photography, still: The Impact of New Technology

The development of the 35-mm or candid camera by Oskar Barnack of the Ernst Leitz company, first marketed in 1925, made documentarians infinitely more mobile and less conspicuous, while the manufacture of faster black-and-white film enabled them to work without a flash in situations with a minimum of light. Color film for transparencies (slides) was introduced in 1935 and color negative film in 1942. Portable lighting equipment was perfected, and in 1947 the Polaroid Land camera, which could produce a positive print in seconds, was placed on the market. All of these technological advances granted the photojournalist enormous and unprecedented versatility.

The advent of large-circulation picture magazines, such as Life (begun 1936) and Look (begun 1937), provided an outlet and a vast audience for documentary work. At the same time a steady stream of convulsive national and international events provided a wealth of material for the extended photo-essay, the documentarian's natural mode. One of these was the Great Depression of the 1930s, which proved to be the source of an important body of documentary work. Under the leadership of Roy Stryker, the photographic division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) began to make an archive of images of America during this epoch of crisis. Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, and Dorothea Lange of the FSA group photographed the cultural disintegration generated by the Depression and the concomitant disappearance of rural lifestyles.

With the coming of World War II photographers, including Margaret Bourke-White, Edward Steichen, W. Eugene Smith, Lee Miller, and Robert Capa, documented the global conflict. The war was a stimulus to photography in other ways as well. From the stress analysis of metals to aerial surveillance, the medium was a crucial tool in many areas of the war effort, and, in the urgency of war, numerous technological discoveries and advances were made that ultimately benefited all photographers.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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