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The Intersection of Public Relations and Photography: Header

The Intersection of Public Relations and Photography

 

The Intersection of Public Relations and Photography: Intro

In the early twentieth century, the field of public relations was developing into a formalized profession. “Businesses began to realize that not just goods but also policies and ideas could be sold,” Elspeth H. Brown writes in The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture, 1884–1929. “Businesses, especially manufacturing and communications industries at the forefront of both labor activism and welfare capitalism, responded to negative public opinion by hiring public-relations consultants and eventually founding corporate publicity departments.”14

The economic strife brought about by the Great Depression in the 1930s instilled a sense of public misgivings about large corporations, while interest in American workers and the labor movement was growing.15 Bruce Barton, a co-founder of the ad agency Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, secured the U.S. Steel advertising account in 1935. Barton recognized that executives of U.S. Steel subsidiaries, sometimes skeptical of public relations and its drain on their budgets, needed to address the importance of PR.16 “No major industry,” he asserted, “has any moral right to allow itself to be unexplained, misunderstood or publicly distrusted, for by its unpopularity it poisons the pond in which we all must fish.”17

While many companies hired outside PR consultants, U.S. Steel was in the first wave of corporations in the steel industry to establish its own in-house public relations department, distinct from its marketing division. In 1936, the Pittsburgh-based corporation created a PR department headquartered at 71 Broadway in New York City, the burgeoning center of public relations. J. Carlisle MacDonald headed the program, reporting directly to Myron C. Taylor, chairman of the board and chief executive officer. Public relations thus assumed a commanding presence at the company’s top management tier. Over the next two decades, U.S. Steel created a network of thirteen public relations districts representing subsidiaries around the country that reported back to the New York office.18 Personnel working in public relations could consult a wealth of literature by nationally known experts. They included Ivy Lee, considered the father of modern public relations, and others who developed PR strategies and techniques such as press releases, corporate statements, employee magazines, and the use of photography.

The Intersection of Public Relations and Photography: Slider

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Russell Aikins. Charging molten pig iron into open hearth, South Chicago Works, Carnegie-Illinois Steel Corporation, 1932. Industrial Life Photograph Collection, Baker Library, Harvard Business School (olvwork354959).

Russell Aikins. The final inspection, South Chicago Works, Carnegie-Illinois Steel Corporation, 1932. Industrial Life Photograph Collection, Baker Library, Harvard Business School (olvwork355024).

U.S. Steel advertisement, c. 1936-1937.

The Intersection of Public Relations and Photography: Body

By the 1920s, with the rise of national magazines and improved technical reproduction of photographs, photography increasingly became the medium of choice for advertising and PR purposes, a shift that displaced to a certain extent the commercial artist and illustrator.19 U.S. Steel’s marketing division frequently used photographs in advertisements targeted to industrial users of steel in trade journals and national magazines. Distinct from marketing, the corporation’s public relations department employed photographs in campaigns to encourage public confidence in the steel industry. Photographs appeared in general-interest and business magazines, corporate reports, company publications, and exhibitions. Rather than a sales strategy, Richard S. Tedlow explains, public relations served as a “method for protection against the political consequences of a hostile public opinion.”20

The U.S. Steel public relations office, for example, established outreach efforts with national magazines. In 1936, Fortune magazine presented a series of articles about U.S. Steel illustrated with photographs by the prominent photographer Russell Aikins.21 Aikins, who had worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times, opened a studio in New York City and took on assignments with Time and Life. Corporations valued press in magazines like Fortune, known for its excellence in graphic design and as a pioneer in introducing the work of leading photographers into its feature articles. Fortune “used the intersections of fine art and mass culture . . . to position the engines of capitalism as critical to the functioning of a healthy economy but also to the development of American culture,” Isadora Anderson Helfgott writes in Framing the Audience: Art and the Politics of Culture in the United States, 1929–1945. “Fortune built on the increasingly populist orientation of the art world as it promoted an integration of culture and capitalism that would combat negative perceptions of the corporate sector.”22

 

 

Russell Aikins. Guiding strip into the coiler, South Chicago Works, Carneigie-Illinois Steel Corporation, 1932. Industrial Life Photograph Collection, Baker Library, Harvard Business School (olvwork355000).

