Friday, February 1, 2008


Sometime in the mid 1980's, for reasons that were both personal and professional, I gave up being a staff photographer for my newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer and instead took on the less exciting and more sedentary life of a photo editor.

By removing myself from the thing I loved most at the time, the challange of shooting deadline photography, I found myself in a kind of outsider's position while looking at and thinking about, the art and craft of my profession.

At some point I began to write about photography and I also took up teaching as a adjunct lecturer at Drexel University. I read somewhere that words and language serve as the clothing for thoughts. The writing served as a way of clarifying my own thoughts and beliefs about photography. Breaking away from deadline photography allowed me to pursue long term projects and as it also turned out, develop a more personal style of photographic seeing.

This blog serves as a visual catelogue for me, showing me my work both past and present, and how it has evolved.

Photographer Garry Winogrand once observed that when you put a frame around some facts you altered those facts.
Interesting thought. Winogrand was alluding to his belief that the photographic process did not record with 100% fidelity the reality it was confronted with.

The question is, if this is true, then how or why does it happen?
The human eye is an extremely complex instrument capable of recording and transmitting a great deal of information to the brain. Constantly scanning the visual information put before it, the eye generally prevents the brain from contemplating any one aspect of a given "something" for more than a brief portion of a second. Generally the information put before the eye is also in some state of motion, thereby creating even more chaos for the brain to record
and interpret. Chaos is generally what photography, by it's very nature, is designed to deal with best. Still photographs stop time, freeze moments, and in the process give order to in-process visual situations. In the process of stopping time the photograph is capable of removing the moment preserved from the flow or context it was recorded from. Most situations generally have a kind of narrative flow built into them...a beginning, middle, and end. Still photography removes that context, freezing the elements within the photographic frame in a unique kind of visual "now" that has no beginning or end.

Removing a moment from the context of it's flow of events is only one part of the photographic process. Along with stopping time, the camera also isolates and records only portions of that flow of time through selective framing by the photographer, further changing the image's relationship to the "reality" it is supposed to record. Both of these actions, stopping and framing a slice of time are the result of some form of cognitive effort on the part of the photographer, either conscious or intuitive.
Lastly, photography is a two-dimensional process that is tasked to somehow transform three dimensions into two. This transformation can lead to a different narrative than the one intended, and here lies the center of photography`s unique power.

Within this three part circle of visual confusion created by the act of photographing a "reality" is the WHY of the operation. Making a photographic record of something and in the process transforming that reality is generally the result of some form of conscious decision making on the part of the person operating the camera. Photographs that are made out in the "real world", shot while something is in the process of happening is generally referred to as Street or Documentary Photography. This is a process that depends on the thin slicing of time from some form of visual narrative that occures in the photographers presence. For many such photographers their response to these evolving visual narratives depend on a unique level of photographic ability that derives more from that unconscious part of the mind referred to as intuition.
The creative process, act of recognition, and intuition is a little understood part of the human condition. More attention has been given to getting ones self into a state of mind that encourages that part of the creative self than trying to explain the condition itself.
Photographer/Guru Minor White spent a considerable part of his creative life trying to come to grips with this unconscious self. White investigated zen meditation and different forms of metaphysics to try and explain to his students and colleagues what he FELT he knew. He attempted to adopt Alfred Steigliz's theory of Equivilents....a way of trying to explain how and why photographs can mean things other than the thing depicted. He also explored the art of the Zen archer and how the rigorous training involved in that sport related to photography and art. Whites problem, like others who have attempted to put into words the thinking behind visual creativity is that he was generally trying to explain an intuitive creative act and creation to people who had not yet experienced that act for themselves. He was attempting to explain the sound of a tree falling to folks who had not yet entered the forest.
French photo journalist Robert Doisneau once observed that "The photographer must be a blotter, allow himself to be permeated by the poetic moment".
Indeed. Perhaps like the Zen archer becoming the target itself in order to hit it with the arrow.
Photographer Sylvia Plachy explained to an interviewer that she often made her more interesting photographs while in a sort of trance...meaning she had no conscious visual agenda at the time of the shoot, rather allowing herself to follow whatever was happening instinctively (intuitively?), making pictures that she responded to naturally rather than following a pre-set visual narrative.
Writer/teacher Dorthea Brande wrote some 60 years ago in her book, ON BECOMING
A WRITER, that prior to writing one must quiet down one's self into a kind of calmness in order to set up the mind to allow the creative self to surface. Doisneau, Plachy and Brande would appear to be talking about the same tactic of self-approach to the creative act.

Whether used as a creative tactic or a form of Zen-like self awareness, understanding the role of intuition in the photographic process goes hand-in-hand with also understanding how the technical characteristics of the camera influences the unique way the camera records reality.
Like Winogrand said. It's all about seeing how things look photographed!

