is apparent on the page, the five spreads from the original magazine are encapsulated on just two pages minimizing his stunning imagery. Unfortunately, similar problems pervade the layout of many of the photo-essays; often they are crammed onto the page making them difficult to absorb and appreciate.

While this survey is expertly researched and provokes deep thought regarding photojournalism as it has grown, changed and perhaps outlived itself, I found the graphic design dense and distracting from its impressive content.  Things As They Are serves well as a reference tool for academic study or photography aficionados. However, its folios are far too crowded and visually demanding for the average eye.

© 2008 Meryl Spiegel

Meryl Spiegel is a fine art and documentary photographer who also teaches English and Writing at Dowling College in Oakdale, NY. Her photographic work has been shown in museums, galleries and libraries on Long Island. In addition, she has contributed numerous feature articles to the New York Times - Long Island section. Website address:


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