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As an increasing number of artists like Aikins accepted commercial work that they viewed as both artistic and professional, the line between fine art and commercial photography began to blur.23 In the 1920s, for example, through an assignment with an advertising agency, artist Charles Sheeler photographed the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. The photographers Edward Steichen and Clarence White had helped lead the way by embracing and advocating for the medium’s artistic as well as commercial applications. A preeminent portrait photographer and later curator at the Museum of Modern Art, Steichen took on assignments for Condé Nast magazines and the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. White, a renowned photographer and educator, encouraged his students to apply artistic principles to commercial work.

At the same time, the notion of the photographer as reporter gained credence, particularly during the Great Depression when Farm Security Administration photographers were documenting rural poverty. In her book Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art, Michele Bogart asserts that “Documentary photographers utilized the photographic image, seemingly in opposition to the enterprise of commercial photography, to represent ‘objectively’ the myths of the American experience.”24 PR departments in industry thus eagerly enlisted artists whose names could lend both prestige and a sense of social realism to their portrayals of large corporations. Corporations, in turn, provided artists with the benefits of long-term commissions, a source of income, and national exposure through corporate publications and national magazines.

 

 

Russell Aikins. Speeding to market -- coiling, South Chicago Works, Carnegie-Illinois Steel Corporation, 1932. Industrial Life Photograph Collection, Baker Library, Harvard Business School (olvwork355021).

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By the 1930s, a number of photographers employed a modernist style in their portrayals of American industry. In Aikins' photographs of U.S. Steel in Fortune in 1936, the photographer’s inventive compositions and use of light and shadow captured streamlined forms of giant factory spaces, colossal machinery, furious heat, rivers of molten iron, and white-hot steel. His photographic style, which he referred to as “camera-reporting,” revealed an arresting juxtaposition of workers and machines that conveyed the human drama taking place within the steel mills. Fortune showcased a number of his images on full pages. These celebratory portrayals of U.S. Steel’s industrial might aligned with the ideals of Henry Luce, the publisher of Fortune, who spoke of his vision of the magazine as an opportunity to capture “the dignity and the beauty, the smartness and the excitement of modern industry.”25 The following year, Aikins made the decision to turn all his energies to photographing industry in an effort to inspire public confidence in business. In 1941, U.S. Steel would hire Aikins and other photographers as a part of its campaign to demonstrate the corporation’s readiness for the war effort.

The Intersection of Public Relations and Photography: Footnotes

14 Elspeth H. Brown, The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture, 1884–1929 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005), 130.

15 See Isadora Anderson Helfgott, Framing the Audience: Art and the Politics of Culture in the United States, 1929–1945 (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2015), 152.

16 See Roland Marchand, Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 224.

17 Bruce Barton, “The Public,” Printers’ Ink, December 12, 1935, 20.

18 The Chicago District office, for example, served the industrial plant communities of Chicago, Joliet, Waukegan, and DeKalb, Illinois, as well as Gary, Indiana.

19 See Michele H. Bogart, Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 202.

20 Tedlow, Keeping the Corporate Image, 196.

21 The series in Fortune examined U.S. Steel through the perspectives of “a machine for making money” and “a machine for performing certain useful services to society.” Fortune, March 1936, 59. Photographs by Russell Aikins appeared in the March and April 1936 issues. The May issue featured the work of other photographers.

22 Helfgott, Framing the Audience, 151.

23 See Mark Durden, “Connections and Conflicts: Margaret Bourke-White’s Corporate, Commercial, and Documentary Photography,” Corporate Patronage of Art & Architecture in the United States, Late 19th Century to the Present, ed. Monica E. Jovanovich and Melissa Renn, 63–76 (New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, Bloomsbury Publishing Inc., 2019).

24 Bogart, Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art, 203.

25 Henry Luce quoted in Robert T. Elson, Time Inc.: The Intimate History of a Publishing Enterprise 1923–1941 (New York: Atheneum, 1968), 129–130.

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