Thursday, September 10, 2009

Photo Guy In a Middle Seat

I’m sitting in a middle seat in coach, that place in hell which Dante, had he been obliged to regularly shuffle between Florence and New York, would have instantly recognized as a sort of flying version of Limbo (Hell is any seat on a small sailboat in the ocean, out of site of land.) On my left is a member of the band Blue Oyster Cult, heading home from a gig in Amsterdam and whose arm seems not to see the imaginary dividing line between our seats, on my right a winsome lady from Hamburg in the fashion trade. I wasn’t even supposed to be on this plane but for reasons known only to the master computers at Air France, I was “liste d’attente” for the flight home to Newark. That morphed into an actual seat (said 22K) to JFK at about the same time, and though I waited until literally the last two minutes before the door was closed on this 777, nothing on the aisle or in Business opened up. I know the ticket agents were on my side: two extremely helpful and hopeful Air France agents kept monitoring the list of available seats, especially the small group of travelers from Rome who were at risk of missing all the New York bound flights due to a late arrival in Paris. In what ought to be the Senior Thesis of some Management Consultant, I noted for the first time ever (as someone usually boarding earlier than later, I seldom am around at the check in gate this long) that presumptively illogical socio trend that the very last people to board international flights are the coolest and calmest of all. Without missing a beat, each of the last dozen check-ins, with literally 3 to 4 minutes to go, were cool as a cucumber, walking with intent but nothing that would be considered even a brisk step. It was as if each of them (and they were all in Economy!) felt it was their personal airplane, one which would only leave upon their actual placing of tuchas in a seat. The frantic and excited ones were those who had been trying to board early, looking more like escaped convicts trying to go unnoticed in a small town after a well publicized jail break. Looking around every direction, looking at their boarding passes (how much is there you can learn from it?) looking at their cell phones, glancing back at the departure announcements. They are surely the ones, if you were a Freudian master of airline security, who you would think had something to hide.
A street corner in Perpignan
So we actually will make it to New York now, and in light of the ‘compression pants’ I’m wearing (full length black stretchies that look like bikers pants but go to your ankles) I’m even hopeful that my legs won’t puff up like they often do, like cantaloupes, on such long flights. I keep doing those isometric exercises – point and flex and point and flex – but I ll only know once I’m home and can disrobe. Travelling does takes it toll, though no doubt those rampages are less felt in more stretched out locations – Business and First to name two that immediately come to mind. But I guess I’ll live.
Derek Hudson armed with Tri-x: Stand back!!
Callie Shell's show on Obama in the big church
The small but dedicated crowd who came to walk through my "44 Days" show
Annie Boulat and Jerome Delay celebrating 30 years of Cosmos
the opening panel for my 44 Days show
The reason for my trip in the first place was to attend the Visa Pour l’Image in Perpignan, the 21st version of the festival of photojournalism which takes place in this Pyrenees/Mediterranen town every September. It’s really the perfect place for such an event. Aside from one trip to the beach for a seaside buffet lunch on Saturday, I didn’t’set foot in a vehicle for 5 days. While the windy narrow streets take several days to become confidently comfy with, not one of the exhibitions, and there are some 40 of them, is more than a ten minute walk from any other. The venues are uniformly fetching: former convents, centuries old chapels, and assorted other larger spaces which once no doubt housed either wealthy merchants, or a large contingent of their horses. The pictures are usually 16x20 or 20x24, hung very elegantly, and beckon the viewing public to spend time on a slow traipse to see the work. (My expo, taken from my soon to be published book “44 Days: Iran and the Remaking of the World” was in a beautiful little chapel. I felt it a rather ecumenical experience: the Jewish kid from Utah photographs a Shia Islam Revolution, and has a show in a Catholic Chapel in France. Hard to beat that !) The exhibitors are equally divided between the well known (ahem!) and the newly discovered, though virtually all of us are experiencing the same malaise in our business.
the 2am schmoozefest
another red building in Perpignan-they're everywhere
lunch at a farm outside the city (the only time youre in a car!)
a 1am encounter with old friend and colleague Henri Bureau (Sygma) who was one of the greats-now a country farmer
a guestbook entry at the 44 Days show
The shows continue to remind one of the power of photography to tell stories, to emote, inform and sometimes frighten. But the naggingly overriding theme for this year, aside from the work itself, was the ongoing sickness in the publishing industry, and its fallout on those who have for decades traditionally funded their work (and their rent) by payments and assignments from magazines. With the additional market slide of ad revenue in the general interest magazine world, budgets for photography (and writing as well) have plummeted. There are no longer huge sources of money available to spend on photographers chasing their visual dreams (whether they be unspeakable acts in Congo, or pursuing candidates for the White House.) In the end, hundreds of photographers and editors gather in a week long celebration of photojournalism, though this year is was more like the gathering one might attend for a very much loved recently departed uncle who draws the family together at his passing. We don’t yet know for sure that, as some optimists claim “ things are coming back!” anytime soon. I, for one, don’t really see that rebound. Once downsized, a department is loathe to immediately reinflate itself. In parallels to historical moments like the buggy whip makers who thought there would always be buggies (the horseless carriage didn’t need that whip) or railroads (who didn’t understand they were in the transport business, not the railroad business) we, the storytellers find ourselves wondering what will be the next platforms for telling stories. The internet is the obvious answer, and all its possible varieties: Facebook, Kindle, LinkedIN, all of which are making millions for their inventors, yet don’t really answer the question: how will we find ways for viewers, ultimately, to pay for and support the producers of the work? Ay, there’s the rub. My personal choice for Jolting Social Engagement would seem something like the following: (and this is of course based on that curious concept that everything on the web is FREE, except porn and the Wall Street Journal.)

