Let's Be Professional About This

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There’s a big difference between a professional plying their trade and an amateur. In this image I see evidence of two people (in particular) reacting to an unexpected attack, an atrocity, in a professional manner.

The first is the officer on the left, who unlike your average celluloid action star, has her finger in the proper position and not on the trigger of her weapon. The second, is photographer John Tlumacki of the Boston Globe who captured THE moment in a straightforward manner without any photo-gizmo trickery.

The image is a testament to experience and proper training (on both sides of the lens). It also puts the lie to the idea that social media, inexperienced witnesses and camera phones are a suitable replacement for a PFJ.

There’s a video of this moment as well. It was either made by an amateur or the absolute worst camera operator on the planet. The video fails on most levels. but most strikingly when it pans away from the scene so perfectly captured by Tlumacki and instead tilts skyward at smoke and broken windows. The video shows us little of what’s happening at street level (although one can catch a glimpse of Tlumacki helping to move some barricades). In doing so, the camera operator robbed the viewer, history and criminal investigators of a clear picture of what happened seconds after the blast.

(From a photojournalist’s perspective, it also robbed us of another example of how video of an iconic moment usually fails to have the same impact on the viewer as the still image, but that’s hardly important at this point.)

Some have criticized Sports Illustrated’s treatment of the image. Saying the pop-out figures gives it a comic book feel, but that rings hollow with me. In fact, I think it’s quite effective. Heroes (comic book or otherwise) are normal people who are thrust into extraordinary situations and react in heroic ways. In other words, cops aren’t any more super than anyone else, until they are.

That said, I salute the editors of S.I. for publishing this amazing image as well as they did. Perhaps it was because their tight deadline prevented them from talking themselves out of it. I don’t know. I don't care. They got it done, and that’s what counts.

With that, I'd like to make a quick comment about the first episode of a new reality show called “The Moment”, hosted by Superbowl winning quarterback Kurt Warner. Unlike the moment captured by Tlumacki, this show is scripted, exploitative (of both their subjects and audience), unbelievable, predictable and total removed from reality. Which explains why on TV it’s called a reality show. Its gimmick, err, premise, is that it gives people a second chance to live their dream.

In the first episode, Warner gives working mom Tracie Marcum a second chance at being a Sports Illustrated photographer. We're never told when she got her first chance, or why a gainfully employed person would throw away a perfectly good job.

Marcum seems nice enough. She’s obviously deeply loved by her family, a decent bunch, and is ready and willing to work, but a sports photographer she is not. The show puts her through a two week “boot camp” where photographer Lou Jones, also a decent sort and veteran of fourteen Olympic games, attempts to turn her into a sports photographer. The prize is a job at Sports Illustrated.

The show puts Marcum through a bunch of silly exercises designed to turn her into a sports shooting machine. The cruelest of which is when they send her to a skeet range to photograph clay pigeons exploding as they’re shot. I say cruel, because SPOILER ALERT Marcum’s mother committed suicide with a gun, so the sound of gun shots freaks the poor woman out. Yeah, no manipulation here. The producers of the show didn’t put Marcum through this for some canned drama, the “exploding clay pigeon test” is one every sports photographer has to pass.

Okay, so it’s all in good fun. We all know nothing sells soap like a working mom’s tears.

As a viewer, I expected Marcum would earn herself a day rate or two for her trouble. Maybe shoot a golf tournament or something for the magazine. That’s when things got weird.

At the end of the show, Marcum heads to New York to meet with the director of photography and a highly acclaimed Sports Illustrated photographer who will look at her work and decide whether she’s earned herself a “position” at the magazine or not.

As Keanu would say, “Whoa.” Position? I thought we were talking “job”, not position.

To make matters stranger not to mention ironic, since the episode was shot, both the DOP, and the staff photographer (who judged her work) are no longer with the magazine (along with several other GREAT photographers).

Sure enough, SPOILER ALERT, Marcum wins a position at the magazine. On one hand, I have to say, “good for you girl," but on the other I’m wearing my “I can’t believe what I just saw” face (and yes, I usually wear that face on my hand).

