Friday, March 19, 2010

The Latest News on Human Nature


by J. Ross Baughman

Whenever journalists worry about the future of news, I think back to this view of Brooklyn in 1987.

I remember a woman who turned her back on the television when she heard her neighbors' voices float in through the open window. She loved to mind other people’s business, and could tell that their story was going to be pretty terrific. She even brought a pillow over to the window sill to make herself more comfortable.

Well lately, the word on the street is that the news business is in terrible shape. Journalists are under attack from every corner. The media’s entire business model is broken and may not survive.

* The worldwide tally from 2009 showed that more journalists were murdered while in pursuit of stories than ever before, including a single deadly attack on over 30 members of a traveling press corps in Latin America.

* Militant radicals plotted to decapitate Scandinavian journalists who had published a cartoon that criticized their faith. Their goal was to throw those heads down from the roof of the newspaper just to create maximum terror.

* The NBC network, following the path set by major newspapers across the nation, slashed their own newsroom staff in hopes of maintaining high profits.

* The new Republican candidate for New York’s governorship recently waged war on two staffers of his hometown newspaper, forcing editors to re-assign them from covering his career as executive of Suffolk County.

One of my recent editors loved to talk about our work as product, and lectured us on journalism as a business. Without monetization, he argued, there would be no newspapers.

My Brooklyn neighbors would beg to differ; and so would the successful avalanche of social networking illustrated by Wikipedia. It may be possible to slap an ad on just about anything, but making money is not the only reason why people do things. In fact, the underlying reasons for story-telling are much more profound. People always have and always will love stories; and the hunger to see and hear them is no stronger than the urge to show and tell more.

I prefer this more enduring view of human nature.

A much more potent lesson I can remember goes something like this:

Ask yourself what you really love to do, and would likely continue to do whether or not anyone paid you to do it. Then pursue it whole-heartedly. Chances are good that people will recognize your passion, and admire it.

Another possible future for mass communications will surface when those who feel passionately about a story find a natural alliance with people who want that story told widely.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Rising Above our Vows of Silence


by J. Ross Baughman

Photojournalists feel an irresistible attraction to the power of still and silent images. We commit ourselves to what that language can impart, and in so doing, try to find or make pictures that speak for us.

Donna Ferrato awoke to this idea back in 1976, and to celebrate the occasion, we made this photograph in her parent’s house back in Lorain, Ohio. Of course Donna went on to document the awful point of view of women who suffer from domestic violence. For those who know this winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, she seldom seems reluctant to speak her mind.

She has gone on to become a champion of this cause, one that almost could not speak its name until Donna gave it voice. She helps women’s shelters whenever she can, lectures around the world and started a website to make sure that her work from the book Living with the Enemy remains in the public eye.

Over the years, I invited photographers such as Donna to speak with my students, hoping that the power of ideas would be more interesting and more inspiring that fretting over the latest gadget.

Some of the other distinguished visitors to my class at the New School in New York included Mary Ellen Mark, Gordon Parks and a young fellow named Louie Psihoyos.

Back in the early 1980s, Louie had caught the eye of top magazine photo editors with the incredible lengths to which he would go for a gorgeous photo. Whether dangling from an aircraft or diving deep beneath the sea, firing multiple remotes or over-gelling his strobes – all this seemed to come naturally to him.

On Sunday evening, 7 March 2010, Louie proved how important it is to put content and passion first. His work entitled The Cove reveals the brutal, mass killing of dolphins and whales in the name of commerce. Louie rose above the golden silence of still photography to win an Oscar for making the best documentary film at the 82nd annual awards ceremony of the Association of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences.

Even though his name was called out before a huge, international viewership, and he ran up on the stage into the well-deserved spotlight, Louie could barely slip in a word as other folks did all the talking.

But now he has fully joined Mary Ellen Mark and the dearly departed Gordon Parks as part of that elite group of still photographers to have received Oscar’s approval.

