Editor of Popular Photography and Leica Photography
Introduced the Value of Photographic Images to the Public and Popular Imagination
By Bruce Poli
Ken Poli, who championed 20th Century photojournalism and art photography in the pages of two leading magazines from 1954 to 1983, and was friends with such figures as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Eliot Porter, Cornell Capa, Arthur C. Clarke, Howard Chapnick and Robert Frank died September 14 at his home in South Setauket, NY. His witness to and celebration of the ever evolving visual image was unrivaled.
First introduced to a brownie camera on his 8th birthday in 1929, he became both a photographer and writer, first for the Barre Times while attending Goddard College in Vermont, and then for International Nickel, and in 1954 as the editor of Leica Magazine.
Leica cameras were the much celebrated cornerstone of photojournalism in the 1950s, particularly featured by Life and Look magazines, so Leica became a touchstone of photographic passion. He steered it from an equipment magazine into the image direction, featuring essays and articles by Eisenstaedt, Frank, Peter B. Kaplan, Pete Turner, W. Eugene Smith, Bruce Davidson and others. By the early ’60s, color was introduced to the medium and art photography was becoming increasingly popular. Eliot Porter, Helen Levitt, Ernst Haas and Joel Meyerowitz among others became the focus of new creative color work and added a new dimension.
When he joined Popular Photography as Associate Editor in 1965—hired by John Durniak (who later advanced the journalistic importance of photography as Photo Editor at The New York Times), my father expanded his feature spectrum, ranging widely among styles and the stories behind them as well as techniques.
‘Pop’, as it was fondly called, became all the rage for photographers, both professional and amateur. In addition to annually attending Photokina in Cologne, Germany, Ken was invited to Japan, where new cameras were being introduced which would surpass the popularity of German Leicas— Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Yashica and others. He would advise on camera use and technique—all for the goal of better, more inspired image making. He saw the photographic image as a powerful way to communicate by both documenting visual truth and expressing oneself as an artist.
This combination would shape our perception of the world around us and lead to Steve Jobs’ development of the visual and personalized Macintosh computer, iPhone and iPad, followed by selfies and Facebook postings.
In 1973, (to put this into historic perspective) he represented the US Information Agency in Russia, a trip during which he had to secretly photograph (Brezhnev was in power), and met in undisclosed locations with photographers afraid of being found in the company of Americans. The East was still in the dark ages—even European photography was far behind American advances.
By the 1970s, photography began to eclipse ‘traditional art’ in overall brand value, gaining prominence particularly through the efforts and brilliance of Ansel Adams (Moonrise, Hernandez fetched $51,000 in 1979 and $609,600 in 2006)) and photo galleries like the Witkin Gallery and Neikrug Gallery (representing Diane Arbus) became leading art centers, setting both economic trends and social values.
Among my father’s proudest moments was when Cornell Capa sought his advice (along with Ralph Baum, the creator of Modernage Labs) about whether to create a photographic museum in New York (the only two people Capa trusted). He remained an original member of the International Center for Photography and was a member of PAI, Circle of Confusion, and a frequent visitor to many museums. He would regularly attend exhibits curated by Edward Steichen and John Szarkowski. His hundreds of articles have been the source of education and inspiration for numerous photographers with whom he delighted in collaborating.
Above all, Ken Poli’s witness to the dramatic visual 20th Century and the power of the photograph in our lives was rewarding beyond what he would have imagined. He considered the digital age a miracle of communication with dangerous social and psychological consequences. As soon as cameras became electronic (with the introduction of the Canon AE-1 in 1976) he lamented “it’s a whole new industry with electronics, I’m getting out.” Though he retired in 1983, he never left photography.
While Ken used a Macbook and worked a Facebook page daily until a few weeks before his death, he also warned of the selfie era as the modern devolvement of the me generation and a disservice to young people’s outlook on life’s value. “Images are no longer important to our collective imagination and education” he lamented. “They’re primarily tools for self advancement. That’s not good for the future of society.”
Ken Poli, a lifelong member of MENSA, served in World War II and earned two purple hearts and a bronze star. He never spoke of it and despised war’s violence. A regular in Who’s Who and Who’s Who in America, when asked his philosophy of life he responded “Assume nothing”
He married Virginia Osk, an advertising copywriter (and civil rights activist) in 1946 and is survived by his son Bruce, daughter-in-law photographer Suzanne Poli, grandaughter policy advisor Tweeps Phillips Woods, and two nieces, Victoria Osk and Patricia Salzer. Virginia Poli died in 2010.