Thursday, December 17, 2009

When Photographs Deserve to be Activated...



I emphasized the following points as part of a lecture to the Northern Short Course, a regional symposium of the National Press Photographers' Association, in 2000:

When he referred to this painting by Leon Golub, the art critic Robert Hughes wrote for TIME magazine, “It sets one’s teeth on edge... the sense of the picture, against the massive but hopelessly vulnerable arches of his victims’ backs, with an awful precision. In the end, there are some tasks that painting can do and photography cannot. No camera is allowed in the basements of power that Golub has made peculiarly his own.”

Perhaps he might have asked the artist for more background. Not long before, I had read a review and then visited a gallery in Manhattan giving a solo show to Golub’s work. I felt so moved by the pictures drawn from his imagination — pictures of mercenaries, death squads and their victims — that I returned the next day with a letter and the gift of a print. I felt an overwhelming sense of communication with this painter, even though we had never met, because the things I had seen with my own eyes were exactly what had been filling his mind’s eye.

When Golub phoned me, and asked if he could base a painting on what I had seen, I was more than pleased and refused the thought of taking any money for my input. We have even discussed a series of future paintings that will make permanent a few memories of mine that I missed getting onto film. It may become a bit like a witness being quizzed by a police sketch artist, except we will be trying for something much more than a mug shot.

When the Rutgers University Press published a monumental monograph of the artist’s work a few weeks after the TIME interview, Golub wrote, “Baughman left this photo at my exhibition at the Caldwell Gallery. While I ordinarily do not compose so directly from photos, in this instance the image was so strongly defined that I was impelled to ‘appropriate’ it.” In other writings, he went on to thank the photographer “to whom I owe a lot” and for being “really influential in the recent work” and “a further collaboration.” This recent work, in Golub’s intention, assembles “the face of the modern world, a composite portrait constructed from bits of photographic data.”

But it is so much more than a portrait. The answer to issues raised by Hughes is clear. Photography can do the work. And photojournalists are the right people for the job.

But what was Hughes getting at? People with a taste for art, who so often direct the assignments, the look and the final choices for much of the visual communication in print these days, have come to think of photography in very limited terms. Much of what they use, and about all they encourage from their photographers on assignment, are faces, little more than nouns made into icons. Their love of typography has reached an all-time high. Many of the special packages they make for front pages, section fronts, magazine covers and double-page spreads turn to art work or studio still lifes. Sometimes photographs get really tiny.

But I don’t blame them.

We’re going through an extended period where editors don’t seem to think that photojournalism deserves bigger play. But I think a stronger case can be made. Icons can make for a very arresting display in print. When people read about a person, it’s an honest curiosity to want to see the face to go with the name. Many stories are locked into past events that we have already missed, or are keyed into abstract concepts like time, scale and economy that don’t call out for an eyewitness.

But sooner or later, great photojournalists will stop settling on portraiture, preparing themselves ahead of time with higher ambitions. As professionals, we will still have to do a good job on the requests that are handed to us, but by thinking things through, making lots of cold phone calls to strangers, asking lots of questions, we will be more and more often able to put our finger on the essence of a story, ahead of time. We should be able to anticipate events, budget and schedule our time wisely and compete with our own work, offer the same subjects, still beautifully seen, but in the midst of narrative action.

Set a more challenging standard. Activate the icons, activate them in such a way so that we see the heart of the issue, the essence. As a viewer, I like pictures that say loud and clear how the subjects feel. For me, the best pictures are essential, diagrammatic, active, argumentative, narrative, pure projections of at least one of the subject’s points-of-view.

Do not be distracted by many of the old totems in journalism which, although familiar and comforting, are simply delusions. When we hold up our work and ask, “Is it truthful?” I’d say, “Who’s truth?”

If you want to ask, “Is it fair?” I’d say “Why are we tempted to play the role of judge?”

If some people insist on asking, “Is it fresh?” I can’t help thinking, “So many amazing things have never been definitively witnessed. It’s a stunning backlog we have yet to cover.”

Try to ration the amount with which you rely on static surfaces. As photojournalists we so often simplify our intentions that the ‘why’ is never answered, which might be well and better addressed with greater context.

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