They have all transcended this self-imposed limitation of our craft, and found their higher calling.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Where We've Been; Where We're Headed


A Column of Arts Criticism by J. Ross Baughman

The edge of a single great photo can work like a knife, cutting far sharper than a mere one thousand words. In fact, a good picture can win a thousand arguments.

Since 1952, a New York publishing house and gallery named Aperture has earned a preeminent reputation in the world of photography, discovering and mapping all the branches and leading lights during that time.

With two recent books, Aperture cuts away the chaff from our visually cluttered life, explaining where we have been and what's coming next. They peel layers of taste from the underlying culture, and show how errors begun long ago will form scars nearly impossible to tear away.

In Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context Since 1955, the editors fillet some 125 of the most memorable magazine picture layouts of all time. The actual magazine pages are handsomely reproduced in this thick, coffee-table book, including the yellowing patina of their original cheap paper.

There are simply too many good photos to do them all justice; and so viewers must settle for a sample biopsy. Along comes Abraham Zapruder's sequence of J.F.K. in Dallas, and, also courtesy of LIFE magazine, mug shots and senior yearbook portraits assembled into a week's toll from Vietnam.

But there are also plenty of things to bring a smile. Henri Cartier-Bresson found plain joy in the fox trot of Ukrainian boys and girls behind the Iron Curtain. We also get a walk on the moon and a microscopic view inside the womb.

Mary Panzer's opening essay offers a rich and detailed history of the medium. Editors in Europe began to wield pictures in a much more threatening way by the mid-20th Century, showing gritty, passionate people in the midst of life-and-death struggle. Lurid pages abound from publications that no longer exist, or that are little-known in America, such as Die Woche, Ojo, Proceso, Geo and The Mirror.

The choice of stories to include in this book fell to an international panel of 100 photographers, editors, art directors, historians and magazine collectors. The board which organizes The World Press Photo Awards served as a principle sponsor. The International Center of Photography gave the effort their prestigious Infinity Award as this year's Best Publication, and an exhibit will travel throughout the U.S. this year.

Aperture and their blue-ribbon panel want us to see the magazine cover and several spreads from Larry Burrow's "Yankee Papa 13" the landmark photo story of a young Marine door gunner in Vietnam during his gut-wrenching baptism by fire. One of the other best stories of all times came from photographer Eugene Richards, who watched and documented with full emotion as his wife fought and died from breast cancer.

The war correspondent Don McCullin went to Northern Ireland where troops charged down a neighborhood street in full battle-cry. In the same frame he caught a horrified housewife who stopped luckily short at her front door. Sebastiao Salgado came upon a nightmarish pit in Brazil filled with workers, all reduced to the size and individuality of insects as they scratched for gold in the muddy walls.

For most of its life, The New Yorker magazine never used photographs to illustrate its stories; but when it published the first pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the whole world noticed.

It is a good thing that editors published the many significant pictures here taken by non-professionals. In part, this can be attributed to the millions of cameras in the hands of amateurs who will inevitably bump into historic moments. But this fact also stabs editors and photographers with the most painful challenge. After all, their most valuable skills are analyzing and anticipating where to position themselves tomorrow, but they are so often in the easy spot, the wrong spot or still at home in bed.

Donna Ferrato became the first journalist to look long and hard at domestic violence, and knew that she would have to be at home with victim and tormenter in order to see it. She succeeded brilliantly, but throughout many years of investigation, Ms. Ferrato could not get her usual magazine sponsors to publish the work, and turned instead to the Sunday magazine of The Philadelphia Enquirer. The book's cover photo came from Nicaragua, where Susan Meiselas found masked rebels with their fists full of rocks, beckoning the viewer to come along.

But Eric Valli also deserves a place in the longer story of photojournalism, even though his headlines did not make such earth-shaking news. He and the editors of National Geographic magazine allow us to tag along while mountain climbers in Nepal risk falling to certain death just to harvest honey. The chance to record passion and heroic risk fills these pages, most memorably published in an issue of Paris Match, where jaunty rebels in Hungary meet their Soviet executioners.

