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The Picture Snatchers

June 2024
6min read

Their unwilling subjects considered the tabloid photographers pushy and boorish. But they felt they were upholding a grand democratic tradition.

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. . . .”


In one of the most celebrated incidents involving privacy and press photography, Charles Lindbergh fled the country with his family in 1935; commentators blamed their departure on tabloid photographers, who had smothered the couple with attention from the time of Lindbergh’s historic flight through the kidnapping and murder of their infant son. Even after the trial of the baby’s abductor, cameramen persisted—and finally succeeded—in trying to “snatch” pictures of their surviving son, Jon, despite the Lindberghs’ strenuous efforts to keep the child out of the limelight.

The tug-of-war between press photographers and their unwilling subjects has continued to replay itself in well-publicized lawsuits such as the one Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis brought against Ron Galella. But less attention has been paid to a struggle more central to the daily lives of newspaper photographers: the unrelenting pressure to come up with dramatic pictures to fill the papers.


During the picture tabloid’s heyday—roughly the years between the close of World War I and the 1950s Cold War era—most big cities supported several newspapers. Press photographers struggled amid intense competition to produce work that was sensational and exclusive. The only unpardonable sin was to come back empty-handed. “Having got a man and a camera on the spot,” wrote the British press photographer Norman K. Harrison in 1957, “the newspaper . . . expects that man to produce the pictures.” He could have been talking about 1911, 1924, or even the present. This pressure not only contributed to the photographer’s reputation as a boor who pushed his way in where he was not wanted but also led to disreputable practices like picture faking (using models to re-enact events), picture snatching (ambushing unwilling subjects), and composography (superimposing one person’s head on another’s body to create a scene that never took place). While stunning, unposed news photographs such as the flaming crash of the Hindenburg might win prizes, the bulk of a press photographer’s job involved covering press conferences, publicity stunts, and the like. Even photographs of blood-spattered crime scenes immortalized not the crimes themselves but their aftermaths.

The capable, workmanlike photographer could always come back with something; the great photographer was the one who could turn mundane assignments into something extraordinary. It is no accident that newspaper photographers refer not to taking pictures but to making them, for in reality most of the thousands of photographs that have found their way into newspapers over the years have been manipulated in one way or another by elaborate staging or by other less dramatic means.

This inventiveness is an aspect of the job that press photographers have always been proud of. Among the most outspoken is Louis Liotta, a forty-eight-year veteran at the New York Post whose style was honed at a time when New York City had dozens of daily English- and foreign-language newspapers. Liotta still brags about his ability to bring back a picture no matter how slim the pickings or fierce the competition. It was a lesson he absorbed from a master—his first mentor in the mid-thirties, the archetypal tabloid lensman, Weegee. “Weegee was a great photographer,” Liotta recalled when I spoke with him in 1988. “Before he made a picture, he thought about making a picture. He would think of a hot weather picture a week before it got hot, see. He didn’t wait for the night it got hot. It would be maybe seventy degrees so he’d talk a woman into taking her three kids and putting them in their underwear shorts and he’d put a pillow and a sheet out on the fire escape, and he made his picture.”

Liotta claims he was there when Weegee made his now-famous picture The Critic , which juxtaposed two haughty, bejeweled socialites with a ragged beggar woman. “He took a bum, he gave her five or six bucks, bought her a meal, put her in this tattered old coat, ‘cause he knew the finery would be up at the opera. And he’d stick her close enough to them and at the proper moment he moved her in there and he made his picture.” In his published account of the incident, Weegee did not contradict Liotta’s story; he simply described the emergence of the two socialites from their car, without referring at all to the shabby woman who made the picture a classic.

For Weegee, who did his own printing, making a picture began at the scene and continued in the darkroom. “From one negative sometimes he’d make three different prints and make them look different, and sell them to three different papers,” Liotta recalled. “One he’d make it almost look like daylight was coming in. Another one he would burn it in and make it all night, you know. He was great!”

Liotta’s career dramatizes the changes that have swept the media and the practice of press photography. In the mid-1930s, when he was starting out, dozens of New York papers could use thousands of pictures every week. Today many of those papers are gone; most cities can support only a single newspaper, and New York City’s three remaining tabloids are fighting for their lives. Recently Liotta reflected that “it isn’t the old competitive style. Now you make the picture and by the time they put it in the paper and it comes out the next morning, TV’s got it. I saw this coming twenty years ago. That’s why I got my three sons into TV.”


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