Charles Harbutt has been shooting pictures for a living for over 30 years. Before that he was a writer. Somewhere along the way he began to question the very center of the photographic enterprise... it`s relationship to reality. Harbutt decided that photographs had a life of their own, quite apart from the thing that was photographed.
This is dangerious ground for a photojournalist to be digging in to. Indeed, photographers who shoot pictures for publication in the news business seem to have sworn a blood oath to never question the veracity of the images they produce on deadline. News people are loath to question the process of gathering information, especially the question of why they raise certain questions and not others. Journalists are supposed to be objective, neutral, unbiased, etc.,etc.
So here goes Charlie Harbutt suggesting that the very act of making a photograph is going to transform that reality that was photographed...because the photographic process is not about reality.
Because he is a former writer Harbutt has, over the years, tried to put this notion into writing. Unfortunately pictures and words communicate on different wave-lengths and in different ways. Explaining pictures with words can be as difficult as explaining words with pictures. Words can be as ambiguous as pictures when it comes to trying to explain a concept as complex as visual transformation. Harbutt starts off with a simple..."cameras see different from people." That's pretty good. Simple and to the point. Problem is that does not dig to the gut of the idea. Okay, we did bring up the three dimensions into two, but what does that mean? Well, you have to go back to painting and the whole perspective thing. How painters try to give the impression of depth in their paintings. Because a photograph is a flat surface representation of a thing captured from the "real world", which has the dimension of depth, that flatness can transform that so-called "reality" into something surreal.
Believe it Charles Harbutt says. A few other folks have said believe it as well. Writer/critic Susan Sontag said it in her book ON PHOTOGRAPHY and raised a bit of a storm among the media and art world deep thinkers when she suggested that surrealim lay at the heart of the photographic enterprise. This uproar can be partially explained through a theory once presented by University of Florida artist John Ward, who wrote in his book PHOTOGRAPHY: CRITICISM AS ART, that most art critics don't really understand how to talk about photography because they don't understand the unqiue creative vision that photography brings to art. This is, in part, because photography is so different from anything else ever attempted in art before. Harbutt wrote that photography is about SEEING..simple as that. While other art forms are greatly concerned with technique, photography is an instant recognition in a fraction of a second, as Henri Cartier-Bresson often said, of everything that makes a situation a photograph. Other art forms start with a blank space of some sort and then give it some kind of form. With photography you start off with alot of confused stuff, and you somehow organize it into something else.
The art folks took a long time taking the photo folks seriously. It all appeared to be too EASY...a machine doing the creative work with the photographer merely OPERATING it. It took a few years for even the photographers themselves to figure out what it was they held in their hands. Once the technology evolved to the point where you didn't have to be a chemist to be a photographer the "seeing" aspect of the photographic act began to evolve into something that was unique to art and the photographer ceased to merely be a camera operator.
A lot of Charles Harbutt's thoughts about photography surfaced as part of his 1973 book TRAVELOG. In it he wrote," Photographic design is more related to jazz than to formal classical composition. It is a spontaneous, instinctive, even subconscious act, not rigidly thought out". Indeed. Jazz improvisation is born out of some formal design. Music is born from a kind of musical schematic, a pre-conceived design that is itself born from formal musical rules. Within this structure, which controls such variables as key signature, beats per measure and chord progression, the jazz musician creates a improvisation which may or may not follow that structure, but at the same time relies on that sturcture as a musical point of reference. How the musician creates this musical improvisation depends on a number of other factors...for example what kind of instrument is being played. The photographer also plays within a certain set of rules. The camera has certain controls that are used to control the flow of light on to the film inside it. A shutter controls the length of time the light is allowed inside the camera. The lens contains a round opening which is capable of variable sizes, which is called an aperture. This aperture controls the amount of light that strikes the film inside the camera. Different lenses allow the camera to see different fields of vision, from say a wide angle, which is actually beyond the eye's normal ability, to different levels of telephoto which brings the eye in closer...also beyond the eye's normal ability of sight. All these factors can be changed in one way or another. Within the variables of shutter speed and aperture opening there is a clearly defined right and wrong. This proper setting is called exposure.Too little light striking the film will result in a underexposed image which is too dark. Too much light striking the film will result in an image that is too light. Different films have different levels of sensitivity to light which also dictate definate right and wrong exposure settings.
The jazz musician has to deal not only with the technical demands of the music placed before him, but also the inherient charactoristics of the particular instrument being played. A trumpet has a different range of sounds from a baritone saxophone. The jazz soloist also has to consider what the other members of the musical group are doing while playing that improvised solo.
The photographer has to consider the particular charactoristics of the camera being used. The small 35mm camera has a portability that a 8x10 view camera user would find difficult to imitate. The photographer has to consider the elements of any given situation that is being photographed, level of light available, size and speed of those elements to be photographed.
The jazz musician considers the constraints set down by other members of the musical group who also have to follow the same set of rules, key signature, chord progression, and time signature. Within this set of supposed "rules" the musician and the photographer now allow their individual knowledge about how to use that camera or instrument, based on years of usage and inherient understanding, to allow them to "improvise." This act, grounded in solid knowledge, is actually putting the conscious part of the brain in touch with the so-called unconscious....the intuitive.
And here we get to the "gut" of Harbutt's point. Photography is also about how photographers respond to the world around them. What would make a musical piece by trumpeter Miles Davis different from a saxophone solo by Zoot Simms. Much of this response is based on an intuitive understanding of what makes a good photograph as you look at what is about to be recorded on film. As Garry Winogrand once observed, how will the thing look photographed...not what it looks like to the naked eye.
Indeed again.
Photographer Elliott Erwitt wrote in the introduction to his book PERSONAL EXPOSURES that being a good photographer was similiar to being successful at playing poker. According to Erwitt in photography and in poker you need insight into the other players, a good knowledge of the game, and last of all a little luck.Poker....Jazz....whatever analogy you choose to use to explain it all

