Friday, February 1, 2008


Philadelphia Inquirer Picture Editor

A growing number of photojournalists have come to believe that a documentary photograph cannot remain a neutral witness to the events it records. This belief has evolved in part from a recognition of the lack of direct realism in the photographic process, and, that both the photographer and viewer of a photograph bring to that visual dialogue their own agendas of intent. Years ago life magazine photo editor Wilson Hicks recognized that mental filter the viewer brings to his interpretpation of a photograph, calling it the "X Factor."
Sometimes the viewer can come away from a photographic dialogue with an entirely different reading from that of the photographer, Hicks wrote. Part of the photograph's inability to remain a faithful witness to reality comes from the photograph being a two-dimensional object that is capable of transmitting an experience of its own, with several levels of meaning that may or may not be directly related to the facts orginally recorded.
In her controversial book, ON PHOTOGRAPHY, Susan Sontag wrote: "Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise; in the very creation of a duplicate world, in a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than that perceived by natural vision."
The possiblity of surrealism, art if you must, being part of the photogrpahic process raises questions of ethics for the journalistic photographer who believes in documentry narrative. News photographers have traditionally been loathed to allign themselves with the fine art photographers, sensing that built-in bias' the art photographer brings to their work.
The primary difference between art and journalism is one of intent, the why of recording the image. These news photographers who have questioned the basic truthfulness of photographic communication were described by Adam Weinberg of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis as being, " `On the line' between two worlds. Not easily classified as simply art photographers or photojournalists, these are among a signifcant number of hybrid photographers whose work defies strict categorization ..."
History shows that since the invention of photography the syntax of photographic communication has undergone continual change. Faster film and lighter, smaller equipment made it easier for the photographer to gain access to meaningful situations. Turn-of-the-century photo guru Alfred Steiglitz was one of the first to recognize the potential of the early small hand-held camera. In 1897 he wrote: "The hand-held camera is here to stay...its importance is acknowledged. A word to the wise is sufficient."
Steiglitz was convinced that photography should stand as a unique art form of its own, not a machine attempting drawings and paintings. In 1913 he wrote: "Photographers must learn not to be ashamed to have their photographs look like imitate painting, may amuse those who understand neither the fundamental idea of photography nor the fumdamental idea of painting."
While turn-of-the century documentarians Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine demonstrated that photographs could be an important tool for causing social change, it was another, more radical look fifty years later at what Americans considered their culture that forced photographers to re-think their notions of photographic seeing. Swiss born photographer Robert Frank traveled the back roads of 1950s America, his book, THE AMERICANS®MDUL¯ ®MDNM¯blew the lid off the complacency of the photographic community. When his book was finally allowed in American bookstores, photographic writers were highly critical. Frank's photographs reflected a frantic, tilted jarring snapshot aesthetic that is uniquely part of the photographic process. To the critics his work appeared sloppy, even amateurish. Frank's work echoed the work of the Beat Generation poets and writers of the time. Jack Kerouac observed in the forward of Frank's book that: "He sucked a sad poem out of America."
Frank's approach appeared disordered, the content of his photographs seemed to refute American culture and photographic purists were offended by his style. Ironically Frank received his momentum from Walker Evans, the Depression era recorder of balanced empty spaces. Through Evans, Frank received the financial aid he needed to travel and publish his book. During the years between the influence of Steiglitz and Frank other, more poetic visionarys with cameras had added to the library of photographic language. In Europe Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson saw narrative balance and composition in everday events. Both responded to the intuitive element in picture making, their finely tuned eyes slicing ever smaller fractions of time into photographic moments. Photographers continue to give recognition to the power of the mind in the creative link between mind, heart, and shutter. In his book PERSONAL EXPOSURES®MDUL¯,®MDNM¯ Elliott Erwitt wrote: "When the photograph happens, it comes easily, as a gift that should not be questioned or analyzed."
Ususally a man of few words about photography but who's work displays a keen insight and a ready wit, Erwitt also revealed that knowledgable luck also plays an important role.
"The parallels between winning at poker and taking good pictures are close. Luck and a feeling for the players, along with a seventh sense, are the major ingredients."
