Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Passage of Watergate Time

Fans of this page (both of you!) will recall how this reporter’s view of recent history is colored, overall, by a disbelief that He ( if I were President, here I would just write my name as if I were some 6 o’clock local anchor in the up and coming St. George, Utah TV market) could have actually been present at events of the last half century, especially the earliest ones.  They all seem like just a few months, maybe a year ago.  Life does have a nasty habit of starting out when you’re in your teens and twenties at a rate you can absorb, then, like a really bad ride at a travelling carnival, it begins to speed up just when you thought you were attuned to the velocity of life in front of you.  Thus, if you are someone who actually remembers the first year you had a television, and your parents watched Adlai Stevenson give his first acceptance speech live to the nation,  those numbers, the ones you can’t believe are YOUR life, just thrash you around like a protective terrier would a small rodent, illicitly caught in the grain elevator. (Yes, that is what terriers were apparently originally bred for.)  

And so it was, that cleaning out a large scale IKEA bookshelf over the weekend produced a number of surprises.  Not shocking, really, just little measures of a life which had mostly been dedicated to capturing what was happening in our world.  For years, with my aspiration to be a Time-Life photographer filled at a relatively early age (I was 20 when I got my first internship at Time … too young at the time to even have a couple of martinis at Duke Zieberts with the D.C. crowd after an LBJ welcoming ceremony)  I spent the better part of five decades chasing events in many parts of the world (not all: never made it to Antarctica, and there are huge gaps in my Asia and Africa coverage…) and for the most part, following the ritual of finding a plane headed to New York or Paris, with my film on it.  We have become so spoiled in the last 15 years, with instant everything, that the toxic nature of this short-term, instant gratification (how gratified, really?) is not going to be truly understood by the citizenry for years to come.  Shooting film meant your job never ended until, to quote my long time buddy Jean-Pierre Laffont, “I see the plane with my film flying over head …” to whichever editorial stop it might be, usually NYC or Paris, the two main axes of photojournalism for the last fifty years.   In those days, if you were on a political campaign, you’d packet up your film in a heavy envelope and leave it at the front desk for a messenger to fetch, and head directly to the bar, where you might actually run into someone working for the campaign who could give you a heads up about tomorrow’s work schedule.  With today’s obligation to edit and process on the fly, it’s rare after a long day shooting that  you aren’t cooped up in your hotel room, trying to edit and tone pictures which will fly out on the wifi system that night.  It’s certainly quicker than film, but it’s a helluva lot less fun.  And all the obligations which accompany those deadlines mean you never really have time to just ponder.  

Pondering was one of my favorite elements of photojournalism.  Essentially, we are always trying to understand the logistics battle of how  we get our camera in the exact spot necessary, and at the right moment, that all we have to do is compose, and shoot.   But those answers never come easy, and you have to really think about what your options are, and what you have to do to make that magic moment happen. Much of it, true, is something you see on the fly, but so many times, thinking ahead about what is happening, or going to happen, makes a huge difference in your work.  Anticipation is a gift.  You just need that time to ponder.  It pays off in the end. 

The accompanying picture (Washington DC, summer 1973)  is by that same French friend, Jean-Pierre Laffont.  JP has been living in New York since the late 1960s.  We met at the first Nixon Inauguration.  I forget the exact moment, but I was a young freelancer, having just been out of college, and in DC a couple of months, and JP was the GAMMA photographer in New York, covering the USA for that then new, and ground-breaking agency.  GAMMA was really the first news agency to operate on the theory that there are enough places to sell and license the work, if only we have the confidence in our photographers, and let them operate “on spec” following their own judgement.  It really solidified the idea that photojournalists were journalists as much as photographers, relying on their inate skills as artists, con men, bullshitters, and business mavens, to get to where the pictures were happening, and send film of said events back to the base, in this case, Paris.  After a nasty split amongst the partners, a number of the GAMMA staff left to form a new agency, SYGMA, and it was with SYGMA that JP spent the next forty something years based in New York, covering the world. (He has published two wonderful books of photographs:  Photographer’s Paradise: Turbulent America 1960-1990 and New York City Up  and Down (https://preview.tinyurl.com/y742hxw5)  I more or less took up the GAMMA slot for the next couple of years, before leaving to start Contact Press Images (www.contactpressimages.com) in New York.  One of the first big stories I covered for GAMMA in 1973 was the Watergate Hearings and the beginning of the unravelling of the Nixon administration.  Every day had a wild new twist as witnesses came to the hill, sitting in front of folksy old Senator Sam Ervin (ever the ‘country lawyer’), the country, and the world.  One of the most explosive days of testimony came when John Dean, who had been the one to tell  Nixon there was “ a cancer growing on the Presidency…”   came with wife Maureeen (soon to be known by all as “Mo’ Dean.”)   I was one of the photographers trying to make some kind of picture of Dean that day, and I was surrounded by some of the best.  Looking back now, I see so many of the Washington world who have since died, but whose presence made me, a young guy fairly new at this game, try and do better than just merely showing up.  When you look a t the talent in that room, and realize how widely viewed their pictures would be over that year, it gives you pause.  There are a few I don’t recognize, but many I do: Daryl Heikes (UPI), Tim Murphy, Joe Silverman (Wash Star)  (standing behind me), ME (GAMMA), Committee Counsel Sam Dash in the dark suit in the distance, Gjon Mili (LIFE - tall in the grey suit, the man who did things with early strobes we all marvelled at, even years later), Stanley Tretick (confidante to Presidents from Kennedy to Carter), Harvey Georges (amazing that we can identify someone by their hair - AP), and Wally McNamee (lower right, Newsweek.)  I think WashPost photographer Jim Atherton, (the guy who could, and often did,  walk into a hearing room where you’d been sitting on your knees for two hours, look around for about a minute, make a half dozen snaps, and walk out of the room, having handed you your very own lunch, an hour before the lunch break) might even be in this picture. I know he was in the room. In my dreary picture of Dean with hand raised for swearing in, Atherton had, alone, snuck behind him and popped up for just long enough to get the anxiious faces of the Senators. Such was the talent in that room, in this picture from 45 years ago.  Forty five years, and none of us alive today can imagine it was really that long ago. Like so many things it feels so fresh, so recent, so real.  We have our pictures to remember our lives, and photography, above all, is about memory.   Thanks, JP. And yes, I’ll get a haircut.

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