The Picture Snatchers

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In 1928 the New York Daily News recruited Tom Howard, a Chicago Tribune photographer who was unknown to New York law-enforcement authorities. His assignment: Penetrate the death chamber at Sing Sing prison—off limits to cameramen—and record the electrocution of Ruth Snyder, a woman sentenced to the chair for the murder of her husband. The resulting picture, made with a pre-focused miniature camera strapped to Howard’s ankle, was splashed across page one on Friday, January 13, under the classically economical headline DEAD !

The gruesome image of Snyder’s death throes is unique in the history of press photography, yet in many ways the picture and the planning that went into it typify a form—the tabloid-style photograph—characterized variously by immediacy, irreverence, prurience, and humor.

 

Picture tabloids were heir to a philosophy that stretched back to the earliest mass-circulation newspapers. Journalists in this tradition saw themselves as crusaders serving the public’s “right to know,” and they justified their pushiness accordingly. The reporter George Flack in Henry James’s 1888 novelette The Reverberator spells out their democratic philosophy. “What the people want’s just what ain’t told, and I’m going to tell it,” he explains. “Oh they’re bound to have the plums! That’s about all played out, anyway, the idea of sticking up a sign of ‘private’ and ‘hands off’" /> and ‘no thoroughfare’ and thinking you can keep the place to yourself. . . . it ain’t going to continue to be possible to keep out anywhere the light of the Press. Now what I’m going to do is set up the biggest lamp yet made and to make it shine all over the place.”

 
 

That metaphorical lamp became a real one with the introduction of the photograph into newspaper journalism. A style of photography we would call journalistic had been practiced as early as the mid-nineteenth century; the Civil War photographs of Mathew Brady and the investigative work of Jacob Riis are well-known examples. But not until halftone technology permitted direct reproduction of photographs alongside text was it possible to publish photos in newspapers; until then newspapers could bring their readers images only through the medium of engravings. The halftone’s arrival was inauspicious: On March 14, 1880, a small, grainy picture of a shanty appeared in the New York Graphic . It was easily overlooked. Another seventeen years would pass before the technology evolved to permit the regular use of photographs in newspapers printed on high-speed rotary presses. After that the pace quickened.

 

By 1911 Editor & Publisher , the trade journal of the newspaper industry, reported that “the news photographer has become almost omnipresent. . . . The demand has become so great that practically all newspapers in cities of half a hundred thousand or above have their photographers. . . .” In 1919 the nation got its first picture newspaper—the New York Daily News . Imitators soon crowded the field. Newspapers that couldn’t afford their own photographers, or that wished to supplement their photo staffs’ output, could subscribe to any number of picture services.

The perception that photographs are somehow more real and therefore more invasive than the written word or the hand-engraved image gained currency quickly. As early as 1890, in “The Right to Privacy,” a groundbreaking article in the Harvard Law Review , the attorneys Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis acknowledged the special power of photography when combined with journalistic sensationalism: “Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the housetops.’”

By the 1930s armies of newspaper and wire-service photographers were a common sight at every ocean-liner arrival, crime scene, beauty pageant, major trial, and society event. Socialites, government officials, and hired flacks tried to control photographers’ access, but eager lens-men refused to stay behind real or imaginary lines. Concerns about privacy escalated and spread through all levels of society. After being acquitted of murdering her husband and his mistress in the notorious Hall-Mills murder case, Mrs. Frances Stevens Hall told reporters: “I don’t think it’s fair, or good Americanism . . . to make snapshot pictures of unwilling persons and print them. I think that is stealing, just as much as stealing one’s personal property. I think one’s personal appearance is one’s own. . . .”