It could be tempting for readers to soak in this warm bath of recent history. While these books can do a good job of that, they also offer a much more valuable insight.

Unfortunately, most of the photographs swirling around us can only be described as dull. To have any effect, they must be used in a sufficient flurry, working more like the attack of a thousand cuts. Here is how some dull-witted photographers and editors think. Number One: Think of a topical question. Number Two: Think of something to look at that reminds us of the question.

Richard Avedon's roll-call of powerful Americans in 1976 cut them all down into paper dolls - perhaps an interesting enough premise - but a courageous editor might have assigned instead a patient witness to the manners and appetites of our leaders. The way they treat a cabinet member, a spouse or an intern could reveal a great deal more.

Likewise, a stark headcount for genocide in Cambodia does not reflect a proud moment in magazine photojournalism, but rather the failure of that medium's language to bring the genuine story - the record of how people treated each other - to light.

Bold words stenciled on a traffic sign do not qualify as literature, and neither do the visual equivalent. Phone books are useful, sometimes interesting, even life-saving, but for all the density of printing, they are by no means a pinnacle of language. One day, telephone directories may even feature a picture of every person next to their phone number, but this will not make them into picture books either.

Including such examples in a serious book on the potential of photography is self-limiting and insulting to all those who hope for more. Too often, these old editors forfeited a visual language of far greater potential. Pictures can do an excellent job telling a story, but less and less are being called upon to do so.

To the great discredit of all concerned, we are often afraid of pictures, and in the long view of history, turn out to be squeamishly, shamefully wrong. LIFE's editors left out the most crucial photographs of President Kennedy's assassination, claiming the responsibility to protect America from the awful truth. Eugene Richards, also mentioned above, tried to get his story on cancer published for years, but faced rejection by every serious leading publication until only a magazine for, by and about photographers agreed to publish it.

So how to predict the future of photography? Aperture used a second book named reGeneration to wander through the questions, "How much will the next generation of photographers respect, build on or reject tradition? Will any of the images being made today still be known in 20 years' time?"

Curators at the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne chose the pictures from hundreds of portfolios offered by more than 60 of the world's top photography schools and picked out a slice of 50 promising students. They were especially proud of looking in every corner of the world, avoiding the habit of seeing Britain, France and the U.S. as the home of all meaningful work.

If the documentary or photojournalistic tradition had a chance of appearing here in any greater proportion, they might have checked with a few of the schools best known for such training. Overlooked programs include graduate-level work from universities in Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio and quite a few others in New York alone.

In reGeneration, the subject matter shifts from a world in crisis to the end of the rainbow, primarily in the civilized, developed nations. Quite properly, there is a potent sense of place, a territory of plenty.

Here we find "a volley of questions about a society in which... the humanization of objects have become common currency, making it increasingly hard to tell the difference between true and false, real and ideal."

Keren Asaf stages people in modern, distant, dream-like landscapes. Her view of two young boys in Israel lolling on an evening lawn popped out of her imagination, but she chose to execute it in an entirely realistic way. Are these the boys left over from an outdoor birthday party skit? Maybe.

Nicholas Prior of New York shows us a young child sitting quietly on the carpet, keeping a posture fitting for a rascal in his Time Out, or perhaps an autistic boy in deep conversation with a pattern of vines on the drapery.

Two exceptional portfolios offered both a new look and rich content. For an extract from the long project "Familial Endurance," Jaret Belliveau of Canada studied the effect of catastrophic illness on the children of an elderly woman. There can be seen the honest but painful exchanges of helpless regret. Lucy Levene also bucked the trend to formalize and ritualize the act of photography. In her series "Come and Be My Baby," Ms. Levene clutches tight to a cloak of invisibility, and this allows her and us to scrape the surface of young people in a night club, already afraid of who they might be becoming. Her remaining self-portraits, however, fall back in line with the vast majority of the book.

Much more typically, Pieter Hugo found South African albinos and Raphael Hefti collected Swiss beauticians, but for all their effort, every polished encounter has been reduced into a dispassionate mug shot.

