Worthy Pictures

Selected Newspaper Press Photographs from the W.M. Hunt Collection

Worthy: having or showing the qualities or abilities that merit recognition in a specified way, as in "issues worthy of further consideration.”*

It comes as some surprise that someone is actually reported to be the source of the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” In 1921, one Frederick R. Barnard was talking about advertising and made the statement about how much “one look” was worth. He seems also have indicated that a Japanese philosopher may have said as much many, many years before, but his phrase stuck, and he was talking about photographs. 

What we have here at the ArtYard are “worthy” pictures, deemed so by this writer who is also the collector of record and organizer of this particular selection of prints. These works are part of larger photography collection but were chosen and are here because that seemed like a … worthy idea, as in “worthy of further consideration.” 

As the writer/collector/curator here, I want to call these “press prints.” Basically, I mean that they are gelatin-silver photographs—black and white. Mid-nineteenth-century newspapers used photographs as the basis for illustrations that were halftone gravures. The first photomechanical reproduction of a photograph published in an American newspaper appeared in The Daily Graphic (New York 1873–89) on March 4, 1880. Forty years later (!) New York's Illustrated Daily News began to feature photographs routinely. Change came quickly with lighter cameras and faster lenses and the advent of photojournalism.

This expanded further when newspapers started publishing photographs that initially “came over the wires,” that were transmitted over telephone or telegraph wires, sent by a photographer in the field back to the newspaper. The invention of wire service telecommunication was a technical miracle of the early twentieth century. Western Union transmitted its first halftone photograph in 1921. 

Eventually, a photographic print would be produced that would get marked up, cropped and highlighted—in black ink or with white for contrast—and a caption would be pasted on the back side usually with the who, what, where, and when, and, most importantly, what wire service to credit: Acme Newspictures, Associated Press, etc. 

Rarely was the actual photographer’s name included.

This anonymity makes these “press photographs” or “press prints” a candidate for inclusion in the field of “vernacular photography.” The word “vernacular” is used to mean “ordinary” or “everyday” and often “found,” but not amateur, especially in the case of these press prints, which were usually made by skilled and experienced photographers. Their authorship got lost along the way, and most often, too, their context or meaning. Most of these images were intended as documentation or illustration. 

That history does not interest me. I am fascinated that the print has survived its own unique history of having been archived and overlooked or neglected, then surfacing more than a half century later on eBay or in a flea market. Most often the “whos”, etc., are lost. We get to consider the image for itself, not for any information such as identities of persons in the pictures or the names or significances of the events.

The photographs on view here are drawn from my Collection Dancing Bear and Collection Blind Pirate: the former “magical heart-stopping images of people in which their eyes are obscured” and the latter, American groups before 1950. This is the first time I have drawn from both for an exhibition. 

Look at these images on their own. The more enigmatic they are, the better. You may be a historian, but you don’t need the wall labels. Try to see and respond. I like these images’ weirdnesses and their unlikeliness. Why did a print get saved? We can make up our own story or stories. 

I offer you the pleasure of looking and reacting, at these worthy pictures. 

It is all very basic and worthwhile, this seeing business. 


W.M. Hunt © 2019


And here are some subsequent thoughts about the installation.

And how? by W.M. Hunt

The empty wall is the curator’s challenge.  How do you fill it and make it meaningful, entertaining, even provocative, hopefully memorable.  How do you make it service the material, and how does one edit and shape the material so it is appropriate to the audience.  

The who, what, where, when and why of these works is intentionally left unanswered. I am not offering the audience any context, any outside information.  I want you to look.  What do you see?  What is this —  for you?

And how they fit together and are placed on the wall, that’s my job, after and while choosing them.  

As a collector, I carry around the collection in my head.  It’s like a Rolodex, remember those?  Images drift in and out of your minds eye.

For “Worthy Pictures," I liked my title and the premise that all these images should be worth the audience’s consideration.  

But how did I put them together?

The process — what goes where — isn't orderly, everything happens simultaneously.  In some respects, it is like a giant game of Concentration, trying to turn over pairs of matching cards.  What goes where?  How many should there be?  How do you hang them on the wall?  What goes with what?  It may not be obvious but there is a very conscious structuring in how I arranged these photographs.  Hopefully you feel some assurance that for all of its seeming randomness, there was a grand plan.

My sense of the audience at the ArtYard was and is that they bring a level of experience and sophistication to their visit.  It is a very conscious choice for someone to go to a place like The ArtYard.  

That said I wanted to be respectful but playful.  I was committed to including the drowning victim, the floating corpse photo.  It has a whole life as a rude abstraction.  It was always going to be the button to the music, the period at the end of the sentence.

I love nightclub or circus press image of the blindfolded bear walking up two ladders — it’s mean and sad and funny.  I am attracted to the images of dense crowds — rallies— numbered line ups, and political pieces.  Also I wanted to place graphically strong works as structural supports — in the corners and the middle.

There are a couple of familiar iconic works: Tom Howard photograph of Ruth Snyder (the first U.S.woman executed; DEAD! proclaimed The Daily News) and Weegee’s gangsters arrested for bribery.  He is the king of this genre.  I like when there are no explanatory captions; you must react to the images.  With the Ruth Snyder, most people recognize the story, and the Weegee has been reproduced often in a range of variants.

Then the fun comes — the big crowd at Coney Island and Marines coming ashore in New Guinea, the kicky news pictures with the black rectangles placed over the eyes to conceal identities.  

When you lay it all out on paper, a matrix starts to form and the process of moving things around.  Adding or subtraction are both aesthetic and intuitive.  

It makes sense to me.  And that’s how you do it.  

© W.M.Hunt 2019