Sunday, March 09, 2008

Here Comes the Cameratocracy

Well , it’s true, in my business (magazine photographer.. .if you can consider it a business..) you generally live week to week (unless you work for monthlies, and then you live month to month, I guess.) But week to week isn’t bad: it doesn’t the immediacy of working for a daily paper, or a wire service, whose deadlines every minute mean there is never time to ease up, though with magazines now trying to be current on their websites (trying is the key word here) they want you to feed them priceless images as snappily as you can make them. But we are not immune from the tides of history, and I don’t mean the ones which are causing water from last nights rain to leak into my new office, but the greater tides of history, the ones which people will look back on in five or twenty years, and say, “wow, that’s when it changed, eh?” (They’ll be saying this in Edmonton, eh?)

Much of what we mag photographers had going for us was that, generally speaking, because we didn’t have the instant deadlines facing us, we could stay longer, work a story on a longer term basis, sometimes days instead of hours, knowing that in the end, like good baking, the longer you work the dough, and let it do its thing, the more leavening your final product will have (though I know that Iris is always saying don’t over knead the dough... but I think my point is still valid, unless you are photographing a Challah.) Time in grade, time spent with the subject, is generally the one thing that increases your chances of being there when some key moment takes place, and grabbing it, rather than having to either just fake it, or suggest it into being, because you had so little time to take a picture. In 1967, as a young intern for TIME in DC, I was assigned to go with a young tyro reporter, who later be came Deputy Chief of Correspondents, but who, at the time, was just out of school and a little green, as was I, to do a story on pregnant black moms-to-be who ate chips of starch, Argo brand, as part of a food craving they had. It had apparently come to the notice of some GYNs in DC that this was becoming a trend, and for the most part the women in question had been raised in the south, and moved north, and this was a ‘southern’ thing. But the fact that the starch chips satisfied some kind of craving seemed to the doctors to indicate that the women were missing some kind of real nutrition in their diets. For our interview, a social worker had found a mom, who had a 2 year old and was expecting soon. She lived in a marginal part of town, not far from the Time bureau, but this being DC in the 60s (Martin Luther King would be assassinated 9 months later, and this part of town would be partially torched in the riots) it was a bit sketchy. So, just to be sure we could get this interview in one trip, we took along with us a box of Argo Starch (the blue box) so that we would have product handy for the lady to nibble on, in case she’d run out. Now days, of course you would be summarily fired, your Sigma Delta Chi pin would be tossed into the Potomac, and you would be forced to get a job in public relations for such a contravention of journalistic principle. But in 1967, we just wanted to make sure that we would be able to deliver our story. She ate some starch, I shot it, she talked about it, John wrote it, and that was that.

My point is, journalism, and its standards change. You might say that even in ’67 that wasn’t the kind of journalism taught in J school, and that would be right, but it just may have been the kind of thing you would have learned at Costello’s bar on 43rd and Lexington from the hard bitten Brits who worked for the Daily News and the NY Post. Those guys, blessem, never let details get in the way of a good story. Now Costello’s is gone, and so are the vaguely loose guidelines of the 60s. Further, the mantle we used to wear as journalists is shrinking in the rain. It must not be Wash n Wear. We are being besieged on all sides: management, caring less about content than the bottom line would in many cases just as soon have stories on Brittany and Paris Hilton as they would on Hamas, Hezbollah, and Housing starts. On the other side, everyone is a ‘citizen’ journalist, a term I find rather misleading, and somewhat patronizing. We’re all citizens, for that matter. It implies that journalists are anything but. However, the fact that everyone out there is a potential competitor as well as a potential customer, has changed things.

This past week, covering the Hillary Clinton campaign, I carried way too much gear. Like some kind of photographic throw back, I carry not only the standard issue digital camera, but a Speed Graphic (circa 1950), with a 1943 brand Kodak lens, just in case something visually wonderful pops up and I can make a somewhat different looking image with it. Yet it is heavy, bulky, and anything but automatic, and therein lies the charm, I suppose. Not wanting to have to check anything, I put my cameras and clothes into a big back pack (4x5 camera, film and film holders, lenses, light meter) and a medium sized back pack (clothes, hard drives, various wearing, tooth brush and shaving stuff), a laptop bag (yes, the laptop), a tripod, a web belt with three pockets for camera lenses, and two digital cameras. It was more than a person could carry, and getting on and off planes and buses, I would, even when colleagues would generously offer to sling a bag or the tripod, just ricochet from one row of seats to the next, like a cue ball in a game of bumper pool. It was infuriating. Not only that, but I think I must have looked like a renegade from the 82nd Airborne division.

The Scary BackPacked' Me (photo: Todd Heisler)
Pack in back, pack in front, cameras and laptops slung over shoulders, I looked like I was ready to leap into battle out of a perfectly good airplane... or if you were the Congressman (Anthony Weiner) who I approached and reminded we’d all met at the Comfort Diner back on Super Tuesday, you might have taken me for an escapee from Riker’s Island who was hitching a ride back to the city. He really only leapt one step back as I approached to say hello. I think he might not be going back to the Comfort very soon. But, in the fashion of the Neo Stalinist Rococo architecture of the 50s in Moscow, of which it is said the only place to view the city from is atop them, because its the one place you can’t SEE it, there I was, in super Schlep mode, unaware of the scariness of my presence. Contrast that with the hundreds, nay, thousands of people at Hillary’s events who were nearly as dedicated to their photography as I was.