Surrealism in photography first found acceptance with the Dada art community in Europe during the 1920s. Early pracititioners of Dada photography, like Man Ray, turned to montage...cutting and pasting different images together to create a surreal whole. Unrecognized by the dadists, journalistic
photogaphers working for the German picture magazines were producing editorial photogaphs that contained their own narrative surrealism. Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Martin Munkacsi, all were experimenting with pushing the limits of the two-dimensional `straight' photograph.
Years later, in his book OF PARIS AND NEW YORK,®MDUL¯ ®MDNM¯Andre Kertesz echoed Susan Sontag's recognition of the surrealistic in photography. "It is through the mediation of photography that we are permitted to seize the unreal forms of life which demand at least one second of motionlessness in order to be perceptible."
Unlike many of his generation in photogarphy, Kertesz had allowed the surreal aspect of the process to step forward naturally in those fractions of a second.
Today those who follow these instincts while reporting with a camera are known as the New Photojournalists. In {cf49}ON THE LINE: THE NEW COLOR PHOTOJOURNALISM,{cf48}®MDUL¯ ®MDNM¯Adam Weinberg wrote: "The balance between personal vision and factual information in these images is highly reminiscent of the New Journalism of the mid-1960s in which writers Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson and Truman Capote wrote nonfiction using the techniques of fiction."
These new photojournalists have seized on this body of work from the past. Garry Winogrand did editoral work but never considered himself a photojournalist. His relationship to the photographic process was summed up very simply by him.
"When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts."
Winogrand recognized the surreal in his work by observing that there was nothing more ambigious than a thing that had been clearly described. The new photojournalists believe the photographic process is too loaded with different interpretations to remain a vehicle of complete neutrality. They seek to record the truth by understanding the `otherness' in the photographic dialogue, recognizing the complexity of a news story and the relationship of photographs to the story.
Robert Capa once observed that if your photographs aren't good enough, you must not be close enough. Today, these photographers move in close and gather up large chunks of information by utilizing the shorter focal-length lens. Moving in close, the cropping becomes more radical, the relationships between center and periphery, foreground and background, become more complicated. This decentering of the center of interest in the frame often leads to a more complicated sense of Cartier-Bresson's `decesive moment.'
Life Magazine, in their 150th anniversary of photography issue observed: "An altogether new breed has emerged, producing different work in a different way. Instead of telling a tale with a beginning, middle and end, they offer a collection of facets, weaving a complex tapestry of visual information that demands a high level of participation from the viewer."
This utilization of the shorter focal length lens in news has been championed by members of the French photo agencies and has to some extent influenced mainstream American photojournalism. Unfortunately some resistence still exists to the use of a tool that demands the photo reporter work in very close to the subject because it also carries with it a certain amount of characteristic visual distortion as well. Younger news photographers feel the risk of some distortion is worth the utilization of the wide angle perspective. Using the shorter lenses allows the photographer to record both subject and enviornment, thereby allowing the photographer to record more information in a single image.
In a recent interview with American Photographer magazine the associate curator of photographic collections at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House , Marianne Fulton explained her belief that American news photogarphy has been greatly influenced by the visual content and style of European photographers such as Gillis Caron and Raymond Depardon, co-founders of the Sygma photo agency. It is ironic that this American reluctance to follow the European lead in current visual approach to news gathering, is not unlike the reluctance shown by American news organizations over the use of the smaller format 35mm cameras during the 1930s and up until the mid-1950s.
Back then technical concerns slowed the evolution of the visual news gathering process in this country. Bulky large format cameras and fill flash dominated the American news photography scene for years as the European photographers made revealing, thought-provoking available-light reportages for their publications.
In this country this evolution of photojournalitic content and form has been allowed to happen in the magazine market. In several recent issues National Geographic Magazine has lead the way with issues and essays that utilized this new visual approach. The July 1989 issue devoted to the 200th birthday of the French Republic featured a color essay on French fashion by William Albert Allard that broke away from the restraints of `tradtional' photojournalism. Allard's images featured radical cropping and wide-angle juxtapositions of content.
In February 1988 National Geographic featured a black and white essay on the ethnic makeup of Australian society.
The essay consisted of a series of portraits by Mary Ellen Mark. Seemingly unrelated, these enviornmental portraits provided a compelling vehicle for revealing the myriad cultures that now inhabit the Australian continent.