The climax of the book comes with the close-up of an uncooked chicken drumstick, and one must believe that the student Chih-Chien Wang of Taiwan, already in sparkling command of photography, deliberately wanted it to appear amateurish, flat, unappealing. What becomes the difference though between an unappealing idea and the failed expression of that idea?

Aperture takes on an unmistakable world view in reGeneration. It may seem like a fresh approach for communication-minded students, teachers and editors, but it remains nevertheless one of profound alienation. Out of the 323 photographs at hand, nearly two-thirds show places deserted of all people. The next largest category (58 examples) shows people without faces, without identity or with expressions so blank as to be impenetrable. If that combination fails, there are plenty of pictures (23) with miniaturized, bug-like people, or scenes where people are entirely dropped in favor of things (19). People experiencing clear emotions (20) or having exchanges with others (3) seem more like an after-thought.

That the search for reGeneration turned up such pictures should be no surprise. Twenty-first Century magazine photography looks quite distinct from everything else in the last 50 years. Without a doubt, the pictures reveal underlying technical discipline and ability.

They can often surprise, and that does satisfy one of the most basic requirements of the medium, namely, "Show me something I've never seen." People who feel a vague unease, perhaps a bit ambiguous about our times, should see this book as quite beautiful and feel right at home in its pages.

All this is not a symptom of ivy-towered thinking. For the last five or six years, the photo editors of The New York Times Magazine could have easily published any of them. Magazines that used to lead the way in narrative photojournalism have given in to just two kinds of pictures, with seemingly nothing in between. There's either the numb head shot or the view of a robotic, parking lot surveillance camera – compositionally aloof, random, high on art-school, abstract lines, a landscape lost and useless for understanding a specific human story.

Far and away, the photos chosen to represent this next generation say, "People aren't so important. I can't even begin to describe why, dear viewer, or what it is that makes them worth your attention. I don't believe that photography can capture the soul, or get anywhere below the skin. I won't even pretend that I understand them, or would even know when the best time would be to watch what they do, and I'm sure not going to stick around for it.

"My view of the world is all about surface and style and what mood I'm in, and the fact that the photographic tricks I choose to superimpose on them could work just as well in Washington on Tuesday as they will in Hong Kong on Thursday."

By concentrating on yesterday and tomorrow, these books may have overlooked the needs of viewers in the present tense, what we want from pictures. The art of story-telling requires some basic familiarity with the laws of gravity, with affinity, with dramatic tension. Discard these at the peril of slashing the contract between what's being shown and those doing the seeing, the number one promise between reporters and their viewing audience.

Although the pen may be mightier than the sword, somewhat like the contest between a rock and a pair of scissors, both can be buried in our Media Age beneath a single, effective, story-telling picture.


Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context Since 1955, essays by Mary Panzer, Michiel Munneke & Christian Caujolle (Aperture, New York, 2006) pp. 384, 500 illustrations; $75

reGeneration: 50 photographers of tomorrow by William A. Ewing, Nathalie Herschdorfer and Jean- Christophe Blaser, editors (Aperture, New York, 2006) pp. 224, 323 illustrations $35

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Geographic View of the World


by J. Ross Baughman

Just as a river slowly changes its course, or a continent drifts across the ocean, so too the standards for photography have evolved at the National Geographic Society.

For all those who grew up reading National Geographic magazine during the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, there came to be a comforting familiarity about how the world appeared in its pages. One might gawk at the golden hours of sunrise and sunset painted across a landscape, frequently seen from a pilot's point of view. Next would come one of Norman Rockwell's kids, or a close-up of the most wrinkled face in town.

National Geographic's editors squeezed the whole world into their own little idea of a globe, even if it meant moving one of Egypt's great pyramids a few feet to the left or right with photographic magic. There was a time when the magazine's color printing was much more primitive than it is today, and so any scene from a tropical climate came out monochromatically green. To liven up their pictures, some National Geographic photographers traveled with a bright red, long-sleeved shirt in their kits so that any local person shimmying up a tree or wading across the stream could put it on and better catch the reader's eye.

