Saturday, April 30, 2011

Of Big Events and Such



Since the summer of 1967 – Lyndon Johnson was President, there was a war in Vietnam, Civil Rights was a kind of day--to--day thing with no yet obvious outcome, Barack Obama was then 6 and headed to live with his mom in Indonesia for several years – I have been a photographer interested in covering the big deal stories of our times. After graduating from college I spent a couple of years floating around Washington DC and Miami, doing assignments for TIME, and hoping that bigger things would come my way. I wasn’t yet either good enough, or smart enough to know how to operate, and ended up on the periphery of some big events, doing them in my own “style.” I was ripped off by some Republican bullshitter who was SUPPOSEDLY involved with planning the Nixon Inaugural Parade in January of 1969. I don’t even remember how I met the guy, but he wanted me to shoot pictures of the floats which I dutifully did, though I suspect the pictures weren’t so great either. He had a big suite in the Watergate (who didn’t?!) but when I went to get paid, he couldn’t actually write me a check. He had the air of one of those Republican operatives, always in elegant jacket and tie, who lived with, and spent much ill-begotten cash. It was in the days before paying with plastic became so prevalent, and I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, though I was, when he just took a check written to him for $125 (would have paid my month’s rent on my small Georgetown studio) endorsed it to me, and dismissed me now that I’d been paid. Cash certainly flowed freely in those days. No real reporting standards. Just a lot of money meant to be leveraged for votes in as many places as possible. Later that summer, having moved to Miami, I convinced the TIME photo editor to let me cover the masses of people attending the Apollo XI launch: the first men to land on the moon. In a time of grave doubts about the reason and will of government (the Vietnam war was leading the news nearly every night) this one expression of human endeavor drew millions to watch the rocket’s liftoff – providing a rare inspirational moment for parents to share with their kids. It was a scene to be sure, and I was on my first color assignment for a magazine. I found an old envelope with those pictures just two years ago, and have been immensely happy with the place they have come to occupy in my body of work. Contrasting as it does with the imminent end of not only the Space Shuttle but the US Manned Space Program, it was a moment of hope, and filled with a sense of possibility. crowds at Titusville watching Apollo XI blast skywards - July 1969

In the early 70s I spent two years trying to cover the war in Vietnam, returned to a country whose political system was warped by the Watergate break-ins and subsequent investigations, and ultimately, the resignation of a President. I spent years following Presidential candidates on the stump, at their conventions, and ultimately campaigning for votes. I covered the Summer Olympic Games from 1984 onwards. L.A. Seoul. Barcelona. Atlanta. Sydney. Athens. Beijing. And at each one I was able to make a picture or two which came to have some significance for a magazine audience. For all those decades, the 70s, 80s, 90s, and into the 00s, there was still a presence that printed magazines had something which gave their mere existence a certain gravitas, even if you were only to glance through an issue four months out of date at your dentist’s, you would undoubtedly find something of value and worth your time.

In the last decade, magazines have struggled, and in some kind of blind rush to the internet, companies now feel obliged to spend their marketing resources there, though no one really even knows what that means. They spend and spend and spend, and in doing so, DON’T spend on the magazines that for years were the main showcases of printed marketability and advertising. Very few are actually finding success online, still a ‘work in progress’ as they say. Meanwhile, the tenor of still photography has changed as well. No longer do I have non-stop phone calls from news magazine editors, competing for my time to send me hither or yon, or sometimes both. The calls come but it’s a very different world. We are too many photographers, already living in too many places, facing a combination of oversaturation-of-market, and a lack of value for what we do when compared to the way the products of photojournalism were regarded even a decade ago. Giant earthmoving/tree-cutting companies like Getty Images have redefined downwards the value of our work, selling cheaply in order to be able to be everywhere and gain (are you ready for that great word?) “marketshare.” They are an example of a photo-related enterprise which ultimately does what it perceives (and I’m not even sure that their perceptions are correct) is good for the company, while at the same time negatively effecting individual photographers. Sadly, news photographs have come to regarded as a commodity in the same way that apples and potatoes are. Pretty much something that has a per pound or per picture price structure, no matter what the subject, quality, or exclusivity.

