Black Star: A Piece of Europe in New York

(In honor of Black Star’s 75th anniversary, Black Star Rising is publishing occasional excerpts from Hendrik Neubauer’s 1996 profile of the agency, Black Star: 60 Years of Photojournalism. Here, Neubauer describes Black Star’s role in bringing European talent to the U.S. media.)

Shortly after its founding in 1936, Life Magazine chose Black Star as one of its main suppliers of pictures. Life’s chief picture editor at that time described Black Star’s contribution to the magazine thus: “We discovered we needed Black Star more than they needed us.”

While this statement pays tribute to the work of Black Star’s founders, its bias is not justified. The agency needed Life to the same extent. Its work for Life made up almost one-quarter of its total volume of business.

A Who’s Who of Photojournalism

Meanwhile, emigre photojournalists needed Black Star as a means of gaining access to Life, which offered a competition-free stage for photojournalism in the European tradition at a time when the amount of work available was not great.

The list of those who in the early years signed a contract with Black Star reads like a Who’s Who of photojournalism in the following decades: Walter Bosshard, Robert Capa, Ralph Crane, Herbert Gehr, Fritz Goro, Andreas Feininger, Ernst Haas, Philippe Halsmann, Fritz Henle, Younokuke Natori, Lennart Nilsson, Walter Sanders, Fred Stein, Werner Wolff.

The mainly Jewish emigrants possessed qualities which distinguished them from their American colleagues. Many of them had completed an academic training in subject areas other than photography and had traveled widely. They were all conversant with 35mm cameras. Furthermore, because of their work for the large European magazines, they possessed a journalistic feel for realizing picture essays.

For the emigres, Black Star was a piece of Europe in the middle of New York. Here there were no problems with making oneself understood or with being an outsider. Agents and photographers had the common goal of getting photojournalism accepted in America as a form of visual reporting.

The office doors were wide open for all emigres. Some, like Robert Capa, only stayed for a few weeks, while others, like Fritz Goro, signed contracts for four years.

Goro: “I Felt Exploited”

Goro, who later succeeded in becoming world famous as a scientific and medical photographer, recalls this period with mixed feelings:

It was really an incredible collection of talented people and they lost us all. And they lost us … because of how a picture agency has to be structured … all of this is very expensive. They were sort of forced, maybe against their will because they were nice people, to exploit us. And I felt exploited. They sort of wanted to impress the editors of this new magazine [Life] by having very good but very inexpensive photographers.

Once he had joined Black Star in 1936, Goro received a guaranteed monthly income for his work like other photographers. This was equally true of the period after a road accident which left him unable to work for practically a whole year.

As a result, when he resumed work he was facing a mountain of debts, but he made a very promising beginning with numerous contract jobs for Life. In 1938 Black Star sent Goro to Canada on a freelance project on a fascist organization. He achieved a journalistic coup which led to the arrest of several members once the story had been published in Life.

Black Star billed the pictures in the routine fashion immediately after their publication. However, Goro was subsequently of the opinion that his agents had wasted the opportunity of selling the pictures as an exclusive, for which they would have been able to demand a considerably higher royalty.

This example shows the complicated relationship between agent and photographer, which is often characterized by latent mistrust. Goro’s success with Life made it possible for him in the long term to work directly for the magazine. In 1944 he became a staff photographer for Life for the next 27 years.

Crane: “Stories … Well Sold”

The emigre Ralph Crane and the American W. Eugene Smith provide a completely contrary example. They number among the photographers who were contracted to Black Star for many years. Crane worked for the agency from 1941 to 1951 and still enthused decades later over the creative working atmosphere. He said Black Star helped him

…tremendously by supplying excellent ideas for picture stories and did a great job in selling them. About 80 percent of these stories were well sold. I am really grateful for everything they did for me. In fact this is one reason I stayed almost 10 years with them even though I had the possibility to join the Life staff much earlier than I did.

However, Crane succumbed to the attraction, reputation and large wallet of the Life editorial offices and in 1951 he joined them as a contract photographer.

The healthy relationship between Black Star and Life lasted for decades, although the practice of “stealing away” remained a constant thorn in the agency’s flesh — as Smith joined Crane in working directly for Life in the 1950s.

The experience of Goro and Crane points to differences in the relationship between photographer and agent. But for these and countless other photographers, Black Star represented a milestone on the route to success. Observes current Black Star president Ben Chapnick,

The agency function, despite the change in the marketplace, is still the same. For some photographers, such a relationship works; for others it doesn’t. Different stages of a photographer’s career, combined with their temperament and interests, will determine which avenue they seek.

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