Author Mark E. Johnson

The Moments in Between

Anderson Cooper did a segment for 60 Minutes on music photographer Danny Clinch.

His phrasing about looking for the moments in between, I concur that’s where the magic happens. Miss growing out of mouths are just not that interesting, but when someone gets lost in her music … that’s the moment.

Also, how cool is it that 60 Minutes is doing segments on photographers?

Photographing What You’re Interested In

This is an interesting video where Lee Friedlander talks about how his projects come together. And that wording is precise – he and the other panelists talk about the process of making images and then looking to see what you’re making images of and from that deciding if there’s a project.

Friedlander says, “I don’t know what I’m interested in until I see it.”

Fascinating look at the process.

On Photographing Everything

Here comes the cynical me … Jonathan Freeland wrote a pice for The Guardian about our penchant to record everything.

They will not need to look at sunsets and palm trees, for they will have flawless copies on their devices (click!). The great scale of the Notre Dame cathedral, in Paris, or the Colosseum, in Rome, will bring no risk of eyestrain: they will be able to see the grandeur of these sites in harmless digital miniature (click!).

(Insert get off my lawn comment here …)

But it’s true, isn’t it? That these devices we carry, more powerful than those that sent us to the moon, are used for the most banal of things. Encoding memories takes effort – effort to observe, effort to process, effort to remember. Snapping a quick selfie does none of those things – the advancement of technology have hurt our innate ability to recall the moments in our own lives.

There are studies that show taking notes by hand, instead of by keyboard, improves our comprehension.

It’s more the disengagement with reality and, in effect, shared experiences that concern me. Yes, I carry a camera everywhere. Yes, I take photos everywhere. But rarely selfies (three? Maybe four in my life?) and almost always they are intentionally composed after observing what’s before me. (My family hates this – I can’t walk up to something, glance, snap a pic and move on. Once I’m there, I look all around, studying before finding the vantage point I believe will best share that visage with others.)

Last week, I was wandering around Virginia and decided to put in some time and foot traffic at Petersburg National Battlefield, site of one of the most spectacular (and ill fated) moves of the Civil War. At many of the stops along the trail, I came across groups of teens and young adults. From a distance, this made me happy – people out experiencing history, walking the blood soaked grounds from where our country came to be.

Then I noticed they weren’t looking around, they were looking through their devices. Hunting not knowledge but Pokemon.

I’m now thinking of putting a sketching assignment into my photojournalism classes – force them to observe, to ponder, to decide what belongs and what does not.

How Photographing Objects Leads to People

One of the great challenges in photojournalism is being told to photograph a thing. It may be a building or a bridge or a birdcage, but, chances are, unless you have the ability to light the daylights out of it, it’s going to be static.

And static isn’t great for news photographs. My mantra has always been we tell stories through people. Someone lived or worked in the building, someone built the bridge, someone put a bird in the birdcage – that’s there the story comes in.

So stumbling across this Alec Soth piece about being asked to photograph the oldest living tree in the world and how that grew into tying into aging made me smile.

That photo of Lloyd sitting on a picnic bench? Man, does that resonate with me. It speaks about the costs of survival, the will to continue on …

Contracts Matter, Post-Death Avedon Edition

A fascinating piece in The New York Times about a set of prints made by Reudi Hoffman for Ricahrd Avedon’s “In the American West” series. He has 126 large prints he claims were his payment for printing the exhibition, but without documentation he cannot sell them.

One more reason why getting agreements in writing matters.

We’ve lost Bill Cunningham

The New York Times has reported that Bill Cunningham, its beloved fashion photographer, has passed. He was 87.

I am not a person overly concerned with fashion (just ask my wife or students), but I would dip into his work from time to time not so much to see what was trendy but because his approach to documenting fashion focused more on the people and how they used it to represent themselves then on the designers. His version of street photography was engaging and, as his editors said, highly ethical. That’s something to be admired.

“When I’m photographing,” Mr. Cunningham once said, “I look for the personal style with which something is worn — sometimes even how an umbrella is carried or how a coat is held closed. At parties, it’s important to be almost invisible, to catch people when they’re oblivious to the camera — to get the intensity of their speech, the gestures of their hands. I’m interested in capturing a moment with animation and spirit.”

In 2010, a documentary about him was made that he reluctantly appeared in. According to the Times article, he went to its premiere not to be a part of the show, but to document it. 

Not Trusting Our Viewers

There has been a lot written about the images of Steve McCurry being altered – whether is was his staff, his staff under his direction or the man himself doesn’t really matter. The images were altered and a photographer who has been held highly for decades for his journalism work is not rebranding himself as a “visual storyteller.”

Which is fine, I actually have no problem with him going forward with that. I do have some issues with him repurposing older work, from an era when he branded himself as a photojournalist. It is his work, he can do with it as he sees fit, but I think it should be disclosed that these images have been altered.

That’s just my opinion.

Over at Reading the Pictures, Lewis Bush has his take on the situation.* In it, there’s this one line that really resonated with me that I think anyone working under the auspices of journalism should take to heart:

I’m mad because (as we now know) he’s forcing me to remain in the foreground, to track horizontally, and far worse, he’s communicating that I can’t be trusted with the details.

That last phrase … that hits hard. When we alter images (or quotes or data), we are essentially saying we don’t tryst our audience to come to the conclusion we want. And that is a phenomenally arrogant thought.

As journalists (I’m not going to deal with the newly self-applied “visual storyteller” monicker any further), it is imperative that we act as a conduit for information – perhaps a bit of a translator, but never as an interpreter. It is imperative that we present information as it is, not altered, not re-colored and not manipulated.

* I’m making an assumption this piece is by Lewis Bush. He is on their masthead and is listed as one of the tags below the piece but there is no formal byline on the site.

Expired, but Still Working

An interesting project by Chip Litherland – taking expired film to major events, just to see what happens.

Yeah, it’s art … but it’s sort of cool. And I’ve probably got 20 rolls of various film in the freezer or drawers around here …

Doing Some Good

James Estrin has a nice piece up at The New York Times’ Lens blog about the work of Mel Rosenthal who documented the South Bronx in New York from 1976 to 1982. The limited number of images here is frustrating – I really want to see more.

It’s the reasoning behind these images that has me interested:

For Mel Rosenthal, there’s no point in taking a picture if it isn’t going to do some good in this world. Photographs, he said, have to connect with the community where they’re made, not just to be exhibited there but to engage residents in discussions.

The quotes from his former students (he taught at SUNY Empire State College) are things I hope my kids take away from my classes.

Where the Press Isn’t Free

The New York Times has an interesting piece up about photojournalist Maya Vidon-White who photographed a dying victim of the November terrorist attacks in Paris and is now being sued for doing so. The story talks about the ethical challenges of covering conflicts, but it’s really about the legal challenges – in France, you can’t photograph the victims of terrorism without their permission.