I have come to believe that there are discoverable relationships between seemingly diverse art mediums and the philosophies that surround them. I offer this statement as an excuse to set up the following set of thoughts, including musings about writing and photography. Hopefully I have hooked you into reading further.
During the 1930's German philosopher Dr. Eugene Herrigel traveled to Japan to study archery and in the process gain a better understanding of the concept of Zen.
Archery as Zen! You say. Stay with me.
At the end of six years of study with a master archer Herrigel wrote a small book titled ZEN IN THE ART OF ARCHERY. In less than 90 pages he outlined his struggle to understand and master the bow and in doing so was guided through the veil of his western mind set to a better understanding of Zen as a way of understanding and being.
Herrigel learned that the goal of the Zen archer was not in the drawing of the bow or shooting of the arrow into a target, but in the process of learning itself as a way to train the mind. He was taught to transcend the motions required for archery and instead immerse himself in a state of understanding that made his archery an "artless" art growing out of intuition rather than technique.
One of the goals of his training was to learn to clear his mind of everything but the "act" itself. One state of mind necessary to gain this mastery was through reaching a kind of "childishness" that was restored through long years of training in "self-forgetfulness".
Herrigel's trial by archery offers a guide of sorts to an understanding of the creative process involved in writing and photography. Through his Zen Master he learned to master the tools of archery so completely that they ceased to be a conscious consideration when he utilized those tools.
Writer/teacher Dorthea Brande taught creative writing during the 1920's and during that time explored the role of the unconscious and intuition in the writing process. Brande suggested ways to quiet the mind and free the process of the conscious search for creativity from the noise of daily activity. Part of this self discipline was through the recapturing of what Brande called the "innocence of eye" or re-learning to be a "stranger in their own familiar streets".
Like the Zen Master's repetitive exercises for self-control through bowmanship, Brande was a firm believer in observing a strict discipline of routine for writing. In the classroom Brande challenged her students to learn to "harness their writing arm to their unconscious; re-enter the world of wordless daydreams" and let the body relax and learn to let the unconscious come forward.
During the 1950's photographer/teacher/philosopher Minor White led classes at Rochester Institute of Technology through similar exercises in introspection designed to focus his student's powers of seeing through photography. White challenged his students to look harder at photographs for what they might represent rather than what they might be. His classes revolved around reaching a mental attitude where "all things gave up the secret of their life". According to White the best state of visual receptiveness for meaningful photography was a "blank-like" condition of non-perception of ideas. He believed the mind must be tranquil and open to any visual suggestion.
Brande suggested utilizing this same state of mind by writing during the early hours of the morning, preferably an hour or so before the student normally got up so as to utilize the creative part of the mind before the concerns of the day clouded creativity. White taught his students to practice photographic seeing all through the day, whether they were carrying a camera or not. The idea was to constantly keep the mind alert to new ideas through the habit of looking hard at daily reality. White also tasked his students to look at and learn to read photographs for the content they contained, either through the intent of the photographer or from their own individual interpretation. Learning to read the work of other photographers would ultimately sharpen and refine the students ability to respond to the visual world around them. Central to White's theories about photography was the idea of visual "equivalents", a concept first introduced by Alfred Steiglitz during the 1920's. White believed that photographs that acted as equivalents were metaphors for something the photographer felt when the picture was made.
Possibly the single most famous description of the photographic act was made by French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson. "To me photography is the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization of forms that give that event its proper expression." Cartier-Bresson's description was ultimately shortened down to "The decisive moment", and used to explain a whole generation of street photographer's work. John Szarkowski, Director of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art wrote in his book PHOTOGRAPHY UNTIL NOW that "photographs are made not essentially by hand but by eye with a machine that records with unforgiving candor the quality of mind informed by that eye. Photographer Garry Winogrand explained it even more simply when he wrote, "Photography is about how things look photographed".

Both the concept of Zen and the act of photographing would seem to reside in the unspoken world of intuition and yet both require the cognitive world of the printed word to be given more universal expression. In turn the written word also enjoys a close relationship with intuition and in turn through this intuitive response to writing as art an easy relationship with the practice of Zen. The sound of one hand clapping? Perhaps.
Writer Ernest Hemingway once alluded to the intuitive in his art when he said he used the typewriter but often preferred to write by hand because that physical act put his mind in closer contact with the paper. Intuitive creativity is fragile stuff that is not always user friendly, disappearing in puffs before the "thing itself" can take some concrete form.
Most of us can remember instances of waking in the early morning hours with the solution to a problem or idea in our mind and then slipping back off to sleep resolving to remember, and then waking to the nagging memory of a "solution", and not remembering what it was. One good reason to sleep with a pad and pencil nearby.
For the photographer the creative act...the "it" of the process usually happens very quickly. Moments of recognition, Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moments", happen very quickly and are generally not repeatable. Street photographers work in the world of the animate and split seconds that pass quickly. Their goal is to snatch these moments from the narrative flow of reality and freeze them in some meaningful way.
Landscape photographers deal with the inanimate which is more concerned with quality, quantity, and direction of light, rather than moments in time. Here the subject matter may stand still or be repeated until the photograph works.
The writer usually enjoys the benefit of reflection or hindsight and physical duration of their subject matter. The writer can record narrative time as moments, like the photographer, or in layers of narrative that can move backward or forward in time. For both the act of seeing is principal to recording that narrative ,and within that narrative the recognition of something extraordinary.
Jazz musicians practice scales until the knowledge of those scales becomes melded within their unconscious. These same scales then become part of that musician's solo of sound that are born in an instant even if the musician has never played a particular composition before.
The photographer learns camera technique so completely that it is then discarded from conscious thought while working within a visual situation. Like Hemingway's handwritten literary composition, the act of visual recognition has a shorter route to traverse when passing from the eye to the brain and back to the camera shutter.
Photographer/teacher Jerry Uelsmann once wrote a colleague about his early days as a student at Rochester Institute of Technology and his inability to asked the right questions of his teacher Minor White. Uelsmann wondered if possibly an artist couldn't understand another artist`s poetic experience (in this case White's) when he (Uelsmann) hadn't had one himself at the time. Poetic experience, creative insight...Zen inspired intuition. I believe so. Whether you believe it or not will have to remain a part of your own journey

"An adviser or agent, especially of a politician, who imparts a partisan analysis or slant to a story for the news media. From the motion of spin on a baseball or pool ball, which gives a deviant rather than a straight track; semantically related to throwing someone a curve".
New Dictionary of American Slang

