In the months following the ceasefire marking the end of the conflict in Vietnam which had cost over two million lives, the rap poet Gil Scott-Heron articulated something of the “snow blindness” with which superpowers manage, plunder and disenfranchise their worlds. “Whitey on the Moon” talked anxiously of living in the ghetto, of destitution, malnutrition and inopportunity in an urban America that was invited to search for something in the stars rather than in the world around them. 

It was a clarity of vision shared by Bruce Davidson, whose East 100th Street photographs of 1968 were made with anger and clear purpose. They reappear, as immediate and affecting as if freshly made, in a new book that marks the 50th anniversary of the World Press Organisation. Things as They Are shares much in style with Steidl’s tremendous Kiosk book of 2001. That book, by Robert Lebeck and Bodo von Dewitz gathered picture magazine layouts from the earliest 20th century magazines up to the late Sixties, while Things as They Are takes the reins and draws on an overwhelming richness of photography from international picture magazines since 1955.

It reappraises not only the formative European and American markets, but also the initiatives of key Japanese photographers. Indeed Shomei Tomatsu’s work rips apart the polite spacing and notations of 1960s European layouts, starving the page of neutral space and calling – through his own photography – for a new form of reportage “that defied traditional design and conventional formal solutions”.

Daido Moriyama’s work, too, is all the more arresting when seen before a June 1969 issue of Life which breaks stylistic convention to show, with awkward monotony, “One week’s dead from Vietnam”. Perhaps this dynamic exchange epitomises the book’s ambition. It keeps at its core the world events that saturate us, yet also works to explore the more oblique strategies employed by photojournalists and their publications. The conceptual experimentation of the Colors era and Suddeutsche Zeitung magazine engage urgent issues with skill and singularity, and suggest something of the diverse tactics those commissioning and placing contemporary photography on the printed page are empowered to use.

Beyond the shell shock of the moon landings, the incredulity and madness of war, the book also highlights work made long after the crowds are gone. The keynote stories in the careers of Anders Petersen, Donna Ferrato and Ad van Denderen, to name just three, are related in their original and compelling forms.

The photographer’s work is often resolved by the vision of the editor, and these spreads show some of the most powerful collaborations. Gideon Mendel’s Zimbabwe Aids Ward pictures sit beautifully in the Independent in 1993 while, in another world, Martin Parr’s work from Florida for W magazine hits the top note with colour.

Essays by Mary Panzer and Christian Caujolle soberly contextualise the terrain upon which photojournalists so often have to work. Photographers negotiate events that are carefully managed, restricting access towards a chosen narrative, or embrace the dangerous independence of the freelance pursuing stories through will and determination. This book is a testimony to that strength, and also to the designers and picture editors who make the work sing. The last time I went to see Gil Scott-Heron, the band showed up but he didn’t arrive. He was lost, living somewhere in his world (which isn’t easy) and, like the best examples in this essential book, that told me something urgent about my own.

Ken Grant