→ November 2006 Contents → Column
The Inside Story and Classic Photos of UPI Newspictures
The new book Picture This!: The Inside Story and Classic Photos of UPI Newspictures (Bulfinch Press, 2006), was organized and written by Gary Haynes, a former UPI photographer. It's good to finally have a volume on the photographs and photographers of United Press International. Earlier books have been about the news writers and failing business side of the company. Walter Cronkite wrote the foreword.
Like some other books of assembled images it is a smorgasbord of work. The concept can be fun and engaging. The reader goes from humor to tragedy within pages. The book is definitely not a downer.
There is a short history of UPI Newspictures. It began as United Press Associations, a creation of E.W. Scripps, in 1907. The much older Associated Press (1848) had refused to sell its news stories to several of his papers. Scripps believed that news should be available to anyone, including his competitors.
Gary Haynes writes that United Press became the only privately-owned major news service in the world at a time the world news scene was dominated by The AP in the U.S.A. and by news agencies abroad directly or indirectly controlled by their respective governments: Reuters in Britain, Havas in France and Wolff in Germany.
Around the 1920s papers were increasing interested in publishing pictures to expand their audiences and, thus, their advertising dollars. The Associated Press began mailing photos to its member papers in 1927. UP had no photo service until 1952, when it absorbed Scripps' Acme Newsphotos. All this was long after Europeans had experimented and perfected the wireless transmission of photographs. (In 1907, German Prof. Alfred Korn's "Photographic Fac-Simile Telegraph" picture of the German Crown Prince appeared on the cover of Scientific American.)
Haynes includes a description of the inauguration of the AP's Wirephoto system on Jan. 1, 1935. The Scripps and Hearst organizations, along with Wide World, owned by The New York Times, were each working on their own version of a "Wirephoto" machine.
By 1936, Acme Newsphotos (owned by Scripps) had developed its own machines. They were more sophisticated and reliable than AP's, and capable of better quality, Haynes writes. In 1958, UP and Hearst's International New Service came together and UPI was born.
The UPI operation faded and the picture operation was stripped of its best assets by a desperate administration that looked for cash through the sale of the overseas arm and, most astonishingly, the picture library. As one of the owners said tellingly, "Who cares about a damn picture library?"
The book does, however, have some drawbacks. I found that I wanted to know so much more about the photo operation and about the goals of the organization. The text seemed to dwell too much on the competition with the AP—there is even a chapter titled, "UPI versus AP." Certainly they were rivals for the same market and the UPI/AP race had to be explained because, among other things, each drove the other to push harder, get there first and make better photographs. Beyond that though, the text seems to have a negative tone: "AP was one thing but we were not."
What was UPI's relationship with the history it passed through and what in retrospect is that relationship now? UPI also had many great journalists; the book might have been stronger had a writer handled the text and Mr. Haynes the images, as journalist Peter Arnett has done for the AP.
The all-black-and-white offering creates a cohesive look to the book but slights those whose color work was outstanding even in the early days of its use. And, perhaps I lost my sense of humor somewhere during the Vietnam War, but the captions often begin with corny phrases: "Hula Hoop Hubbub," "Man, oh, Mannequin" (undressed female mannequins getting "the once-over" by a boy mannequin), "Weather or the Dress?" (a photograph of a serious Queen Elizabeth in a frilly dress and a laughing President Reagan—she was commenting on California's bad weather), and one that creates a grimace for both photo and caption, "Uh—guys!" (a female nudist standing within the ranks of the male press photographers aims her Instamatic as the men do their Nikons during the Miss Nude America pageant). To be sure there are great photographs from WWII, Vietnam and Kennedy's funeral with perfectly fine captions.
One point I am trying to make is that the choices made sometimes undermine UPI's fine work. The staff at UPI overcame the odds and their photographs show the high regard in which they held photojournalism. Their legacy of news images is one that young photojournalists should endeavor to know and emulate.
© Marianne Fulton
Back to November 2006 Contents