Tales of the Spin Doctor is not unlike the old children's fairy tale called The Emperor's New Clothes. Indeed this is a tale of a journalistic elitist hierarchy peopled by single-minded reporters and their equally driven editors who find themselves operating in a political world that panders to visual style rather than news content. It is a tale of political media handlers who have found a way to circumvent the reporting process, replacing it with a public relations process instead.
I remember the first time I ever laid eyes on the White House Press Corps at work. It was 1969 and I was a young Army photographer covering the arrival of President Lyndon B. Johnson at Honolulu International Airport for a conference with the President of South Vietnam. The press plane landed first so as to allow these journalists access to Johnson's arrival ceremony. I watched with a mixture of amusement and disbelief as a plane-load of men scrambled off a United States government airliner, fighting and clawing their way across the tarmac towards the grandstands that had been erected for the press photographers covering the event. Grown men, many carrying multiple cameras, lenses and bags full of equipment jostled each other at a near dead run towards the platform where myself and a few other military and local press colleagues stood waiting. As the White House Press Corps struggled it's way onto the stand, pushing, sweating and cursing in the warm Hawaii sun, I vowed that if this was what photojournalism was all about I wanted no part of it.

Several years ago, after a visit by President Bill Clinton to The Philadelphia Inquirer's coverage area I found myself listening to the complaints of one of our bureau's photographers about the selection process that resulted in what pictures were used of the president in the next days paper. The picture in question involved President Clinton walking down a road on the campus of Bryn Mawr University, surrounded by a group of students and faculty. In the photograph Clinton appears to be talking to his fellow walkers in a candid, spontaneous manner. My bureau colleague had made a similar image, same situation, only President Clinton looked more presidential, waving off camera rather than talking to the group around him. A quick phone call to my boss downtown resulted in the explanation that the photograph that was published of the President talking to the group as they walked down this tree lined campus was chosen because it looked more natural...less posed than the waving picture of my angry colleague. Indeed. Realism and spontaneity are generally the goals of any news photograph. The answer seemed reasonable to me..for a moment.
However. This photograph was not taken in what I would consider a realistic or spontaneous context. President Clinton and his new-found college friends were walking down that path in order to have their picture taken. Photography had been restricted inside the conference itself. Clinton's appearance outside the conference building was one of the few opportunities for the rest of the press to get pictures. This was not a private moment between the President of the United States and a small group of academics on a small college campus. This was a major news event that had been set up and staged by the Democratic Party of Montgomery County Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, and the White House Press Office in Washington D.C. President and Mrs. Bill Clinton had come to this expensive private college to talk about entitlement spending and how it affected the federal deficit. It was also a political payback visit to the home ground of democratic congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky. Federal entitlement spending is mostly about benefits to the poor, the elderly and the retired. Bryn Mawr College, however, is located in one of the most affluent areas of the country. Those attending the conference were mostly young. employed, and affluent. So a photograph on the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer showing President Clinton walking past and in front of a wall of national and local media (cropped out of the frame) on either side of that tree-lined path and appearing to talk candidly to a group of Bryn Mawr students and faculty is hardly the stuff of reality. And yet we journalists continue to attempt to cover these kinds of news events as a kind of spontaneous reality.
Indeed. What we are often portraying to our readers is the emperor in his new clothes. In all reality naked as a jay bird...images as free of reality content as the captions that explain them. We allow ourselves to fall victim to the intentions of the president's media handlers. We report and photograph these pseudo events as real news when indeed they are mostly held only for show.
Part of the success of political media handlers...spin doctors if you will, is their understanding of the news gathering process. The spin doctors understand the power of the visual image much more than the majority of newspaper editors. They know that professionally, photographers are treated as second-class citizens by their print colleagues. Photographers are sent to cover those events the word editors considered too banal or demeaning to send a "real" journalist to. This professional division between the word and picture people in the newspaper newsroom has played right into the hands of the spin doctors. Words and pictures working together consistantley in an intelligent fashion continues to elude the printed press. The spin doctors understand this basic bias that most word editors hold about photography, the professional hierarchy this bias has encouraged, and that it has kept most photographers at the bottom of the editorial decision making process. Since most print editors considered photography editorial window dressing, the spin doctors found they could utilize this attitude to control the content of the photographic coverage. After all, photography was reserved for wars and natural disasters or for the stupid, the mundane, the banal....the President!
The notion of a completely controled political/media event can be traced in part to the national republican and democratic conventions. Press access to the principal players at these events has, over the years, become more controlled and more difficult. The conventions themselves have become carefully orchestrated events, designed to put each party and their candidates in the best possible public light. Sometimes the best of plans can go wrong. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was a public relations disaster. Television and still cameras caught the heavy-handed tactics of the Democratic party security people preventing media access to the convention floor. Millions watched as a young CBS reporter named Dan Rather was manhandled off the convention floor in a scene that looked more like Nazi Germany than The United States of America. Just outside the convention hall, television and still cameras captured on film the Chicago Police armed with clubs, tear gas and dogs beating up a large crowd of young war protesters. The protesters group chant, "the whole world is watching" was true. The American public was shocked.
According to Daniel J. Boorstin in his book THE IMAGE: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America, the first modern master of the staged press event was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Columnist Heywood Broun called FDR "the best newspaperman who has ever been President of the United States". Indeed, FDR sometimes even suggested to assembled reporters the lede and what direction he thought their stories should take. Roosevelt generated great warmth, a natural spontaneity and simple eloquence. Part of this public persona came in part through his utilization of his own media production team, made up of journalists, poets, playwrights and a regular corps of speech writers. Roosevelt also enjoyed the trust of the Washington Press Corps, his physical problems from a bout with polio gradually restricted his mobility, consequently press photographers chose to avoid taking pictures that showed him in a wheelchair or in any awkward, unflattering poses.
Roosevelt was the first president to take advantage of the new medium of radio as a way of getting his message to the American people. Visual events were restricted to the weekly newsreels shown at the neighborhood movie house or the pages of daily newspapers and weekly news magazines. At the time television was still being perfected and only a few thousand homes in major metropolitan areas had access to any programming. Because FDR's physical movement was fairly restricted, his media handlers had to rely on the power of his words as much as the power of his visual style. A later president, Jimmy Carter attempted to utilize FDR's historic 1940's radio "Fireside Chats" on the newer medium of television in the 1970's. Unfortunately Carter's text was often obscured by his obvious visual attempts at looking informal and relaxed. A man of intense convictions, Carter failed to learn how to look and sound as sincere as he actually was. It would take the next president in line, a man with considerable acting skills to do that.