When it came to looking back over the long history of the magazine for Through the Lens, however, almost none of the pictures taken from 1950 through 1980 made the cut. Of the tiny handful that did, most were taken by amateur photographers who happened to be working for NASA as astronauts. Quite tellingly, Leah Bendavid-Val and her team of editors chose 60 percent of what we see here from the work of the past decade.

With 250 pictures mostly splashed across double-page spreads, this is the largest single volume ever compiled by the society. As may be expected, the book is organized geographically into six chapters: Europe, Asia, Africa & the Middle East, the Americas, the Oceans and Space.

But this is not just a book. It will also be a marketing blitz: Released simultaneously in 20 languages, it arrives complete with an hour-long television special, a 40-image touring exhibition that will reach ten world capitals, a lecture series at the society's headquarters in D.C., and art gallery sales of selected signed prints.

In recent years, the traditional Geographic formula has finally cracked, with old-hat surveys giving way to more and more narrative moments. Putting emotions and other crucial content into the pictures seems to be the most important lesson that the society has taken to heart. For instance, they have addressed the subject of wolves over and over again. At first, the pictures only showed fleeting, shy figures, caught at a distance. When photographer Jim Brandenburg made a recent effort, in a remarkable cover story titled "At Home with the Arctic Wolf," a powerful new familiarity with the mythic creatures was set down in print. Mr. Brandenburg joined a pack while they loped across bleak landscapes and gingerly hopped from one piece of iceberg to the next.

However, not until Joel Sartore returned to the subject in 1998 did wolves, and all that they represent in the human imagination, truly come to life. If the depiction of a wolf does not have as its center of attention those canine fangs, that snarl, and the kill, then the viewer will not feel fulfilled.

Mr. Sartore would settle for nothing less. For starters, he would need a camera that could be controlled remotely from a safe distance, and because it would be smack dab in the middle of a feeding frenzy, it would also have to be wolf-proof. The technical wizards at National Geographic built him a plexiglass cylinder to house his camera; its circumference was too wide for a wolf's jaw to clamp down on it.

Once set up amid the snows of Ely, Minn., it took another week of meticulous planning for Mr. Sartore to get his image. Educators at the International Wolf Center helped supply a deer's carcass they had just found run down by a motorist, and in no time the alpha female from a nearby wolf pack made her claim. Neither Hollywood nor any ten-year-old boy could dream up a more frightening picture.

"Animals are thoughtful and emotional," believes Mr. Sartore, "and my job is to make viewers think about that. The readers of the magazine trust us to be as familiar as possible with our subjects."

Another of his best pictures is taken from the eye level of a hunting dog, still transfixed long after necessary by the pheasant in the grip of his master in Long Bow, Neb. Other, deliciously complete moments include Mr. Sartore's 77-year-old California orange picker bending his tired back; a blues guitarist wowing the ladies in Clarksdale, Miss. [William Albert Allard, 1999]; French tourists tickled to be carried ashore from an outrigger in Tahiti [Jodi Cobb, 1997]; and the wall of a mosque in Mali swarming with workers who patch its cracks [Esha Chiocchio, 2001].

Pages are set aside to honor the magazine's creative mothers and fathers. The first managing editor, Gilbert Grosvenor, showed an American inventor sailing through thin air while hanging on to his multi-winged Katydid glider back in 1907. Cannibals in Papua New Guinea slice the back of a tribal member in a "bloody and dangerous initiation rite" as recorded by F.J. Kirschbaum in 1929. At a New Year's celebration in Japan shortly after World War II, Horace Bristol saw a large room choked with thousands of barely dressed men who hurtled themselves after sacred batons.

The cursory text, written by a few scientists and a couple of the photojournalists, skates over centuries, mountains and oceans with no chance of rivaling the pictures. All in all, this is a big, gorgeous book. Also beautiful is its affordable price. Everyone who loves photography and this old world should ask for this as their next gift.