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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?

Just Make It Happen

Paolo Pellegrin is one of the most successful photographers working today. He works with the most high-profile magazines, he publishes books, is a member of the most prestigious photo agency (Magnum), contributes to interesting projects and regularly wins major contests. So natually, he’s easy enough to hate.

Still, until his work was called into question last week by BagNews Notes, it’s fair to say he was also widely respected.

Predictably, Pellegrin is catching most of this heat from people he doesn’t know, while receiving most of his support from people he does. Which makes me wonder, not knowing him, but having admired his work for a long time and owning at least one of his books (maybe more), what kind of advice I would have given him last Friday when the story first broke.

Here’s the original piece by BagNews Notes.

So if Paolo was a friend of mine, I would have first been upset that BagNews Notes didn’t contact him and get his side of the story before they published their piece. I know BagNews doesn’t consider themselves a journalistic operation, but in a story that has this much potential to destroy a person’s career, you should give them a call.

You do it for three reasons. One, to give the accused a chance to defend themselves (even the condemned get to say their last words, or at least given time for a smoke). Two, you want to appear to be fair. And three, you want your target to have a statement on record that isn’t a carefully crafted response written by a PR firm designed to pick apart your accusation. Basically, you want to help them hang themselves with a hasty and panic driven response. It’s journalism 101 folks, maybe that’s why BagNews screwed it up.

After I was done being upset with BagNews, I’d be upset with Paolo. I would have advised him to immediately contact BagNews and admit he had made a mistake with his captions. I would have told him to take all the blame upon himself. I would have encouraged him to make a full apology to the subject in his photo, the people of Rochester, the judges who rewarded him for this work, his fellow photojournalists and to disqualify himself from the competitions.

That said, Pellegrin is not a friend of mine, and it appears no one else offered him this kind of advice (or if it was offered he chose not to follow it).

Here’s Pellegrin’s response.

Instead, Paolo Pellegrin attacked... everybody. He took no responsibility for his own actions. He constructs straw-men to whack down while at the same time blaming everyone but himself.

My way, end of controversy. Paolo’s way, fuel on the fire.

Here’s BagNews’ response to Pellegrin’s response.

Caption mistakes are one thing. Anyone can make that kind of mistake. Personally, I’m not a big fan of captions. I want viewers to see the photograph and then go to the caption to enhance and add to their understanding of the image. This controversy is no longer about poor, misleading or “lifted” captions. This is now about a self-proclaimed “documentary” photographer who manipulates people and uses them as props to illustrate a story narrative he’s made up in his head.

I thought these issues had been worked out by now. You don’t use people for props. You don’t manipulate them into doing things they aren’t doing and you don’t ask them to pose for you and then pretend it’s a situation that you’ve happened upon. This is the 21st century and as journalists we’ve had these conversations countless times. Walker Evans shouldn’t have moved the furniture. Gene Smith shouldn’t have sandwiched negatives. The guy who’s name I don’t remember shouldn’t have removed the Coke can.

Were we not clear on this?

I thought we’d moved on to questions that are harder to answer, like how much can we tweak our color palette?

Photographs aren’t a clear representation of reality. A skilled photographer willing to shamelessly manipulate a person can make them appear to be whatever they want. That’s why it’s important to have an ethical code of standards. Not just for the industry as a whole, but as an individual also.

My code goes something like this;

I try to represent the person I’m photographing in the most truthful way possible. They should recognize themselves in the images I make of them. This doesn’t always result in the best image, but it’s an attempt to be truthful and “true” to the subject.

My second responsibility is to myself. I want to make images that I’m proud to hang on a wall or see published in a magazine. If the image doesn’t meet my standards I could careless if the publisher thinks it’s a great image or not.

The final responsibility is to the editor that hired me. I don’t want them to regret the fact they did. I want them to go into the layout meeting with an image that’s better than they or their bosses could have hoped for. That way nobody losses their job and I might even get hired again. However, I’m not going to construct an image that misrepresents my subject even if it means the image doesn’t meet my standards or the publishers.

Over the years I’ve taken a lot of heat and lost a few jobs (and probably a contest or two) because of this personal set of rules. To paraphrase Lite, Put your seatbelt on, boy. I don't ride with anybody 'less they wear their seatbelt. It's one of my rules.

To be honest, I do bend this rule when it comes to politicians (and sometimes people of power). I figure a politician on the campaign trail is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each day to manipulate me and my photos, so they’re fair game. It’s a more honest approach than the mock “behind the scenes” images so popular today. Where the magazines throws out any pretense of objectivity in exchange for not losing this prized “access” by publishing a photo that might be displeasing to the politician or his staff.

I guess this is what really upsets me about Paolo Pelligrin’s work and the caviler attitude towards objections and criticism people have made about it. He claims to be broaching subject matter that the “elites” wouldn’t dare touch when in reality he’s manipulating those without power to promote his own elitist agenda.

In a world where the press has abandoned its traditional watchdog role, and is only concerned with giving itself awards and cuddling up to the powerful he’s not an anomaly, he’s their ideal creation.

Magnum, the most prestigious photo agency of all time, doesn’t know what it is. Is it a place for artists, journalists or some type of combination of the two? Magnum’s most successful photographers are probably in the artist camp and are masters of the “found” image. While one of their most successful documentary photographers (not Paolo) is widely known to regularly set-up pictures. This is a problem.

Photo editors, who encourage photographers to “make it happen” (oh how many times I’ve heard those wretched words) and/or disappear for month long stretches to prepare their contest entries are also a major problem.

Contests... well, if World Press or POY doesn't demand to see the entire take... I’m talking Pellegrin’s entire hard drive from Rochester and scrutinize how he works from start to finish (are there fifty frames with different poses and lighting schemes of the “portrait” in the parking garage), their credibility is over. These are photojournalist contests after all.

The bottom line, is this photojournalism thing is broken. If you’ve ever seen a horde of Dutch photographers (home of World Press Photo) work a woman’s team of gold medal winning water-polo players, you’d agree. The people that should be working to fix this, the powerful editors and highly respected older statesmen, are (with some notable brave and bold exceptions) either making excuses, keeping their mouths shut or benefiting from the situation.

Sling your rocks and arrows below. Please don't hesitate to remind me that I'm old and outdated, and thus have no idea what I'm talking about.