Important to any discussion of pseudo events is this historic fact. The expression NEWS RELEASE first appeared in 1907. I bring this up now because this tidy bit of paper, also known as the PRESS RELEASE impacts as much on daily local journalism as it does on the more rarefied air of Washington journalism. The notion of an announcement of an upcoming news event brings up the question as to what is the "original" of this so-called news event? A kind of dramatic performance as the "newsmaker" acts out their prepared script? Much of what gets covered in local newspaper coverage starts as a press release from some organization or other special interest group. Indeed! The late Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was a master of the pseudo event. He invented the morning press conference for the purpose of announcing the afternoon press conference which was supposed to contain some new exposure of communists subverting America. McCarthy understood the workings of daily newspapers in the early 1950's. By announcing a morning press conference the day before he gained himself headlines in the next days morning and afternoon papers. Then he might announce at this morning press conference that he needed more time to gather information, thereby gaining headlines that day in the afternoon papers and in the next morning's papers. All without saying anything. His non-event press conferences could air on that night's television news with McCarthy on camera announcing there would be further announcements later. By the 1950's, with the increasing competition between television and the print media, politicians began to recognize the intense pressure and competition the various media were under to cover the news... any news. Politicians began to recognize that this competitive edge the media brought to White House coverage could be used against the Japanese self-defense method of jujitsu, the art of using your adversary's strength and momentum against them. The pressure to compete for stories compelled the media to report events as they appeared to unfold...even non-events.
In Senator McCarthy's case his desire for constant media coverage was eventually his undoing. The emerging media of television chose to cover his senate hearings on communist subversion in America live. This unprecedented scrutiny eventually exposed McCarthy as a dangerous fake. Unfortunately for the Senator, he hadn't learned how to totally control the media's access to his crusade against communism. While media coverage was necessary to continue the momentum of a political idea, controlling that access was also important. Senator McCarthy had one very large strike against him. He didn't look good on camera! As Marshall McLuhan was to write a few years later, the medium was the message. Visuals, it was discovered, contained a kind of forensic evidence, clues that could reveal the truth or if tightly controlled, create fictions or reflected representations of what the politician wanted the viewer to believe. Senator Joseph McCarthy did not understand the medium of pictures and it helped to ruined him.
Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon learned the hard way about image and substance during a series of televised debates with Senator John F. Kennedy during the Presidential race of 1960. The first sentence of the second chapter of Joe McGinniss' book THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT 1968 reads, "Politics, in a sense, has always been a con game". McGinniss believes that Nixon lost the debate with Kennedy because the sharp unblinking eye of the television camera exposed him for what he was and the American people didn not like what they saw. Surveys of the television and radio audiences that followed those debates revealed that viewers thought Kennedy won the debates while listeners thought that Nixon had won. Nixon himself came to believe that Kennedy had won on style rather than substance. Kennedy had come across as handsome, relaxed, warm, sincere. Nixon was edgy on camera. The harsh television lighting highlighted his heavy five o'clock shadow beard. Kennedy had used makeup while Nixon didn't.
When Nixon reappeared on the political scene in 1968 to run again for president he did so with a public relations blitz that showed a Richard Nixon that was more relaxed, even mellow. Instead of fearing the media Nixon would have to embrace it. He would project the impression of a NEW Richard Nixon. He would smile more, even joke with the press. Combined with this was a series of slickly produced advertising campaigns for television and the print media, mostly for television. The campaign was centered on Nixon as metaphor for all that was good in America. Also central to his campaign was not to be caught making any political mistakes. Not making any statements the press could use against him. Indeed, Nixon's handlers saw to it that his live appearances on television were centered around answering questions from audiences full of carefully selected republicans or your average slob just off the street. No tricky questions from articulate, well read, smart-assed liberal reporters. Like a heavyweight fighter Nixon's moves were slow and cautious, calculated to reduce possible damage by his opponent democrat Hubert Humphrey. Minimize your own screw-up in the press and let the other guy screw himself in public by giving the wrong answer to a loaded question. It worked for Nixon in 1968 and 1972 and it has worked for presidential candidates ever since. The medium was the message!
By the time of the presidential race of 1980 and the two, four year terms that followed, the handlers for candidate and later President Ronald Reagan had learned from the lessons of the Nixon campaigns eight and twelve years before. What evolved was a candidate and later president who's contact with the press was carefully stage managed. A steady stream of positive, smiling, energetic Ronald Reagan photo opportunities were offered, no matter how bad the political news might be that day. The president was always kept at a distance from negative publicity. Reagan's staffers created a president who was, according to reporter Mark Hertsgaard in his book ON BENDED KNEE, "a nearly fictional, prime-time president", through an interplay of reality with a highly calculated media illusion. The photo opportunity became a important vehicle for selling the president to the American people. Reporters covering the White House gave little notice to this steady stream of seemingly unimportant photo sessions for photographers only.
According to Carol Squires in her piece NOTES ON PICTURING SCANDAL, "the photo opportunity remained highly visible but essentially unexplained because journalists and other political specialists who trafficked in words treated it as a poor relation. It was the triumphant visuals that shaped and promoted the Reagan presidency (even though) they were considered too pedestrian, too anti-intellectual, too simplistic to be dealt with seriously." Reagan's media handlers understood that if the public got to see five minutes or four column inches of Reagan looking energetic, patriotic, smiling and sweet, they didn't care what ten reporters were saying or writing about him. The visuals, no matter how absurd, always predominated over the printed word. Reagan's handlers designed and preconceived every Presidential appearance in terms of camera angles. Photographers felt they were on a movie stage. White House staffers came to believe that bad news could be offset by positive visuals. Indeed daily news coverage had become a series of media pseudo events! Reagan's press secretary Larry Speaks had a sign on his desk that read, "YOU DON'T TELL US HOW TO STAGE THE NEWS, WE WON'T TELL YOU HOW TO COVER IT".

