I love looking at old magazines. They feel like little time capsules, as they are a mix of pop culture and bite-sized info that publications thought the general public wanted at any given time. I also find it fascinating what used to be considered acceptable and seeing the wax and wane of liberated and conservative expression over the decades.
They were also the main way people consumed what we call “life pro tips” in modern times. It’s also what we looked at in the bathroom instead of Reddit.
As photographers, those old photo mags serve as a manual of how those before us captured an image. Sometimes they are the only sources we have left of the old ways. At the forefront of this casual consumption of photo knowledge in the 20th century was Popular Photography: The Google of photo information in the western world.
In this TOC Xtra article, we take a look back in time through the very first issue of Popular Photography, to see how it all began.
The first Issue of Popular Photography was introduced in May 1937 and published by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company in Chicago Illinois. To give some perspective, 1937 marked the year of the Hindenburg disaster, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and saw the release of classics like Snow White in theatres and the publication of The Hobbit. The average House cost $4,100 US dollars, and gas was .10 cents a gallon. Of course, people only made an average of $1,800 bucks a year as well (about $32,000 in 2020 money).
Let’s take a look at a few interesting things I found.
First off, the cover.
The first issue had a colour cover, and promised to “answer all questions about photography” The photo featured is a woman in the shower, drying herself off…in full makeup of course.
The letter by the editor says that the shower has “gold plated fixtures, a raised bathtub and cost over $10,000.” So in 1937 standards that is 1.3 houses. Well, one thing is for certain, no one in their right mind is going to pay that much for a golden shower.
On page twenty three, they take you into a well illustrated and behind the scenes breakdown of the cover shot. The photo was taken by Stanley Young, who also invented, designed and built the camera, which is referred to as a direct colour camera.
The reason this camera was such a big deal was because to make a colour photo in the early days you required three separate images with respective colour filters that you would then stack after developing. I actually did a whole video on this if you want to check that out.
“The chief advantage of a one-shot camera is that it enables a photographer to catch action. In this particular shot fast action was necessary, since certain negatives were made with the shower running. Even when the shower was not running, as was the case with the cover picture, the drops of water were running down the models figure very fast and had to be stopped.”
The photo was taken at f/11 and a flash sync speed of 1/75th of a second.
The next thing I found interesting were the casual displays of violence. The two examples I present are on pages seven and twenty-seven.
In the article, “Exciting Experiences of a Newspaper Photographer”, it shows two photos of men who’d been shot by an assassin. The first is Mayor Gaynor of New York in 1910 after an attempt on his life, and the second is of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who took a bullet, by accident mind you, intended for President Roosevelt. Cermak died of his wound.
On page twenty-seven, something even more grim, in the article “Catching Crooks with a Camera.”
Something we take advantage of today is the aid photos have in proving events, they are widely accepted as admissible. But in the early 20th century, when they were trying to convict Robert Dreamer in the death of 17 year old Thelma Young, this photo was initially objected by the defendant, but ultimately put Dreamer in the electric chair.
Lightening things up, let’s talk advertising. Modern advertising is incredibly invasive. But the old ads have a charm to them. Maybe because I’m a man out of its time and therefore I can see it from a safe viewing point, but more likely because it’s not rammed down my throat in the form of an unskippable video or notification on my phone. Here are a couple examples.
First, by Agfa:
You might be interested in...
“Ever miss a picture you want to get? You Needn’t, if you keep your camera loaded with Agfa Plenachrome Film, the guaranteed film!”
“Plenachrome gives you better pictures under any conditions, and good pictures even under conditions you formerly thought impossible. It’s high speed, wide latitude, high color sensitivity and remarkably accurate rendering of light values prove a definite help in getting better results every time.”
“Be ready next time with Agfa Plenachrome film, the film with that extra margin of quality. Every roll is sold with the guarantee of Pictures that satisfy or a new roll free”
This one is from the NYIP:
“Photography offers you big opportunities. Get into this profitable field! Cash in on the growing demand for expert photographers! Enjoy a fascinating, profitable career. We give you individual, practical training that will qualify you as an expert in commercial, news, portrait, advertising, or motion picture photography. Personal attendance or home study courses. 27th year. Write for a free booklet.”
I like this one from Rollei:
“Automatically responsive to the photographer’s slightest touch, Rolleiflex and Rolleicord Cameras provide constant dividends in the shape of better pictures more easily arrived at. Their ultra-luminous focusing finder lenses create a needle sharp and erect image on the ground glass finder, in actual film size, affording you a definite preview of your ultimate photograph. A number of other unique features which are rigidly protected against patent infringement provide remarkable ease in operation and absolute precision in performance.”
Moving on to the actual meat of the magazine, we now take a look at what this issue offered the 1930’s photographer. Here is one that caught my eye.
My Experiences as a Model by Naomi Anderson:
Naomi Anderson talks about being a model in her own words. I love this article because she wrote it. It’s her account of her beginnings as a model, conflicts with her family over her choice, body positivity, and avoiding amateurs and scumbags.
“And then came my first experience at posing in flimsy underclothes. This was what my mother had disliked, what I had disliked, too, and I must confess that the thought of posing that way before a strange man made me quite nervous and I flushed with embarrassment. And then, when I finally stood there, I saw that the photographer wasn’t seeing me as a woman at all, but mearly a part of the days work. To him, I was just something to be photographed, nothing more. I reminded myself that I had gone into this thing with my eyes wide open, as a means of making a decent living; and when I saw that to him it was also a matter of business and nothing else, I forgot my mortification, smiled at my squeamishness and went ahead and posed.”
A story she tells later about a photographer for a national magazine, didn’t go very well though.
“He asked me to undress for nude posing. I explained that I was unwilling to pose in the nude, but that I would be willing to pose in underclothes. I did not care for the way he handled himself and decided to leave the studio. The situation was getting rather awkward and I remarked, with sly seriousness, that it would be quite a front page story were I to jump out of his studio window dressed how I was. This brought him back to his senses, or at least frightened him, so that I was able to leave without further difficulty.”
Besides in depth articles like this, there are also a lot of How-to’s in here. How to Pose your subject, how to take better pictures, how to take cave pictures, How to make a flood light. One of the truly interesting DIY’s was Building a Portable Enlarger.
When it comes to building, I am all thumbs. I break anything I attempt to fix with few exceptions and anyone who’s watched me build darkrooms over the last couple years knows they’re janky at best. So this is all gibberish to me. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the importance of this, as it would still be relevant for film photographers today.
And this has been a fascinating look into Popular Photography’s first issue, published over eighty years ago. How much of this do you think would fly today? Not very much I’d imagine, but maybe I’m wrong. When I go through these back issues I can’t help but feel so much has stayed the same.
If you enjoyed this little look back, be sure and check out the companion video on my You Tube channel, and until next time, stay classic 🙂
Share your knowledge, story or project
The transfer of knowledge across the film photography community is the heart of EMULSIVE. You can add your support by contributing your thoughts, work, experiences and ideas to inspire the hundreds of thousands of people who read these pages each month. Check out the submission guide here.
If you like what you're reading you can also help this passion project by heading over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page and contributing as little as a dollar a month. There's also print and apparel over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique photographs available for purchase.
Late last year I made a video about the first issue and there’s a few more scans to see, check it out!