In September 1989 Life Magazine ran a searing black and white essay on Northern Ireland by Gillis Peress who makes almost exclusive use of the wide angle lens shot from very close perspective. Peress is perhaps the most dramatic of this new breed of photojournalist who has moved away from the traditional narrative of beginning, middle, and end in the visual essay to the layering of impressions through related photographs that "weave a complex tapestry."
Gone too is the movie making apporach to the photo essay. The use of the long shot, medium shot, and close-up to make the story appear more visually interesting. Photo critic Fred Ritchin once said the following about the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson: ...(he)"Photographs an event through its reverberations, not feeling compelled to focus on its center." Ritchin could just has easily been talking about the approach of these new photojournalists. As John Szarkowski wrote years ago, "Good photographers had long since known...whether or not they admitted it to their editors...that most issues of importance cannot be photographed."
Indeed! Fred Ritchin also considered this questioning of the journalistic photographer of his role in the communication process. "The increasing frustration and complexity of the role has led many, to at the very least rethink the nature of the act of witnessing, so that the strength of the image begins to reside less in the proffered experience of direct seeing and more in the paradox of appearance, less an easy identification by the reader with what the photographer depicts and more a rethinking of relationships...among reader, subject, and photographer."
Indeed, indeed! Garry Winogrand said it in much simplier terms. " The camera cannot lie, neither can it tell the truth. It can only transform."
Lastly Fred Ritchin provides a final assault on so-called traditional usage of photojouranlism.
"If photojournalism continues, simply to illustrate what the words say, what the editors want, then it will rapidly dig its own grave and become more and more a second-class medium. Instead it should be used to do expositions and explorations parallel to word journalism."
Do we remain within the confines of traditional photojournalism or do we reinvent its language?
Do we look at the process of observation, literal description and the so-called reality of the photographic process.
In the August 1974 issue of The National Press Photographer magazine Phil Douglis of the Douglis Visual Workshops wrote: "Since photographs can mean many things to many people, depending upon the context that each reader brings to them, they can carry a variety of meanings, bring breadth and depth to an idea, broadening their usefulness to both those who publish them and those who view them. And, when such photographs contain content that confronts the viewer's intellect as well as his emotions, the reader can actually be provoked into an internal intellectual `dialogue.' The photo can stimulate his thinking instead of simply showing him what something `looks like,' or `grabbing his attention.' It can go far beyond the stated and often limited reason for appearing in the paper in the first place."
Douglis was exposed to this `radical' view of news photography while attending a workshop headed by the late Minor White, editor of Aperture Magazine and head of the photography program at MIT.
Douglis believed that there needn't be a gap between the apparent ambiguity of the photographic image and it's use in the communication process. Indeed, he instead stresses the need for photojournalists to understand and respect this aspect of the medium and be able to utilize it in their work. Like the New Photojournalists, he believes this native ability of the photograph to transform reality can also add an important dimension to the news gathering effectiveness of the newspaper photographer. The New Photojournalists confront this built-in lack of neutrality in visual communication, both on the part of the photographer and the reader, this dual role of narrator and story teller.
Well written literary prose is often found in the work of those involved in the process of gathering news who are also widely respected by their colleagues in the newsroom. Unfortunately, aside from the pages of some high quality magazine work, there is little evidence of this kind of photogarphic work being seen by American readers in daily newspaper photojournalism today.
We are entering a period when the photographic process is beginning to undergo radical technical change. The darkroom of the past 150 years is about to change. Electronic image gathering may soon change the way photographs are recorded and placed on the printed page. While the business of putting the image on paper changes, the act of `seeing' will not. If photography evolves from a mechanical-chemical recording process to an electronic one, the importance of the `why' a picture is made will still be, to me, the most important step in the visual process. The editorial and political process that filters what gets on the printed page will probably change very little. People make pictures and people control how they are utilized. The hardware will continually evolve and change. Human nature changes very little.
American photojournalism must further evolve, become a full and equal partner in the medium of journalism by fulfilling it's potential as a unique and thought provoking vehicle for providing information to the reader on it's own terms rather than continuing to mirror the agenda of the printed word.
That is the challange of journalistic photographers going into the 1990's.

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