So that's politics as usual you say. Thank goodness we don't get our news served up to us here in Philadelphia that way. Sez you I say!
Several years ago a press release passed over my desk at The Inquirer's Conshohocken Bureau. The "what" was a protest being held by The Chester County Coalition For Animal Rights and Environment. This event was being held to protest a proposed deer hunt to be held at nearby Ridley Creek State Park. This "news event" was to be staged in the form of a dance. According to the press release " The graceful, fawn-like Prima Ballerina of the New York City Ballet, will dance to bear witness to the coming slaughter of the equally graceful four-legged fawns at Ridley Creek State Park". A reporter and photographer were going to be assigned to cover this so-called event. Fortunately nature stepped in with a nasty blast of winter weather and the event was canceled.
Unfortunately, more and more local news is covered by our local media based on similarly absurd news tips. Even when the tips are not as silly, the basis for coverage is often just as flimsy. For instance, Hillary Rodham Clinton visited a day care program for the elderly in Newtown Township Pennsylvania. The photo assignment indicated she would be visiting the facility along with Pennsylvania State Senator Harris Wofford and the two of them would hold sessions with the families of the elderly being cared for in the home while promoting the administration's health care reform plan. Indeed. Senator Wofford happened to be running for re-election and a visit from the White House would also put the light of a lot of media attention on him, no matter how mundane the event. Again, the medium was the message, pictures of Senator Wofford and the First Lady caring about the elderly. Wofford got his political exposure with the White House and Mrs. Clinton got more media coverage for her health care plan. Other staged media events serve as a platform for free advertising for area businesses.
Borders Books and Music Store in Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania features weekly musical and literary events at their store. During any given month it is not unusual for The Inquirer's bureau in Rosemont to put in a photo assignment to cover at least two of these events. Therefore a supposed local "event" that merits photographic coverage by the areas largest newspaper ends up providing the host of that event with a large amount of free publicity. Interestingly, other area business have begun to cash in on The Inquirer's attempt to cover the community outside the city limits of Philadelphia. In one case a local business began getting itself listed as an area "event" in The Inquirer's weekend magazine section which is dedicated to covering things to do in the Philadelphia area. This same business, which is actually a collective of small trendy stores, began sending out news type press releases to area media announcing feature type events that would be happening on it's property. One such "news event" was a bird house building contest. Naturally a photo assignment was turned in. During a recent summer period photo assignments averaged one a week to the grounds of this better than average pseudo-event generator. Many of these "soft-news" events were designed to be covered by pictures only, which not unlike the strategy of the Reagan White House, provide a sense of news coverage without any reporting. Where does the media draw the line between genuine news events that deserve to be covered and staged media events that only serve some special interest.
Unfortunately pictures fill space for busy editors attempting to compete, despite shrinking news gathering resources, with smaller area newspapers. However, these same well intentioned editors often carry the same professional bias towards photography that enabled the Reagan press handlers to use the media for it's own spin on the news. Indeed. As the cartoon character Pogo once said, "we have met the enemy and he is us."