As this episode was being shot, the magazine’s hierarchy, the same people that knew they were going to fire a bunch of people whose talents the magazine was built on, thought it was a good idea to send the message to America that anyone, given a two week training course, could be a Sports Illustrated photographer.

Is that what you want your subscribers to think? There’s nothing special here, nothing to see, move along. That given a chance (first or second) by Kurt Warner you too could be a Sports Illustrated photographer.

George Plimpton notwithstanding, can you think of a professional sports franchise that would attempt to sell season tickets with this premise?

Whether it’s our sports or the people shooting them, paying customers want the best. They don’t want to see their overweight neighbor playing for the Miami Heat. They want to see LeBron. Just like they don’t want to sit through a three hour slideshow of their neighbor’s eco-holiday, unless they happen to live next door to Sebastiao Salgado.

I know I’ve said this in a slightly roundabout way, but professionalism is important. Not only in important matters, like national security, police officers and other first responders, but also when it comes to the our press.

As a photographer, a journalist, and a consumer of news, I’m tired of the mediocre spirit that has infected our publications today.

We don’t need another overly clever youngster, running around in tiny jeans, thinking the story is about them while attempting to make self-relevant snaps with their iPhone. Can’t you just picture it? A blood stained sidewalk, maybe a tattered piece of red, white and blue bunting, a cross processing filter...

What we need is some old school PFJ’s that know how to capture a moment in a way that is relevant and insightful, but also true. Yeah, I said it. Images can be true. Regardless of what your goateed, sports coat with faux leather patches on the elbows wearing, college professor told you.

What we want (and by "we" I'm probably only talking about me), what editors should be trying to deliver (and what we got for a brief moment this week) is some photojournalism which harkens back to the Boston Globe of the eighties. This is what we need and anyone who thinks otherwise deserves to have Stan Grossfeld's non-ironic Chuck Taylors shoved right up their arse.


TIME to Start Over

Stop the presses, Time/Warner failed to make a deal to get rid of it's magazines!

You can read about it in the New York Times.

Here's a quick post to explain what just happened.

Around 1989, Time Inc. decided to merge with Warner. Paramount didn't like this because they thought their investment in Time Inc. would be diluted, so they tried a hostile take-over of Time Inc.

This forced Time Inc., instead of doing a stock-swap merger with Warner, to buy Warner for cash. Why did Time Inc. want to merge so badly with Warner? We really don't know. It had something to do with "synergy". Which nobody in the Time/Life Building could define, but had something to do with everybody playing nice together and making tons more money.

Why didn't Time just walk away from Warner? We don't know this either. As far as I can tell, it had something to do with a pit bull like case of lockjaw among the Time Inc. executives.

At the end of the day, Steve Ross and the rest of the Warner executives got tons of cash AND they somehow gained control of Time Inc. Yes, Time Inc. funded the selling of itself. Not only did they lose control of their own house, their employees' stock value plummeted (maybe Paramount had a point). This was the beginning of the end and the start of a long string of equally bad mergers and business decisions. Can anyone say, "You've got mail!"

Fast forward to present day. Time/Warner can't make a deal with Meredith because their magazines are seen as a liability. So they give themselves a loan so that the magazine side can buy themselves from the "media" side. Basically, the profit making part of the company is keeping the PS3, while charging it's mentally challenged older brother for the right to continue playing with the Lincoln Logs.

And what's the word they dust off to make this all seem like a good idea? You guessed it, synergy, which they still can't define nor make work. After almost 25 years of greed and foolishness, Time Inc. finds itself right back where it was at the start of all of this. The difference now is they've got products that nobody seemingly wants, and they've lost any corporate memory they once had on how to create products that people do want.

Why doesn't synergy work? Easy, because just like everybody else, Madonna wants to get paid.

If you use one of her songs in a Warner Brothers movie, she's going to charge your ass even though she recorded that song with Warner Brothers in the first place. You want to publish a Time/Life book on Madonna? Cut her a check. They don't call her the Material Girl for nothing. While you're at it, cut the photographers, the writers and everybody else involved a check too.

We all gotta eat, and synergy is the same thing that caused the cabbages to rot in the fields while people were starving in Moscow.

Synergy is executive speak for, "We're going to make more profit off of your work, we're not going to pay you any more, and you're going to have to work harder."

