Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Mentors and Editors, and a Word of Thanks

It has been gratifying seeing the acknowledgment of friends and colleagues the past two days, and I add my heartfelt thanks to the many editors, most of whom couldn’t take a picture if their life depended on it, whose forethought and imagination helped craft a whole new generation of photographers.  For the most part their view of photography and photographers went well beyond the mechanics of knowing how and when to press a button.  They were, in many ways, psychologists who had to figure out just the right way to inspire and motivate their photographers.  As someone who started in the late 60s, I would like to mention two editors, very different in their approaches, who held the position of Director of Photography at TIME Magazine from 1970 through the late 80s.  John Durniak  (1970-1979)  came to TIME from Popular Photography, and as  TIME was still the little brother of LIFE, there was often a feeling that TIME was a second class place to be a photographer.  You almost never got the space or attention that LIFE could give a story, yet in the end, you knew that a picture published in TIME would be seen by 25 million people in the course of a week.  I was a young photographer, fresh out of college (I’d had a summer internship at TIME before my senior year) and deciding that Vietnam was still THE biggest story, was preparing to head to Saigon.  John Durniak had been editor for no more than a few months when I went to see him, and ask for, at the very least, an introduction to the Saigon bureau.  In what I now realize was a wonderfully magnanimous gesture, he offered me four day’s guarantee ($500 – which just covered my San Franciso-Saigon airfare) and 200 rolls of film (yes, FILM!) and said, “ I want you do to a story,  call it ‘Children of War.’” 

I asked him, “What kind of story do you want it to be?”  And that’s when he became, in my eyes, a true editor, mentor, guide.

“No,” he said, in his usual forceful manner.  “You tell ME what the story is.  You’re the journalist on the spot.  Remember that your first impressions, the first pictures you take may very well be the most important.”    It was a little capsule of wisdom which I have tried to carry with me on every story.  John encouraged his photographers to surprize him. In fact it was almost obligatory.  The last thing he wanted was something predictable, and just knowing that, knowing you could well be on the receiving end (as I was several times) of a dressing down that usually started with something like “… you were acting like a beginner in journalism!!”  was enough to try and push you into your very own unknown territory.  Both John, and his successor Arnold Drapkin (1979-1988) had the advantage of TIME’s well stocked coffers, but while they had resources, for the most part they didn’t squander them.  If a photographer had an idea, maybe even a crazy-probably-won’t-work idea, they were game if they felt the photographer was invested in the story.  Today’s editors, for the most part, lack the financial resources to let photographers follow their instincts in the same ways.  Stories now tend to be much more contained, with more planning, and less of the “hang around time” budgets that we often were able to work under.  There is no substitute for being able to spend time with a subject.  One might have thought that big budgets and many days to work on a project would take the sweat factor away, but in fact, the longer you worked on a project, the more you felt you had to deliver.  I recently sent Arnold Drapkin a thank you note, because it is only now, 20 and 30 years later, that I can appreciate the real value, to me, of what he and others like him afforded us.  At the time, we all thought that not only making a picture, but seeing it in the magazine the following week was the ultimate pay-off.  The years have shown me, as I am able to look at my 40+ year archive, that the most important thing of all was the confidence of those editors who sent us out to do the work.  To make the work. To produce those pictures.  They exist today, and form a valuable archive about the history of the last third of the 20th century.  Without the vision and energy of people like John Durniak and Arnold Drapkin, thousands of those pictures wouldn’t even exist.  To me, and my photographer contemporaries, living in an age where budgets and resources are a fraction of what they were,  I appreciate every day what I was able to do, and thank sincerely the people whose vision, confidence, and brash chutzpah let us work in a way that is fast disappearing.  We're just sayin'... David

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