I was reminded over the past couple of days that we are living in a new era. I have just returned from an assignment in London to cover the Royal Wedding. I felt some kind of obligation to history, I suppose, having been present as part of a big team of photographers covering the Diana-Charles thirty years ago...
wedding at St. Paul’s. So many things have changed. At the time, Contact Press Images, then a small New York based agency, did a deal through our London agent (Colorific) with, among others, the London Sunday Times Magazine, to add our team of a half dozen foreign based photogs to the LSTM 40 page coverage. We flew from New York, stayed in reasonably priced hotels (though I did have to change from bunking with my friend, the late Gerry Davis, after one night of hearing his championship buzz saw cut lumber for 7 hours), were taken in by the Magazine as partners in the process, and, additionally had a number of commitments from Germany, France and Italy, as well as the U.S. for our material. It remained a time when a group of photographers of a certain reputation could still demand top dollar for something which everyone regarded as a ‘big deal’ story.


It was also the era of that quaint process known as film. Yes, each time you loaded your camera, there were only 36 shots available, no matter how many times you loaded it. (By contrast, my Canon 7 D with a 16 gig card shoots about 400 high quality RAW and jpg files. ) As in most things of the more modern age, modest simplicity has been replaced by cart loads of hubris and self-annointment. We take it for granted that we can shoot hundreds of pictures, virtually unlimited, without worrying about running out of film. There is little urgency to save your button pressing for a key moment, one you hope won’t be frame # 36. Part of that process has given today’s photographers a feeling that they can simply keep their fingers on the trigger, produce hundreds of images most of which might be worthless, but hey, it doesn’t cost anything and eventually there might be a good one. It’s a very different form of notetaking than when you pared off each frame of a roll of 36 with some care, knowing that fate could always strike when you weren’t prepared. (Case in point: March 26, 1979 – the White House. President Jimmy Carter meets with Israeli Prime Minister Begin and Egyptian President Sadat to sign the “Camp David Peace Accords,” effectively an agreement which opened up the two countries to each other for the first time in a generation. I was the agency “pool” photographer on the center stand, and had been given several extra cameras from other photographers, in addition to my own three Canons, so that when the ceremony started I had five cameras to shoot this historic moment. The idea was “shoot a lot of originals” make dupe frames of each situation in the camera so I didn’t need to go through the laborious process of shooting duplicates on a copy machine later at the lab. (Dupes were never as sharp as an original…) The three luminaries entered, they sat down – I shot with each camera -- they started to sign the documents – I shot a LOT with each camera – and when a minute later they stood up and grabbed each others hands in celebration, I tried to shoot again, but I was already out of film in all five bodies. I could hear the sharp reports of Nikons and Canons in all directions, as I struggled to rewind one body and reload before the moment was passed. But I was too late. By the time I had recharged my F1, they’d sat down, and the magic was gone, captured on other rolls by other photographers, but totally escaping me. I was not happy. But it was a lesson learned: never find yourself empty in all cameras as you just don’t know when fate will present you with that Cartier-Bressonesque “decisive moment.” On the upside, it was the day (still celebrated as our true anniversary) when Iris and I met on a blind date, our first encounter, though she remembers me that evening as being sullen and singularly uninteresting as I was no doubt sulking from my days’ reportage failure. I’m sure I was sulking. No one likes to miss “the photo.” Shooting over my shoulder that day was a last minute arrival (he’d just come from Begin’s motorcade) -- TIME photographer David Rubinger who I helped up to the stand. He installed himself standing on his 300mm case just behind my left shoulder, and I shall always remember the twangy whine of his camera in my ear, capturing in perfection the three heads of state with the outstretched flags behind them, as I, in a moment of abject failure, was haplessly twirling a rewind knob in that vain attempt to reload.)

