Category Thoughts & Theory

Grace and Power

I suspect there will be a lot of discussions in my classes about Jonathan Bachman’s image of two Baton Rouge police officers approaching a woman to arrest her. Allen Murabayashi has a nice compilation of commentary over at PhotoShelter, a good starting point.

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 …

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.

A Visual Discussion on the Human Condition

One of my long-time favorites is Peter Turnley. Early on in my studies, I saw something in his work that resonated deeply with me, but I’m not sure I was able to articulate it then.

There was a warmth, a connection. The people in his images were never just subjects, there was something more in the relationship separated only by some shards of glass.

The below video was made to coincide with an exhibit in Cuba. It is full of gems, but there’s one line that, at last, explains his work to me:

… the only thing that empowers everyone is love.

And that, from the joys of his Parisian street scenes to the horrors of war, is what I’ve seen for decades. Every image, no matter the destruction it may show, is about that which empowers all of us.

This is well worth your time.

A Documentary film about Peter Turnley – MOMENTS OF THE HUMAN CONDITION from Peter Turnley on Vimeo.

Would HCB Use a Cellphone?

It’s an interesting question, whether Henri Cariter-Bresson would convert from his Leica to a smartphone were he alive and working today. William Dalrymple believe he would have and, as much as I adore the craft of photography … I guess I agree HCB would be wielding an iPhone 6s. But definitely not a 6s Plus, that would be too big.

I do make images with my phone, but it still doesn’t give me the level of control and separation I want. It’s all about the sensor size – and not for the pixel count, but the focal length equivalents.

Photography Without Vision

Om Malik has a wonderful piece up at the New Yorker, triggered by Google’s announcement it is making the Nik Collection of software tools free.

This idea that we are photographing everything, never seeing anything and, perhaps worse, not remembering anything is troubling to me. I have a very large collection of family photos, somewhere in excess of 20,000 images, made by myself, my father and my grandfather. And that may seem like a massive amount of images, but it dates back more than 60 years. Each one of those images is a trigger for actual memories – they bring back the emotions of the moment for those who were there. (Or, for me on the older ones, the emotions of having heard the stories behind them.)

My grandfather and I shared a concern for describing the images individually, he in notebooks and me with captions embedded in the files. My father, as methodical a man as ever wandered this earth, not so much … there are images that I don’t understand because the one who was there has been gone for nearly 30 years.

Now, you can accuse me of having this same insatiable desire to make images as I’m some 1,600 days into a photo-a-day project myself. But I’m not photographing everything, and I’m certainly not posting everything. To me, it’s a visual journal – but one that hits the highlights of a day, not every moment of it.

Defending McCurry

There’s been a bit of a storm brewing over a New York Times piece by Teju Cole about the work of Steve McCurry, one of the legendary National Geographic photojournalists.

I … don’t agree with his assessment but don’t feel qualified to take it on. Allen Murabayashi from PhotoShelter, though, has completely encapsulated my thoughts on the matter.

Having an obvious subject with tack sharp focus and proper exposure doesn’t mean a photo is devoid of layers of interest and interpretation.

Murabayashi’s sentiment aligns with my own here – the current fad of making low quality images to impart a gritty “realness” to them is ridiculous. We have spent nearly 200 years improving the quality of cameras through better lenses, better film stocks and now better sensors – why on earth do we apply “lo-fi” filters and strip out detail, accuracy and comprehension?

My student have heard this rant before – let the content of the image move your audience, don’t screw with their emotions with technique.

More on Morris-Secret Service Incident

I’m putting this under the Thoughts & Theory category because it deals with my thoughts.

I want you to read this headline:

Screen Shot 2016 03 02 at 12 13 44 PM

Given that you probably know that Time contract photographer Christopher Morris was thrown to the ground by a U.S. Secret Service agent at a Donald Trump rally, that headline tells you what? What does it make you think about the sequence of events?

It’s pretty clear that Morris grabs the agent, then the agent grabs him in a choke hold and throws him to the ground.

Except, that’s not the way it happened – Time has a new video that shows Morris had his arms at his side and had not touched the agent before he was slammed into the ground.

Did Morris make contact with the agent? Yes – after her had been thrown to the ground. Should he have done that? Absolutely not.

And here’s my rant – the bias shown in that headline above is staggering. It’s indicative of the way information is twisted around to benefit individuals, to try and shape the understanding of a story. It’s not about the story, it’s about controlling the way it is both presented and consumed. Anyone who reads that headline will believe that Morris assaulted the agent, then was taken down.

Watch the videos – that is not at all what happened.

That headline is a lie – a flat out lie. It’s dishonest and deceptive and the audience it is intended for will never understand that they are being mislead.

I’m not linking to the site, I don’t want any association with it. You can search for that headline and you’ll find it if you want.

This era of deception and greed is beyond anything I have ever witnessed or studies. The willingness of my fellow citizens to not think, to react emotionally to intellectual issues, is frightening.

I do not know where to go from here.