Modernist Magazines and the Social Ideal

Modernist Magazines and the Social Ideal
by Tim Satterthwaite

Bloomsbury, Visual Arts Series, New York and London, 2020
304 p., illus. 102 b/w. Trade, £95.00
ISBN: 9781501341601.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
November 2020

The literature on the use of photography in interwar mass media magazines, in Europe as well as in the United States, is huge and still very thriving, but there are many good reasons to warmly welcome this excellent new contribution to the field. Unfortunately (and I apologize for this harsh opening, which will be the only negative observation of this review), one of these reasons cannot be the quality of its numerous reproductions. In spite of the quality of the paper (a strong and coated type of paper), most of the illustrations are difficult to read, both due to their small size and the poor quality of their reproduction. This is all the more unfortunate since most of these often spectacular images are less known to the non-specialist and will probably not be the subject of a new monograph in the years to come. One can only hope that the paperback reprint in one or two years will not make things worse.

The good news of the book is that it constitutes a real enrichment of our current knowledge on the field. Two aspects deserve to be highlighted in this regard.

First of all, Tim Satterthwaite has important things to say on the methodology of photo analysis in mass media. Any researcher will confirm the crucial importance of these two aspect: on the one hand the large amount of  the images available (certainly in the case of weeklies and monthlies that take the challenge to move from written to visual journalism, not to mention the fact that in this period there were literally thousands of new magazines that appeared, all competing for space in the newsstands or other distribution circuits); on the other hand the complexity of the material on hand (analyzing magazine pictures is not just analyzing pictures, but also analyzing their page layout and the manifold relationships with the written content of the publication, even if there is an unbalance between the large space taken by images and the smaller space devoted to the text). Given the difficulty of these two issues, one should not underestimate the vital importance of a simple and workable methodology to test the theoretical hypotheses that are at the basis of a research project. Satterthwaite solves these quantitative problems all photo-historians of mass culture images inevitable face by two qualitative decisions. On the hand he proposes a drastic reduction of the corpus, since only two magazines are studied, the German UHU and the French VU, both at the same time representative of the new Zeitgeist and very complementary in the field of the new mass media magazines. On the other hand, the author also relies upon a theory and above all a methodology that enable the efficient treatment of large quantities of image, namely the “pattern” approach, inspired by Gestalt psychology, which looks for recurring visual structures based on the acknowledgment of broad general organization principles that can easily identified even after a quick scan of the images. Key in this regard is the use of  very broad patterns, here even further reduced to two basic categories: first distributive patterns, which are defined as “irregular visual groupings”, p. 43, that is the unifying configuration of dissimilar elements (that of a human crowd, for instance), second geometric groupings, which depend on an already unified structure (that of organic or mineral life, for instance). Both structures eventually culminate in and “grids”, which will prove the leading visual lens and device of the visual analysis. Patterns, preferably grid-like, patterns, are however not the endpoint but the starting point of the analysis, since their successful or unsuccessful treatment helps verify the fundamental hypothesis of the book, namely the idea that the new magazines under scrutiny both defend, yet each in its way, a certain type of modernity as the technologically enhanced streamlining of postwar society, not as a scarecrow hinting at some kind of Big Brother society or bureaucratic standardization but as the perfect instrument to overcome human conflicts at an individual as well as a collective level. Technology and social organization are presented as the perfect pathway toward a more harmonious and happy society, at the microlevel of the family as well as the macrolevel of the nation. The study of the photographic language of the two magazines is then carried out in such a way that the progressive decline of this ideal becomes visible in the patterns of the images themselves, but also in those of the magazine’s layout and global composition, initially very harmoniously patterned, but eventually degenerating into more shattered structures with an often very gloomy content.

The second major achievement of the book, next to its sound and matter of fact methodology that is not afraid of reusing supposedly old-fashioned Gestalt models, is its new reading of the corpus. The innovation here is twofold. On the one hand, Satterthwaite compares two magazines which are definitely very close to each other, but which are rarely compared, not only because the German monthly UHU (1924-1934) has been less studied than the French weekly VU (1928-1940), but also because comparisons in this field often involve other publications, such as, somewhat stereotypically, the Berliner Illustrierter Zeitung. Modernist Magazines and the Social Ideal does not only disclose similarities between UHU and VU, but also differences, for instance in time (the German magazine is hit more rapidly by the economic crisis than the French magazine and its resistance to the spread of the fascist ideology is swifter yet tragically even more powerless than what can be observed in the French magazine), but also in ideology. On this last point, Satterthwaite’s study dramatically revises current scholarship. Not necessarily on UHU, which he analyzes as a good example of the new but eventually crashed optimism of the Weimar Republic, but certainly on VU, visually undeniably more progressive than UHU but whose left-leaning sympathies are here somewhat nuanced: Satterthwaite not only emphasizes the nonpolitical stance of many essays, he also makes visible the very positive framing of Mussolini, clearly not put on the same line as Hitler.

Modernist Magazines and the Social Ideal is a topical and very useful book. Its modest but clever and efficient methodological choices, which it may be very interesting to apply to other types of mass publications as well, prove capable of treating a huge amount of documents in a way that combines broad general patterning and close reading, and eventually of producing a revision of existing scholarship on the links between visual culture and social ideals in a way that is not narrowly illustrative or pedagogical. What Satterthwaite shows may be visible in all the images and page layouts of the era in themselves, but it is only through the methodological edging, here made singlehandedly but certainly compatible with newly emerging big data methods based on pattern recognition, that the very form, content, and meaning of these images come to the surface.