Images of Celebrity in British Tabloids 1904-38


A review of The Public Eye: Celebrity and Photojournalism in the Making of the British Tabloids, 1904-1938, by Ryan Linkof.

Ryan Linkof’s dissertation is a thoughtful and detailed analysis of the origins of photojournalism within the British press, particularly focusing on the inclusion of photographs in tabloids such as The Daily Mirror and Daily Express. The tabloids were the world’s first daily newspapers to make widespread use of the snapshot photograph as a vehicle of mass communication. By focusing on the first half of the twentieth century, Linkof successfully illustrates the early development and production of photos, demonstrating photojournalism’s role in the creation of a new mass culture of celebrity. The body of research referenced by the author establishes how the culture of celebrity facilitated the emergence of new ideas about the nature of public and private in the press. By democratising access to the social elites, the press photographer became an influential mediator between private citizens and the public. Linkof’s analysis also reveals how the growth and expansion of photographic reporting within British tabloids helped to market photography as a new kind of reporting for “a new mass media age” (p. 57). Drawing from prolific press historians such as Stephen Koss (The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain. London: H. Hamilton Press, 1981–1984), Linkof illustrates how photography and its relationship with the tabloids helped commercialise the press for a wider audience. By allowing the Victorian newspaper to deviate from its “mission of public education and moral guidance” (p. 57), the tabloids became a powerful force in determining the character of public life, reflecting a burgeoning new society eager to engage with the press.

This work successfully provides the reader with an understanding of the complex relationship between photojournalism and tabloids. It successfully contributes to a multitude of different historiographies, including the history of the press, photojournalism, popular visual culture, celebrity, and the ethical and legal dimensions of mass media. Rather than challenging existing ideas on the development of the press, photojournalism, and the culture of celebrity, this dissertation endeavors to expand and explore new avenues of press and photojournalism history that have been neglected by historians. For example, tabloids don’t feature heavily in the history of photojournalism—though Linkof efficaciously argues that they belong at the very centre of its history (p. 9). The author acknowledges the attention paid by historians Stephen Koss, Mark Hampton (Visions of the Press in Britain, 1850–1950. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), and Laura Beers (Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labour Party. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010) to press history. However, their primary concern has been the political role of the press, specific newspapers, and their owners, rather than a cultural analysis of the impact of a particular group of newspapers. Even studies of particular tabloids, such as Chris Horrie’s analysis of the Daily Mirror (Tabloid Nation: From the Birth of the Mirror to the Death of the Tabloid Newspaper. London: Andre Deutsch Ltd, 2003), focus on the modern-day influence of tabloid journalism (p. 7). This dissertation plays a vital role in creating a much-needed discourse on the birth of the tabloid and its expansive and influential role in the history of photojournalism and the press.

Chapter 1 focuses on the importance of the photographic contributions of the tabloid press to the history of photojournalism. It demonstrates how the tabloid press emerged and flourished in response to the apparent public desire for photographs within newspapers. In an attempt to meet these needs, the newspapers hoped to create a new set of readers to cater for, thereby increasing their public appeal and circulation. Although the author concludes that British journalists were not as innovative as their continental counterparts in the development of photojournalism, ultimately they played a valuable role in improving the state of photographic reporting. They ensured its future as a popular mode of journalistic communication.

Chapter 2 compiles a history of the early press photographers and an analysis of the style of images that they produced. In the new age of mass media, the press photographer helped shape a new style of photographic communication that was swiftly and widely produced for wider audiences. By offering their readership an alternative to the composed medium of photographic portraiture, the “candid photos” challenged the carefully constructed relationship between photographer and sitter. The act of consent on behalf of the sitter was removed, thereby adding an element of trepidation and mystery in the relationship between tabloid and celebrity. What would celebrities look like in newspapers now? Linkof reveals how photojournalists eventually stripped away the image of “perfection” and helped construct the “candid image” as a more accurate representation of the celebrity culture, now so crucial to the tabloids’ increasing popularity. However, in order to gain access to particular individuals, journalistic boundaries regarding common courtesy and privacy became blurred. Linkof concludes that this behaviour radically redefined the dynamics of an individual’s privacy and the life of a celebrity in the public eye.

Chapter 3 discusses the development and expansion of photojournalistic boundaries from the early twentieth century to the 1930s, concentrating on the tabloids’ fascination with and presentation of the Royal Family. Although this chapter primarily focuses on the photographic coverage of the relationship between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the thesis traces the relationship between photography and royalty as far back as the Victorian period. If the tabloids had been previously used as a device to bolster the image of a well-known and relatively popular cultural institution, the scandal involving Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson marked a watershed in how the image of the Royal Family was presented to the public. This work argues that the tabloids played a crucial role in reinventing the royals as modern-day celebrities, subject to the many quirks of new styles of publicity. The photographic clichés of mutually agreed poses and staged images of royalty were eroded and replaced with a new image of monarchy, which has pervaded society to this day.

Chapter 4 examines the impact of tabloid photojournalism on the aristocracy during the first decades of the twentieth century. Focusing in particular on the representation of the Debutante in the press, Linkof demonstrates the extent to which celebrity culture democratised the image of the aristocracy. Despite an obvious decline in the political and societal influence of the aristocracy during this period, their visibility in society was crucial to the development of tabloid celebrity culture. And although the very idea of “celebrity” was incompatible with traditional aristocratic culture, their entangled relationship demonstrates that aristocracy’s new power lay in public entertainment.

Chapter 5 concludes this thesis by illustrating how the changing behaviour of the press towards celebrities helped to create a more updated dialogue concerning privacy rights in Britain. By constructing his argument around two legal trials involving The Daily Mirror photographer Thomas Lea, Linkof illustrates the repeated attempts to regulate and control the behaviour of press photographers at this time. Attempts by photojournalists to gain “new” and “unseen” photographs had forced celebrities to surrender any pretense of a private life. As a result of these continued violations of the “private sphere,” a more modern and nuanced language regarding privacy rights emerged. However, despite these discursive changes, for much of the twentieth century firm privacy laws did not exist, and the “crude” activities of many photojournalists were allowed to continue. Although the British public opinion disapproved of these activities, they provided a complex problem for a society that prided itself on the appearance of a free press.

This thesis is a major contribution to the historiographical literature on the press, photojournalism, and the nature of celebrity. Linkof has created a critically engaging piece of work that finally allows us to make connections between the birth of the tabloid newspaper and the content of its modern-day counterparts. By systematically mining a well-known and popular cultural artifact, the tabloid newspaper, this researcher has allowed us to view the role of the camera and photojournalism within our society in a new light. His conclusions advance new methods and ideas that could be applied to further analyses of different areas of society—for example, photojournalism and crime, sport, divorce, etc. This study will be of interest not only to academic scholars of the media, press, visual culture, and celebrity, but also to a wider popular audience interested in the complex and intricate history of celebrity and the British Royal Family. 

Caroline Dale
PhD Theatre, Film and Television
Aberystwyth University

Primary Sources

British Library Manuscripts (Lady Diana Cooper Papers, Lord Northcliffe Papers)
National Media Museum, Bradford (Photography Collection)
New York Public Library Newspaper Archive
The Daily Mirror Digital Archive
The Daily Sketch

Dissertation Information

University of Southern California. 2011. 688 pp. Primary Advisor: Vanessa Schwartz.

Image: King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson on holiday in Yugoslavia, 1936. Daily Herald Archive at the National Media Museum.

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