Every time I back out of my driveway into my usually deserted street and find a slow moving car blocking my path or try to turn left across what had been an equally deserted street only to find an oncoming car blocking my turn, I begin to wonder if something funny is going on.
I mean it. I'm enough of a cynic to question circumstances that are supposed to be beyond my control. Like standing in a long line at the bank and after your turn finally comes discovering there is no one waiting behind you. When these things happen more than once and often enough to become a pattern it can make the sanest citizen wonder aloud....."is this part of some twisted PLAN?"
I've become something of a student of the phenomenon. Indeed. As a working photojournalist for the past twenty or so years I've behaved as something of a collaborator with this thing that I now know has a name....Synchronicity.
Photographers deal in bits and pieces of time. Ever thinner slices of reality that can, after a long career spanning several decades, only amount to a couple of seconds worth of moments preserved.
Anyway. After spending a considerable portion of my life making a living in photography I have come to the conclusion that there is indeed something funny going on...reality-wise that is.
Serious scientific explorations have studied random physical conjunctions and how they coexist with the rest of reality. One researcher, a turn-of-the-century biologist named Paul Kammerer decided that these juxtapositions could be explained as objective physical phenomena. At the same time he had come to believe that these so-called meaningful coincidences implied some kind of expanded vision of reality.
Really! A generation later Swiss psychologist Dr. Karl Gustav Jung gave this funny stuff a name....Synchronicity....which according to the dictionary means, "the fact or state of being synchronous; simultaneous occurrence."
Some years ago an obscure group of artists who called themselves Realists decided that there was a parallel universe that existed next to our own and that through the materials of their art they could uncover or tear through the veil that separated the two worlds. Indeed. At about the same time the surrealists art movement of the 1920's had decided that reality itself was a man-made fiction and existed independent of what they found in their art.
Which brings me back to backing out of my driveway and making pictures from fractions of a second. Both acts have often provided me with some interesting stuff to consider. My driving adventures have produced enough improbable situations to convince me that something with a cosmic sense of humor is diddling with my life. My photographs often contain more information than I had signed on for when I pressed the shutter. That is not to say that I don't always know exactly what I'm photographing when I photograph. Indeed, I don't always do....or don't know. But I do make the pictures. And if I am lucky, something wonderfully funny appears in my tray of dektol later on.
It's part magic and part poker playing. I ferret out things from places I reckon will produce interesting stuff. I figure the magic will follow if I'm lucky. A lot of the time I think I see what I'm seeing in the camera view finder. Which is to say I'm not too surprised if I don't.
The camera has a wonderful way of looking at the world and part of my education in it's use has been the slow understanding of how to allow the camera to do it's thing without my getting in the way. I prefer the 35mm camera. You have to hold it up to your face and this shortens the physical distance between your brain and the shutter. I believe in instinct and intuition and the short distance between brain and finger allow the two to operate. Often the stuff I am looking at is moving at near light-speed in front of me. I can't afford to let too much conscience thinking get in the way of interesting pictures. Pre-conceived notions are best left at home. Instead I prefer to look at things with the visual ignorance of a visitor to a strange land.
Of course with the camera film plane pressed against my forehead it is possible that the film is merely responding directly to my unconscious thought
Photographer Jerry Uelsmann thinks that dektol must be sensitive to thought. How else can you explain the difference between two prints from the same negative he has reasoned. Jerry sees a lot of Karma-like stuff surrounding his photographic journey. Photographer-critic Bill Jay reasoned in his book OCCAM'S RAZOR that underlying all this randomness in reality is a remarkable symmetry to the physical stuff we call if something was trying to tell us something.

The meaning of the written word is transmitted to the reader through learned visual symbols that are used to represent spoken language. The narrative in a photograph is transmitted to the viewer through a slightly more complex set of symbols, not as learned symbols but rather as visual shared experience. The visual symbols are generally more complex than the written symbol because the potential message in a photograph is less subject to a strict set of coded meanings.The visual dialogue in the interpretation of a photograph is subject to the personal point of view brought to that dialogue based on the past experience of the viewer of that photograph. This personal bias that the viewer brings to the reading of a photograph creates an editorial filter between viewer and photographer. Consequently photographs do not always relay the exact message to the viewer that was intended by the photographer. Different viewers can come away from the reading of a photograph with different interpretations of the content of that photograph. Despite this difference, writing and photography have much more in common than most journalists would fact they both utilize a similar set of skills and strategies.

Both writer and photographer approach their subject matter from the perspective of the outsider looking in. This observational distance enables the reporter/photographer to maintain a cultural-emotional detachment that will hopefully result in a reportage that has a more encompassing perspective than the one of those being observed. This kind of reporting detachment is known among professionals as a "fly on the wall" approach to reporting a story.This analogy is convenient and appropriate. Like the fly on the wall the reporter and the photographer prefer to observe and record unnoticed or at the very least without making any noticeable intrusion on the evolving narrative as it unfolds before them. Distilling these observations is, for the writer, a matter of referring to notes and memory while writing the story. The photographer however has to capture fractions of a second from the real time flow of this narrative and in the process hopefully record the essence and meaning of those observations in single slices of time. There is seldom opportunity for a second chance. The photographer's notes are the contact sheets produced from the rolls of film shot during that period of observation. Both the writer and the photographer look for the journalistic `hook' that can turn the mundane into the interesting. Creating this hook involves the tactic of exclusion. To include all the elements of a story in a final narrative would likely result in a reportage as chaotic as reality itself, and therefore probably unreadable. Writing is, by it's very nature, a process of elimination from the whole. Writing involves focusing on simple narrative within a larger more complex whole. In photography the act of making a photograph also involves the act of exclusion. Part of this process comes naturally due to the unique properties of the camera's chemical-optical-mechanical process. The physical laws of optics enable the camera's lens to cut through the visual chaos of everyday life. The photographer furthers this selection process through focusing and framing those areas of a visual narrative important to the story. Both acts of exclusion are generally the end result of conscious decisions made by the writer or the photographer.

Writing and photography utilize similar strategies of story telling and reporting through common narrative tools. Juxtaposition of story elements within a paragraph or single photo frame is one common tactic. The use of juxtaposition in a story or visual construction can involve such narrative designs as contrast or comparison of story elements. These may utilize ironic or humorous juxtaposition of individual parts within a story or within the frame of a single photograph.
For example: Garbage man John Doe emerged from
his chauffeur drive Mercedes Benz
and told the assembled group of
reporters in front of City Hall,
"I'm just a regular guy who lives
like everybody else".