The Invasion has started: Austin, Tx, Monday March 3
And that IS the trend. Everyone is a photographer. Either digi camera, fone, point and shoot: they are all there. And the standard pose for listening to a campaign speech now is with both hands in front of one’s face, holding a camera with the screen on the back for framing. Those folks, as cameras get better, will be the new competition for the likes of me. I can’t be everywhere, and they don’t have to be everywhere. But what is true is that SOMEONE, one of them, with a camera, pretty much IS everywhere. Photography is about being there first, and seeing things happen.

Just One More, Senator
There is a reason reporters are better at gathering information at a bar than photographers. They can piece together accounts of things they haven’t seen, and be right on the money. We, or one OF us, needs to see it. More and more that will be citizen Photographer. At Hillary’s victory night in Columbus on Tuesday, she was constantly stopped for pictures. Viewed from above, the room was aglow with little screens, creating their own little visual buzz, each one giving its owner a particular point of view. I’m hoping that I have another ten years in this business before I become just another snapper in the crowd. If they only knew how long the days were, how tiring it can all be, searching for a picture, maybe they’d just put their cameras down for once, and watch. Watch, and see, and remember. Yeah. Remember. We’re just sayin...David


Anonymous said...

Even an Army Ranger travels with less gear then you.

Get a 'credit card' size point'n shoot, and ditch the 4x5 and DSLRs.

That way you can photograph the Senator and yourself with the camera at arms length at every rally. You become the art. It works for all the 'non-photographers.'

W with an Olympus-PEN EES-2 35 mm half-frame. No batteries needed.

prin said...

hey, I'd like to get your stuff in a feed. all i can find is a link to feed comments. maybe? i have it on my site and it has really increased my traffic and the length of time they spend on the site which ultimately increases the page rank which i love watching :) have a good one :)

arbus said...

siteurl/feeds/posts/default is the standard feed for blogger/blogspot.

David, back in 2004 when Kerry was making a final swing through Cleveland right before the election, I was watching his appearance on CSPAN and spotted you with the Speed Graphic over one shoulder while you juggled and shot with the DSLR. Quite a trick.

I have to give you props for still having the desire to do this AND be crazy enough to schlep all that extra gear for the CHANCE of a different image.

But that's why you are David Burnett and they aren't.

Isn't YouTube the biggest agent of change we've seen? Ask George Allen. How long before you are going to be shooting with a HD video camera and plucking still images off of that?

Iris&David said...

Well i suppose it could happen sooner than later, but frankly i sort of love the 'old' look, and until that look is availabele on digital, i guess it will be a mixed world. today we had the first meeting of the Bokeh Vista Social Club, a bunch of luddites in arlington va who adore large format, and are just hoping they keep making film for a while. that said, sales of large format are apparently at a 20 year high. thats encouraging news... thanks for the kind words


m_harding said...

We got three feet of snow yesterday. My 93 year-old neighbor,Fritz, shovelled my driveway before I even woke at 9am. 93!!! He's 93!!!

I once tried to help him shovel his drive,he got real mad. "I can do it!" he barked. I was going to say,"but your 93." Then it occured to me that that is why he is 93.
"This is my excercise ", he added. I walked away tail between my legs, lesson learned.

Everyone else will be fat and old before their time, and that 4x5 will be your saving grace. If they ever stop making sheet film,
you'd do good to tape 3 pounds of wood to your 5D.

If I could get half the textures with my digicams that your graphic gets i'd be a happy man...gawd i miss was the thing that made us different... better...artful...practiced...lucky

Thanks for the read.


Anonymous said...

" today we had the first meeting of the Bokeh Vista Social Club, a bunch of luddites in arlington va who adore large format, and are just hoping they keep making film for a while."

I'm available to speak to your BVSC. I talk to the Reston Camera Club in September.


ps - and why didn't I get an invitation to the meeting? Afraid of my 8x10 pinhole camera are you?

Anonymous said...

Whos not afraid of an 8x10 pinhole?
Who? Who? Who I ask you!? Damn you 8x10 pinhole picture people! With your 8x10 pinhole pictures! Run!!!Run away everyone!!! It's the 8x10 pihholes picture people!!

"O.K Mister Kerry,technically, I'm at f-386, so I need you to stay still for the rest of the flight, very very very still...damn, I only have 50 asa.... hmmmm...okay...I'm gonna go ask the pilot how much fuel we have...dont move."


Iris&David said...

Michael H: i need to be in touch with you off line as they say.. or off blob at the very least.. can you drop me an email at (is it dangerous to list my email here? arent we all grown ups? can't we all just get along?)
i have a toronto question.

david "where did i leave that lens cap during the pinhole exposure coffee break " burnett

Alfonso Cevola said...

Hey David:

This was one of my favorite posts you have done. I dont think you have anything to worry about. Like we say in Texas, "It ain't the wand, it's the magician."

Keep going man, you aren't finished by any means.

Thought I saw you in an airport recently ( was it Dallas? Oakland? LaGuardia?) you shooters put us winos to shame.

btw- someday we gotta open bottles and "breaka da bread together"



Iris&David said...

alfonso.. you are so right.. anywhere near the east coast anytime soon? we are so over due! give a shout if dc orny is on your list..