I sometimes wonder if I really understand the world of journalism, or even that of photography. I continually am amazed at the terrific ideas which pop up in pieces which I have not been asked to contribute to, and often pose the question to myself: is this something I might have thought of, or am I just too old fashioned to ‘get’ new, inventive ways of seeing things. I will admit that I am perplexed by the nouvelle vague (well.. nouvelle for the past couple of years) which demands that pictures be shot with flash, isolating the subject, lots of light, or a feeling of lots of light, permeating the whole atmosphere. I’m not talking about work like Gregory Crewdson (talk about a master of genre.. wow!) who constructs entire set pieces, and lights them beautifully, creating work which is not only a marvel to behold, but which poses many more questions than it yields in answers. But if you pick up virtually any magazine these days, Time, ESPN (to name a couple which I do work for), Forbes, Fortune.. the list goes on and on… you see this trend of “slow things down, put up every Strobe in B&H, stop down to f/32, and shoot the hell out of it. I must confess, there are a few who do it rather well – Platon comes to mind. But sometimes, it’s as if Art School demanded that students buy a bunch of lights the first day, and never spend another day shooting without plugging them in each and every time. I understand that controlling light is what photography is about, but what about Moments? Whatever happened to a “Moment?” Of course just when I finish blabbering about this, I’ll see something like last Sunday’s NYTimes Play (sports magazine) with some great pictures of Serena Williams… on a court, at night, very angularly lit, extremely well done, by Finlay Mackay.
A picture of mine, with No Strobes: Amanda Arsenault & pal at the FEMA Park, Punta Gorda, FL
But, getting back to Crewdson, it is fun to just ponder and think about his pictures, and studying them, I’ll admit, is a bit like looking at a modern day Dutch Master painting: very constructed compositions, often a bit more ethereal or implied than a Van Der Weyden or a Vander Hilst. Yet, he is perhaps the true heir to the Dutch Masters, in that his pictures are all MADE. He doesn’t capture* anything. He creates, makes, puts together, a scenario, and then, almost as an afterthought, and because I suppose it would be easier than having to paint it perfectly, he shoots it on 8x10” film. I give the guy enormous credit, and you should too. This past issue of Photo District News (the Still Life issue) has a good piece which not only contains a q&a with Crewdson, but includes two of his pictures, with lighting diagrams and explanations of how each was done. (Lots of details are left out, naturally, but the basics…. A LOT OF LIGHTS are used but in a way in which you don’t say “hmmm he must have used a LOT of Lights!… are all there to gawk over.) Frankly, he is the one guy who could freely and unhesitatingly describe in detail exactly how he does his pictures, because no one else has the time/money/inclination to reproduce them in the same manner and degree he does. Like Hiroshi Sugimoto, the amazing Japanese photographer, Crewdson is a real artist, who just happens to use photography as the device to preserve, present and display his visions.
Those of us who chase after real world moments find this kind of well placed energy quite amazing (I think I speak for all of us, right?) When you spend your life trying be witness to things which happen in the world [Big H, small W], more or less, without any input from you, watching a ‘construct’ piece emerge is a little bone rattling. I was once (and I was flattered by it !) described by a former Press Secretary to a Senate Majority Leader as “…Dave Burnett, the guy who walks into a room and disappears…” I couldn’t imagine a finer introduction than that, for it goes to the base of what photojournalists TRY to do: let life go on as unfettered as it can, and grab little moments of it to share with the populace. TV of course has changed much of how the world thinks of itself in the media. Even though it is seldom necessary, I often see TV camera men waving at crowds – you know, those “hey,let’s see some action” kind of waves, or otherwise encouraging “for the camera” behaviour. Let’s be honest: no one even NEEDS encouragement anymore. Just let them jump up and down in front of the cameras; waving, pumping their fists, screaming for the camera. In 1979-80, right after the US hostages were taken in Tehran, it was common to see little else but footage (it was often 16mm film, as video had not yet become the everyday standard) of grown men and university kids, who were screaming “Death to America”, “Death to the Shah”, to anyone who happened to be there. But mostly they yelled as soon as they saw the TV cameramen grab their gear, and aim the lens in their direction. When the cameras went down, the crowds would return to “chill” mode, and sip tea, waiting for their next cameo. After a couple of months of this, I remember an intro to a “..life in Tehran..” piece on the TODAY show. It was introduced with “while you may think that nothing in Tehran is going on besides crowds yelling anti American slogans, life indeed is going on..” My question at the time was “Gee, why would they think THAT? Simply because NBC didn’t show ANYTHING from Tehran except Men yelling Death to America?” The disconnect was astonishing, but I suppose it shouldn’t have been. Screaming meemies sell ad space, while thoughtful doesn’t sell bupkus. (Hey, is that a turnip truck out there?) Thoughtful artful use of photography (and cinema for that matter) remains a real joy to behold in this madcap world. The few who see clearly beyond the smoke are a resource that the rest of us need to salute. For the folks who can see beyond the obvious, I say thank you, even if it does keep me up nights, now and then, wondering why I’m not one of you!