In the News with Tom Wolfe, New Journalism, and Journalistic Photography
By Emma Coyle
Tom Wolfe has returned to the cultural awareness again with the news of his passing. He has been known for being one of the most visible members of the school of New Journalism. New Journalism is exemplified by its use of unexpected, non-traditional or un-scholarly grammar and language. (Think of blending a novel with a piece of non-fiction and including exclamation marks–all at the same time.) He blended the style of fiction with journalistic facts to paint scenes instead of directly reporting. Wolfe’s writing relied heavily on his personal point of view and writing voice.
Wolfe affected great change in the way that journalism functions in the news cycle, especially the idea of the feature writer. One of the stylistic devices that he used in his writing was the recognition of status symbols. Primarily he would describe small physical details that painted the scene such as the kind of decor his subjects had or the way they styled themselves with clothing and accessories. This same attention to detail can be found in photography. Scenes lushly filled with the details of the subject’s lives, the clothing they are wearing, the way they carry themselves, and how they interact with their world.
In this photograph by Brian Christopher Sargent entitled Anatomy of a Corner, the scene captured says more about the man, a figure right on the border between shadow and the lit street, than any portrait could. He stands out, glowing in the light while all the other people are unrecognizable. It almost seems like he has noticed the photographer mid-step, turning his head towards his audience. This journalistic take on photography manages to capture the glamour of the time with this well dressed man but also the discomforting underbelly that has made Tom Wolfe’s work renowned. Sargent paints scenes that tell a story, but one that is entirely based on reality. And it is the kind of reality that makes you yearn to know more about his subject.
Tom Wolfe focused on capturing the American zeitgeist. A very particular point of view on how America defined itself during the time that he was creating his work, both as a journalist and as a novelist. His most well known books include The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Bonfire of the Vanities.