Fast forward thirty years (which becomes increasingly disconcerting when you have been shooting for 45 years, and everything in your past seems like it was three weeks ago, or, perhaps a month ago. ) The current excitement about the first real Royal wedding in a generation had lit up not only the English but people everywhere. And it was so interesting to see how we, the reporting world, have changed in those thirty years. First, and perhaps most important to remember: at Charles and Diana’s wedding, CNN and Cable news had not yet been invented. “The News” on tv still meant being reported in a nightly 30 minute network broadcast. Magazines were still plentiful and thick with pages and advertising. Newspapers and mags remained the primary source of presenting photographs of that which was happening in our world. For the most part (my opinion) cable TV has taken all the weak elements of broadcasting and multiplied them, with virtually no emphasis on the positive. (to wit: instead of getting wonderful, deeply layered many minute pieces on a steady basis, we get headline after headline and a lot of reporters with microphones feeling obliged to stand outside in a rainstorm and be pelted in the face with hail just to report a weather story. It’s been sad to see how funding for great magazine reportages was siphoned off to support, first, television, then the web. Along the way there are plenty of excuses why clients don’t feel they can pay you for your pictures (“…the web isn’t profitable yet…”) while, at the same time, they absorb much of the resources which formerly were allocated to magazine production.
This past year, since the announcement of the Wedding, I admit I was attracted to it once again. Maybe it was that I saw Diana walk up the steps of St. Paul’s in her last moments as an unmarried woman, and years later walked through Hyde Park crowds who’d gathered for her funeral. As you age, things in your past take on greater meaning. Maybe it was just a desire to see how a big wedding might take place in this electronic era. I was lucky enough to convince a magazine client that I wanted to come, and they obliged. It has been at least ten years since I was in England, and of course the things that don’t change (the stately buildings, the red buses, Lord Nelson’s statue) are always there to anchor your memories. The food is a little better, the beer still without peer, and the prices would probably make sense if they were dollars, instead of pounds. It was another of those confounding “how do people afford to live?” trips. But perhaps if you are thirty and don’t know what it was like ‘before’ you just carry on as if this is the way life is supposed to unfold.

A large photo platform was set up across from Westminster Abbey. Three rows of slightly elevated positions, for once each position wide enough that you didn’t have to breath down each other’s necks. It may not have been the best position but it wasn’t terrible, and the one thing that you learn is that the place you think might be the best could turn into a disaster, and the most unobvious location can sometimes produce the best picture of all. Thankfully there is still a little of the unknown left in our work, in our business. Things can be so predictable that the possibility of gambling or taking a chance on your instincts becomes a rarity. As my pal Wally McNamee once explained with great simplicity, our work is essentially about “anticipating.” What might happen, what might not happen. But you always have to be ready. This kind of thing was of course taken to the limits in all discussions of “the kiss.” In 1981, as the Royal family assembled on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, dozens of photographers at the QVM (Queen Victoria Memorial but please, ONLY refer to it as the KewveeEmm) were waiting for that shot of the family “en famille,” and if there might be a “kiss.” At one point Charles and Diana made a fleeting move to each other, their lips touched, and it was a moment which marked whether you were to pass or fail class. Douglas Kirkland, the great L.A. based photographer, shooting with our team absolutely nailed it with his long lens. Surprisingly , a number of well known photographers missed it altogether. Though I did hear a story yesterday that a guy whose job was in jeopardy saved himself by getting that kiss picture. This time around, it wasn’t so much anticipation, as of just knowing it WOULD happen, and not missing it. Most of the British papers led with some version of the “Kiss” today, but I’m sure there were, even in the “I have 11 rolls of film in my camera….” era, a few people who just somehow missed the moment. My heart goes out to them as I know they’re having a really lousy weekend.

caught by a Reuters photographer in front of Westminster Abbey, yours truly marching to a different drummer
At the Abbey entrance, I was lucky enough to have next to me a sharp English woman shooter, probably about thirty, working for a small British agency who knew well her subjects. She was sporting a 600 on an ancient tripod (one of colleagues poked fun, asking it was the tripod she’d had in school.) But each time a limo would approach I’d take a guess at who it might be, and I suppose I was about a C+ guesser (I got David Cameron right, but didn’t know Eugenie.) She was always obliging in correcting me as to who the real occupants were. The funniest moment was the arrival of a lone Bentley saloon with two guys in it … “who’s that?” I asked. It was all she could do to stop laughing: “Oh, Will and Harry?” Hey, you can’t winnem all. There was a magic moment when Kate stepped from her car, in that amazingly wrapped white gown, the veil seeming to be like a light cloud over her face. All the hype about the gown, I have to say, was justified. She was a true vision of beauty as she walked in with her father. The one fault of Westminster Abbey is that it’s all built on ground level. No stairs leading to the gate, so you didn’t have that beautiful oblique chain of white. As one of the photogs started grousing about being blocked by trees with his 800mm of seeing the side guest entrance, the young woman at my side responded with wisdom far beyond her years. “You can only shoot what’s in front of you --- don’t worry about what you can’t see.” So right. Concentrate on that which you CAN control, that which you CAN see. The half hour chorus of bells peeling at the beginning of the arrivals was like a call to mission. Had there been no crushingly loud musicality to accompany us, it might have been a mere moment of transition. But you felt those bells were pushing you to look in every direction, find every snap within range. Once all the principals were inside, the bells stopped and it was like an order to stand down and take a breath.