Sometime in September, the colorless and basically ineffective United Nations Secretary General (a Starbucks Iced Coffee if you can name him! Oops, too late) Ban Ki Moon, would announce in a few weeks at the opening of the annual General Assembly meeting that as of the following Tuesday, all news reported on the net by firsthand sources (those who are picked to death by bloggers and aggregators) would begin charging for their product. Not huge amounts, please --- for example the New York Times would charge you ten or twelve bucks a month, something you could easily live with –so that it wouldn’t completely shock the public into abandoning its need for information and reporting. But if everyone did it at the same time (a critical point) we would all have to figure out what was important to us, and end up supporting the beast that way. I don’t really think there is a desire to remain ignorant in society, just a preference (and who hasn’t felt that way at one time or another) for that which is given to you gratis. I am hopeful that at some point in the not too distant future there will be a way for viewers to actually support the people whose work they view and admire. It would make sense, even though we’ll probably never be back to where we were five or ten years ago. The wheel turns, and now its time for that wheel to turn in our direction.
the bus station in Paris/Invalides
a Paris moment, from the airport bus
Every evening there is a projection, a combination of topical themes, and often, additional work which compliments an expo that is already on display. A series of awards are also sprinkled throughout the week. Hundreds gather in a large amphitheater-like space, and four blocks away, a few thousand more in a large café covered square, to watch the proceedings over a glass of rosé. Later on, well into the night in Perpignan, we’d gather in one of several locales where wine and beer flow freely, and discuss not only the annoying bits (you know, getting paid, that sort of thing) but the more elemental aspects of the business. Having been a photographer for 42 years, I have collected a large retinue of pals, some of whom are very outspoken about what they like and what they loathe. And true it is that we all try and find, in our work, some kind of personal look or style which not only adds to the visual power of the pictures, but helps us find an audience which is inclined to adore us. The lines of acceptability are ever thinning: and Friday night, with two English friends, I was subjected to a bashing of the current trend and habit of camera tilt as a way of engaging the viewer. There are a number of photographers now who for one reason or another seem to have lost their gyroscopes – or at the very least, their bubble levels. Every picture looks like it could have been shot from a small dinghy, one which is pitching side to side in a force five gale, and forcing the photographer to shoot pictures without anything resembling a flat horizon line. I know I’m old fashioned but I had to agree with this one. And its not as if now and then, in some kind of visually desperate moment you took a picture, the perspective of which was to plunge towards the subject, but when it becomes the norm, and standard, then we have definitely traded the idea of using the elemental empathetic power of the photograph for something more studied and in the end, not only more stylized but perhaps more suspect. In a world with too many photographers, a personal look or style is something you need to emerge from the pack. I suppose there is room for all kinds of taste, and maybe I’m being harsh. We live in a very different world from the world of the Iran Revolution (shooting film, shipping film out of the country with passengers, never knowing for days whether or not you actually had a picture) to, 30 years later, the post election unrest of this summer (pictures shot with cell phones or point&shoot cameras, popped into laptops, and sent within minutes all over the world via the internet.) That which was the craft of shooting, when you actually had to remember to focus, expose properly, and rewind your film before shipping it – has pretty much gone by the wayside. The advances have let many people into the world of photography who might not have had much of a career in the old days. But the future is not going away, and the immediacy of transmission is a fact of life. (When typing up captions on a digital job where others were present, who doesn’t just copy the information from a Yahoo News picture… same faces, same order, same situation.. its already OUT there.) Going forward I hope there is at least the smallest regard for what it is that professional photographers do; everyone owns a camera these days, and pretty much, everyone is a photographer. And were it only so that “the picture never lies……”
getting connected is never as easy as they say
as always, click on a picture to see full size


Dave Shafer said...

Thank you for that missive.
I did not want to read what you wrote about our trade, (though it is what I think), but to read it from you...
Well damn.

Tomorrow’s another day, dust'm off and get back in there.


Derek Hudson said...

Good piece David,
You sum up well where it's at right now. Thanks for the pic (it's HP5 actually, my effort to support Ilford) and well done for remembering the derailed gyroscope photographers!

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