Focus On History


For my last birthday, Shelly and Ron gave me “Eyewitness – 150 years of Photojournalism” by Richard Lacayo and George Russell. Published by Time magazine this covers the history of such photography up to 1995.

The book is a collection of important pictures stitched together by a series of erudite essays from the two writers. I finished reading it today and found it fascinating. Some of the images were familiar to me, but many were not. What I have chosen to feature here is necessarily idiosyncratic, but I hope it will provide a flavour.

Boulevard du Temple, Paris 1839

I start, as does the book, with ‘the first known photograph of a human being’. Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre exposed this image of Boulevard du Temple, Paris in 1839. Because, in those early days, exposure times were several minutes, any moving thing, such as carriages, horses, or pedestrians would pass on by without leaving a trace. Except for the man standing still for long enough to have his boot polished. Can you spot him?

The Crawlers c1876-77

Some early photographers set out to expose social ills. John Thompson made his picture ‘The Crawlers’ in about 1876-77. ‘Crawlers’ “were poor people so malnourished they would literally crawl to fetch water for the hot tea on which they chiefly subsisted. This woman held a small child all day for its mother, who had found a job in a coffee shop.”

Street Arabs at Night 1889

Jacob Riis’s ‘Street Arabs at Night’ in about 1889 slept on “warm spots around the grated vent-holes” in New York’s Lower Manhattan.

Important events could now be recorded. We are told that in 1908 James Hare “had taken a picture that proved the Wright brothers’ plane could fly”. At that time we still believed that the camera could not lie.

Yalta Conference? 1990

However, certainly by 1990, when Paul Higden  produced ‘Yalta Conference?’, which included “some latter-day gatecrashers”, we had become disillusioned.

A number of photographers brought back images of combatants in the American Civil War, but it was neither technically possible nor seen to be desirable to photograph the action.

British artillerymen 1917

That had to wait until World War 1 when an unidentified photographer produced this painterly picture of ‘British artillerymen feed[ing] an 8-inch howitzer’.

Normandy invasion on D-Day 6.6.42

Robert Capa was there with his camera for the ‘Normandy invasion on D-Day’, 6th June, 1944. Unfortunately the is one of only a few images of this event that were saved, most of the others having been destroyed in a dark-room accident.

In 1947 Capa, with David Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, William and Rita Vandivert, and George Rodger formed that prestigious photography group, Magnum.


The Cartier-Bresson picture I have chosen for this piece does not feature in this book. It comes in the form of a postcard sent to me by Giles. The image is of a typically candid shot from this photographer, at the Brasserie Lipp in Paris, taken in 1969.

Bangladesh 1971

A later member of Magnum was Don McCullin. In the 1960s and ’70s he “became one of the best- known chroniclers of war and misery”. This picture demonstrates the sensitivity that this man exemplified.

Joseph Goebbels 1933

I have selected two images by Alfred Eisenstaedt which book-end WW2. It is amazing that he managed to walk away unscathed when he photographed Joseph Goebbels at a League of Nations Assembly in Geneva in 1933. A year or two later it would surely have been a different story.

Mother and Child at Hiroshima 1945

I’d rather witness the hate of Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda than the devastation of this ‘Mother and child at Hiroshima’ that Eisenstaedt portrayed in 1945.

Migrant mother 1936

Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant mother’ from a California migrant workers’ camp in March 1936 “is one of the best-known icons of the Dust Bowl era”.

Suicide 1942

Finally, who, old enough, could examine Russell Sorgi’s 1942 ‘Suicide’, without being transported back to 9/11?

This evening we finished our Chinese takeaway meal.


  1. What a gift for you – the photographer. The portraits of mothers (or surrogates) with children and of the children huddled of the grate are harrowing.

  2. Harrowing! While this is one of the great contributions of the camera – exposing the circumstances of those who suffer – although one photo at a time is enough for me to bear…….. I appreciated the humour in the ’69 Parisian cafe shot – now that took me back!

  3. Powerful images. The Migrant Mother is one I’ve seen quite a bit. It tells a story. An exceptional shot. The Genesee Hotel suicide happened in Buffalo, NY. I’d heard of it there. Thanks, Derrick. That was quite a gift.

  4. Very informative, Derrick. I do wonder at the kind of mind that can coolly take a photograph of a person committing suicide. It reminds me of some lines from Auden’s poem, “Musée Des Beaux Arts” :
    [Horror] takes place
    While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along….

    1. Nice link, Cynthia. Thank you. One of the early war photographers took a picture of a soldier cradling an abandoned baby and said that all the time he felt he shouldn’t be there. But of course he is exactly the kind of person who should. The suicide photographer is of course different.

  5. That really puts us happy snappers in our places. I will endeavour to find more meaningful images. Unfortunately there will be too too many people sleeping in the streets tonight in the city of Sydney.

    1. I’ve always avoided taking pictures of homeless people, because it feels so intrusive, when I don’t have the pioneering altruistic motive. However, the book is inspirational in the way that you mean. Thanks, Mary

  6. These images make us stop and ponder the human circumstance rather more than the self-indulgent selfies we tend to see these days!

  7. That first picture I think I can see two others besides the mangettig his boots shined; there seems to ba fait outline of the person shining the boots and just across from these there appears to be someone in what could be a wheelchair.
    Then again perhaps I’m going bonkers and seeing things XD
    That Goebbels picture sent a shiver down my spine, what a vile creature he was,
    Mighty powerful pictures , thanks for sharing.

    1. Not bonkers. I think you are definitely right about the polisher, but I stayed with what the writer highlighted. Apparently Alfred Eisenstaedt said afterwards that Goebbels expected him to wither, but he didn’t because when he had a camera in his hand he felt no feat. Thanks, Brian

      1. There must BE a boot-polisher there, even if he doesn’t show clearly. I thought the wheelchair looked like a knife-grinding machine, probably not uncommon on French Streets in the 1830s. If so, there must be a knife-grinder (person) to go with it, unless the boot-polisher doubled up!
        While the grim pictures are compelling, I found the Daguerre the most interesting: Lenses of the time always seemed to produce jaw-droppingly sharp images (due to both the exposure-time/narrow aperture and their sheer size), yet this picture looks quite painterly. I guess the shadows have had time to shift during the shot, hence are slightly blurred in a naturalistic way. Also, the texturing at the upperright may be caused by the fact that Daguerrotypes had polished surfaces (you have to view them at an angle, as you can do with more modern negatives against a black background, to show them as positives), so it may have been impossible to photograph them for reproduction without part of the plate reflecting.

  8. Of all the paintings from different periods of time, I have come to love (with empathy) instead photographs that represent the starkness of Life. The mother and child, after Hiroshima’s devastation, and the Crawler who cares all day for baby, while mother works but existed on tea, both made me sad. The Dust Bowl photograph is one which I certainly agree, is “iconic”representing the Midwest and lack of rain or crops. Thanks, Derrick for the choices you shared.
    PS. I did see the figure of man getting his shoes polished.

  9. Brilliant post Derrick. I need to find a copy of this book. Most of these pictures are the product of an uncomplicated and highly connected relationship with what the power of photography can be, The street children looking for warmth and the ‘Crawler’ picture are so disturbing. The simple, pure power of a photographic image. Thanks very much for this post. Alex

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  11. A lovely birthday present. Memories fade and fail… in that way, photos “do not” lie …
    Can you spot him? I was about to say no, then I did. 🙂

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