This morning on BBC in one of the dozens of interviews they have done, a newspaper editor mentioned they had looked at some 25000 pictures since yesterday morning. How do you not feel you are swamped by the weight of it? How does one keep a clear head in the onslaught of so many pictures competing for that ever evaporating attention of a viewer. I’m not sure I know the answer. It remains a difficult task for the good pictures to be able to rise to the top. Every now and then there will be “the picture” though in a quick perusal of Yahoo & AOL News sites I don’t think I’ve seen it yet. I’d like to think I might have seen one yesterday on my Macbook, but again, I’m just not sure. Going forward, there will continue to be a few big events like this, but they will no doubt morph more and more into becoming television productions. When the tv producers are the ones who make the calls about how things should go, it might be time for us photographers to just pack our bags and go do something a little more real.

Like all my colleagues, I have been devastated by the recent deaths of two great photographers, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, in Libya. The war in Libya is certainly the yin to the wedding’s yang. One couldn’t be further from the other. No amount of producer’s planning can account for the randomness of acts of war. A single mortar or RPG can lay low the most accomplished, most combat wise of us. These two guys were smart, capable, and gifted with the ability to bring to their work more than just a photographic record of some event they’d witnessed. They made you part of it. They let you feel the emotion of the moment. Their work connected with you in ways that made you understand what they must have been feeling at the time. Photography remains a powerful tool and in the hands of a talent, can tell those stories we need to share amongst ourselves. Hell, I only wish I could have spent some time on the photo stand with Tim and Chris this week, making stupid jokes about the lameness of trying to create photo magic of an event that competes with hundreds of TV cameras, not to mention dozens of photographers. Wherever we are, there is a certain sense of fraternity in our business. Ed Murrow, in a captivating seventeen minute 1943 radio piece about a night bombing raid over Berlin where he’d ridden along with the RAF, speaks about how “there is something of a tradition among reporters, that those who are somehow prevented by circumstances from filing their stories will be covered by their colleagues.” Two correspondents on that mission were on planes that didn’t come back. Murrow closes with “I have no doubt that Bennett and Stockton would have given you a better report on last night’s activity.” I know that both Chris and Tim would have probably thought that covering a wedding would seem frivolous and misguided when there was such a compelling story going on in North Africa. But I also know that if they had been present, had brought their singular vision and poignant eye to the task, that we’d be seeing their images today and saying “ah, so THAT’s what was really going on.” We’re just sayin’….. David

7 comments:

Marilyn said...

thank you for always marching to a different drum, david.

Owen Luck said...

Thanks for helping keep all this in perspective. Just sayin'.

Anna said...

I love that picture of you pointing your camera in a different direction. Please David, let's get a book written...

Paul Gero said...

DB...great post...great memories...and I TOTALLY AGREE WITH ANNA...

I want to read your book....and it can be all words...it will carry...

jsbx101 said...

Great post DB. And at the risk of sounding like I am whining (since I have said it before) I'm with Anna and Paul. I suspect there is more than one book in you, but let's just start with one. I will also say that despite the great changes in photojournalism you have lost neither your "love of the game" nor your uncanny ability to color outside the lines.

Jay Carey said...

always wry, but not too dry, and always so observant of the state of our state-well, am going to drive a school bus to pay some bills, but keeping camera close by if/when thoughtful contemplation comes back.

Rosa said...

WOW!! this blog has definitely reinforced my appreciation for the photo the real photo taken from those who still care to capture the instant of the image and what that moment will reveal and lock forever in print. It is a shame that cable/web take away from this in some ways, mostly in $$$. I for one of many still look forward to the color printed published photo in magazine/news/book...keep going for it, DB in whatever direction you choose to march...Im Just sayin'