Synergy is what's behind every rights grabbing contract photographers and writers are now asked to sign.

As long as we're making deals, I'll make the good folks at Time Inc. an offer. I'll buy LIFE Magazine from you. No, I'm serious. I can make this thing work. I'll keep using your distributors and allow you to package my ad pages along with TIME, PEOPLE, MONEY, and FORTUNE. These two things alone make this a smoking deal. Trust me on this, you cannot go wrong. Now, I'm taking a bit of a risk here and doing you a huge favor, so I'm only going to need a hundred million in cash to make this thing happen.

Call me, you've got my number.

 


The Dramatic Moment

Magnum is one of the most prestigious photo agencies that has ever (or will ever) exist. It was founded to give it’s members the ability to pursue any story or subject matter they wished, profit from their work, and retain ownership of the images they made. Magnum was founded at the end of World War Two by photographers who had covered the war. Their main clients were editorial publications (magazines and newspapers). So naturally that they thought of themselves as journalists.

One of Magnum’s founding members, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, had a philosophy he used when working. His goal was to make a perfectly composed image, from precisely the right spot at the exact instant when all the elements he was observing came together in poetic harmony. When this happened, he called it “The Decisive Moment”.

"To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression." - Henri Cartier-Bresson

He was a master of recognizing the decisive moment and managed to capture a great deal more (of them) than his share. To him, the decisive moment was present in all situations. The only question was whether the photographer would find and capture it before it disappeared.

Which is what photography is, a quest to discover the under-seen, the fleeting moments of life (which most of humanity misses), in the most perfect way possible. This was (and still is) a radical idea. Painters tried to do this (to some degree), but despite all their hard work and genius level talent they didn’t have the right tool. The invention of photography gave them that tool. Artists who wanted to continue painting stopped trying to capture reality and started trying to capture their impression of reality. Artist who desired to capture the reality of life’s splendor, picked up a camera (although Bresson’s Decisive Moment would not come into play until cameras became small enough to be easily carried).

There are three fundamental problems with photographers that try to set up pictures and pass them off as an honest attempt to capture reality.

One, it shows a great deal of arrogance. To think that you can come up with a better idea than what the world is offering you (in exchange for a little patience) is foolhardy. Life is more creative than you. Spend some time looking around and it will give you images that you could never imagine yourself.

Two, You’re cheating yourself. Winning awards, being widely published, having your work hang in museums is all fine and dandy, but at some point, perhaps on your deathbed, you’ll realize you’re a fraud and the body of work you spent your life creating is a lie. (Then again maybe not, one shouldn’t overestimate a person’s ability to deceive themselves.)

Three, the tool to replace photography as the ideal medium to record the human condition hasn’t been invented yet. When that tool is invented, feel free to take photography into it’s impressionistic phase. Until than, you’re just splashing paint on canvas in the hope of convincing someone you’re brilliant.

Photography is all about you, there’s no getting away from that fact. But, if you want to be great, you damn well better make pictures that don’t need you. Images that don’t need an award or a gold star placed on them by a photo editor or museum curator to make them good. That’s a tough trick to pull off. Would your pictures still be great if none of your friends or supporters know they were made by you?

Let’s call it the Vivian Maier test. If you and all your friends are dead are your pictures still good?

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you should make “objective” pictures. We have drones flying over our heads to do that. What I’m asking is to know a little bit about you through your photographs. There should be a hint of you visible in your images. Now, just because your work is “subjective” doesn’t mean you can abandon honesty. I want your honest take on the world, and you can’t get that by hiring or conning people into modeling for you. Posing pictures to support your preconceived ideas, isn’t being honest, it’s just a way to reinforce your prejudices. Once you start down that path, I don’t know how you avoid taking up residence in your own private echo chamber.

Listen, HCB didn’t have motor drives, auto focus lenses or high speed sensors like you. It really shouldn’t be that hard to follow in his footsteps. There are photographers out there who have been following The Troubles or chasing hot light in half made worlds for decades and they seem to do well without cheating themselves, their viewers or the people in their pictures.

Is that too much to ask?

Update - I just became aware of this film clip that almost captures the moment when Cartier-Bresson made the image of the Gestapo informer being exposed. Somewhat humbling, no?