Another narrative tactic that also works in writing and photography is ambiguity of meaning or intention. In writing this may emerge through the use of words designed to cloud or confuse the context of their usage. This kind of written ambiguity is commonly referred to as "double speak" by those familiar with George Orwell's book 1984. For those who record American history the most obvious example of this kind of ambiguity occurs daily in our own government. One major example occurred in 1947 when the U.S. War Department was renamed the Department of Defense. The U.S. government had decided that the United States only defended itself from foreign aggression and did not make war on anybody else. Since 1947 U.S. troops have~`defended'the United States against foreign aggression in Korea, the Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, and Kuwait. During the recent Gulf War the U.S. military used euphemisms like "delivering their ordnance" (instead of dropping bombs) to minimize "collateral damage" (kill innocent civilians). Soldiers killed in action were "casualties" instead of dead. Iraq's Saddam Hussein referred to the foreign hostages he took early in the confrontation as "guests"(hostages) who were "housed"(detained) at certain of his military facilities "to prevent U.S. aggression" (as human shields) against his country. In these examples language was used as a means of depersonalization of human tragedy or a way to try and divert world opinion. Certain words invoke predictable responses from the reader. If used out of context the meaning of
adjacent words can also be altered. Consider a full page ad for a color television system. On the screen of the television set in the picture is a crisply beautiful color image that appears much sharper and of better color quality than the humble set in your living room. However, underneath the photographed television set is a single sentence that reads, "actual closed circuit picture". The advertising code of ethics demands truthfulness in advertising...indeed it is. However, that closed circuit image was generated from a few feet away instead of the miles the signal to your home tv travels, so a closed circuit image is usually of superior quality to the one you get on your set at home. Most readers do not take the time to consider the meaning of that sentence. By starting the claim with the word`actual'the advertiser is confusing the real implication of the term` closed circuit'. People generally assume that anything they read inside the space of an advertisement is there to promote the product. Tobacco packagers figured that out when they chose to displayed the government health warning like part of the product design on cigarette packs.
Photographs are not immune to ambiguity of content. Scholars of photography have long suspected and generally admitted that the photographic process lent
itself to ambiguity. In part this was seen as a natural element of the chemical-mechanical, two-dimensional optics of the medium.
Ambiguity in photography is also a matter of confusion over context of elements within the photograph's four walls. As with written ambiguity, this tactic is intended to confront the reader's intellect rather than simply attempt to record some facts. Ambiguity may be utilized to convey the confusion generated by the narrative itself. Both writing and photography also utilize analogy and metaphor to tell a good story or report some facts. One famous photographer once used analogy to explain the creative process of his medium by pointing out that good photography was analogous to good poker playing. Both crafts required a knowledge of the technique, insight into the other players, and a little luck. He could have just as well used the same analogy to explain the process of reporting. Simply put, both utilize the same native narrative elements. The difference, of course, falls within the tools these journalists use to record these facts.
Recognizing these strategies while reporting a story involves sensitivity to similar visual and narrative inputs for both the writer and the photographer.
Organizing this information, for the photographer, at the moment of execution of the photograph or in the case of the writer, during the translation of thoughts and impressions into words, often comes from that well of unconscious creativity known as intuition. Recognizing this aspect of the creative process is generally not included in classes on basic reporting and writing. Probably sounds too much like intellectual voodoo in some scholarly journalism circles.
Years ago a reporter colleague of mine once described his writing technique as sitting down in front of his word processor and the words flowed out like water from a faucet. He didn't know where those ideas came from but he was thankful that they did. Another analogy to describe the undescribable!
Clearing the mind and accepting this generally misunderstood source of creative help is an important part of growth for both writer and photographer.
Through acceptance or at least understanding,intuition can hopefully be harnessed and utilized as part of the reporting process.
Interesting. Smacks of art and literature. Worse yet I've begun to suggest that subjectivity rather than objectivity may play a large role in all this reporting and photojournalism stuff.
Lets face it. If you leave stuff out during the editing process then the notion that your resulting observations are totally objective is nonsense.
Writers began to take notice of the camera's attention to detail almost as soon as the medium appeared in the late 1830's. American novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James utilized the vision of the camera lens in their writing and Hawthorne even introduced a photographer as a major character in his book House of the Seven Gables. According to author Carol Shloss, Henry James used camera language in explaining the dynamics of narrative; metaphors of lenses, frames and at the same time saw photography as having the capability of subjectivity rather than as a totally neutral medium of observation. Shloss also notes that Henry James compared the writers gathering of details of a scene with the vision of the camera.
Fifty years later writer John Dos Passos utilized a narrative device in his essay The 42nd Parallel with he called the CAMERA EYE. These were bursts of stream of consciousness writing within the more traditional framework of his narrative. Dos Passos recognized the effect of the camera's eye on the writer`s field of vision. Writers like Dos Passos recognized that photographic vision was not a passive activity ruled by the actions of the thing being recorded but rather the result of conscious selection on the part of the person operating the camera. Like the writer who filters and edits the material to be included in the written narrative, the photographer also edited reality through cropping in the viewfinder and the moment the shutter was snapped. Writers also viewed narrative time as a continuous flow while they saw photographic time as `stopped time'. Writers used this photographic time as a narrative device when they wished to stop the time in their narratives, hence Dos Passos' CAMERA EYE.
In his book TIME PIECES, Writer/photographer Wright Morris observed that through his attempts to create visual narrative he became a photographer and through his experience as a photographer he became more of a writer. Morris found that most of his written impression were"little more than sketches, verbal pictures of places, of time-stopped moments. As I gathered these impressions it became apparent that I was making images with the characteristics of photographs."
Strategy plays an important part in the editing of photographs, both in the viewfinder while composing the elements within a visual narrative as it falls together or on the page during layout of pictures that hopefully `read' together. One common strategy in photography is the use of juxtaposition of elements within a single frame or across the page. Contrast and contradiction between narrative elements can provide irony or humor when seen as a whole.
Writer John McPhee noted that "structure is the juxtaposition of parts, the way in which two parts of a piece of writing, merely by lying side-by-side, can comment on each other without a word spoken." Common strategies indeed. The literary journalists, which McPhee is a founding member of, believe that the voice of the writer shows through in written narrative but at the same time this writer voice should provide journalistic accuracy. Unlike the straight news story's inverted pyramid style, the writing of the literary journalist introduces a narrative structure that allows for complexity, contradiction, and as McPhee pointed out juxtaposition of parts. Indeed, those narrative elements, both visual and written, that provide a kind of `stress' to the final result are what make for good writing and photography.