Are we living in a golden age of photojournalism? Has the artful sophistication of today's image makers so unbalanced the hoary "picture/ thousand word" equation that some of the news we read is the photo caption?
Multiple broadcasts, print and Internet platforms swamp us with a daily, even hourly, flood of ongoing and one-off news events from every corner of the earth. We are drowning in images: from the most august, traditional sources made by those dedicated and gifted photographers who are keenly aware of every nuance inside the frame, to ragged grab shots caught on the fly by a bystander’s iPhone, and more and more, those of social or political activists caught in the fray of an unfolding crisis. Where, in such a democratic cacophony of images, do we find some hierarchy of trust, truth and (god forbid) artistic insight? Is it even possible to do, or if so, how? In a world of seeming infinite visual mashups is the concept of photojournalism itself as obsolete as last year’s digital photo printer?
An examination of the thirteen pages of The New York Times “Sunday Review” section of December 25 offers dramatic color images of 2011 from the pages of the Times under the headings “Natural Disaster,” “Occupy Wall Street,” “Arab Spring,” “The World,” and “The Nation.” A double page centerfold is Tyler Hicks’ intense portrait of Libyan rebel fighters near Ras Lanuf reacting after a NATO airstrike against Qaddafi forces in March. It evokes the immersive immediacy of a “You Are There” French heroic salon painting of the 19th century. Delacroix and Gericault seem to loom just beyond the borders of the frame. Hicks’ chiaroscuro photo represents the highest level of an artist engaging the viewer with the drama of a singular moment frozen in the undifferentiated flux of time.
The idea of the primacy of photojournalism, especially “conflict photography,” as a window into an embattled world, has long been on my mind, as readers of this blog know. In the two years I have been writing these pieces I have often featured profiles of photojournalists; I am fortunate to have come to know some of them as friends.
Carol and I have been photography collectors for nearly 40 years. We find ourselves today drawn more and more, not to the 20th century modernist masters that were the centerpiece of our earlier collecting, but to contemporary photographers who engage with unrelenting passion the unfolding events of our seeming chaotic world.
Order out of chaos? Perhaps it’s illusory. But is it not in the intrinsic nature of the mind’s eye to try to find order, meaning, even aesthetic pleasure, in the visual field around us, as presented in the ideas of Gestaltism. I once asked the great photographer James Nachtwey about the avowed purpose in his work, “to bear witness” to the humanity sometimes barely flickering in the existential darkness around him. He has spoken eloquently as well about his colleagues’ work. Lurking below the multi-faceted socio-political rationale of the conflict photographer’s intentions are personal ones as well. The cliché of the reckless thrill seeker is one oft mined by the movies. There is, for many of these photographers a personal, philosophical quest at work as well, one enduring and sustaining the rigors of such an uncompromising profession. The Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima wrote about the necessity of the writer’s need to simply “put one word after another” as an existential act to ground himself in the world. Looking often and as intently as I can at the photos of journalists I deeply admire, I try to ferret out the person behind the image, the mind as well as the eye that is at work, the need, perhaps to put one image after another. This effort may seem to be elusive, even futile. But it also seems to be a journey worth taking. In the rest of this essay I will insert images from The New York Times website of the “Year in Pictures,” a selection from the dozens more photos than are in the print edition of Christmas Day. These are images that compelled me to look beyond the immediate content and into the idea of the Decisive Moment of their “capture” that is the title of Cartier-Bresson’s most well known book. The irony, of course, is that although Cartier-Bresson was one of the founding members in 1947 of Magnum Agency, his work, his technique, differs from that of his partners Robert Capa and David “Chim” Seymour. Cartier-Bresson often stood outside the surrounding fray at a pre-selected site that appealed to him as a “ground” for his photograph and simply waited for the right sequence of events to occur. This is one of the reasons there is such a sense of formalism in his work, and although he is one of the greatest influences on photojournalists today, his style is fundamentally dissimilar to theirs.
The full-page photo on page one of the “Sunday Review” is by Moises Saman. It is of a volunteer in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last Feb. 12. His gloved hands and drooped breathing mask indicate he is helping clean the site the day after President Hosni Mubarak resigned. Here is how the photo appeared in the newspaper.
Here is how the full frame photo appears on the website.
The editorial cropping in the print edition appears to have trumped the integrity of Saman’s image and fundamentally changes its presence. Context is everything. Photojournalist Eugene Smith had career long battles with the editors of the magazines for which he worked. Not only were his photos sometimes artlessly cropped, but his carefully conceived photo-essays such as “Country Doctor” and “Spanish Wake” done for Life magazine, were formatted and edited in such a painful way to him that he eventually quit working for the magazine. The uneasy dance between photo editors and photo creators continues today unabated. There is a more than tenuous parallel here in feature motion pictures. Cinematographers have cried foul for decades at the way some editor’s splicer (or mouse) lobotomizes favored shots or camera moves (and in our digital age, reframes shots as well) to serve the film’s flow. I can only imagine the near conjoined sense of vision that director Bela Tarr and cinematographer Fred Kelemen must experience in their films. The most recent one, The Turin Horse, is 154 minutes long and contains only 30 shots, an average time of about 5 minutes per shot. When Carol and I emerged from the official Oscar consideration screening of the film at AMPAS, one wag suggested that what the film needed was an editor. The dialogue between cinematographer and editor should be collaborative, but turf wars do erupt. And so it goes.
I had intended for the essay this week to be about Trisha Ziff’s film The Mexican Suitcase, a documentary about a cache of recently discovered long lost negatives from the Spanish Civil War, searing images of that tragic conflict, photographed by Robert Capa, David Seymour, and Gerda Taro. The single most known image of that conflict is the oft-cited Falling Soldier from 1936 by Capa, around which a debate has raged for several decades.
Is the photo of a soldier at the moment of being shot, that of a falling soldier mortally wounded, or a staged re-enactment? In an earlier time such questions may have seemed more debate fodder than the fast paced in your face heuristics of today. Capa is often quoted as having said, “If your photo isn’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Today’s conflict photographers are often too close. The three photographers of The Mexican Suitcase all died from wounds during war. They were the first of generations of front line photo-soldiers.
During last year’s Libyan War three extraordinary men also were killed, two of them on the same ill-fated day in April, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington. I wrote a memorial piece on their work. If you missed it in April, I hope you will look at it now.
The third one to die, several weeks before his colleagues, is the South African Anton Hammerl. For a disquieting month his family thought he was being held prisoner by Qaddifi forces, much as had Lynsey Addario, Tyler Hicks and Jehad Nga. Whatever faux-safe currency photojournalists may have once had now seems to be gone. In today’s wars, photographers are more likely to be prime targets. A small box “In Memory” below the Moises Saman centerfold image in “The Year in Pictures” pays tribute to the three.
Tim Hetherington also left us a video diary, an impressionistic twenty-minute look at his reflections “after ten years of war reporting,” an intimate reflection on the lifestyle of a working photojournalist.
As subject, it is not large-scale action shots that give us the most powerful exposure to the sufferings of people whom we often perceive as “the other,” but who in fact are our connection to life’s most primal emotions. These are the very photographs, like most of those in Nachtwey’s powerful black-bound book, Inferno, that we find the most difficult to confront.
These three images have a softening aesthetic edge because of their swaths of color. Imagine the starker, more pained feel, were they in black and white.
The New York Times was one of the last national newspapers to publish photos in color. Its first page one color photograph appeared June 6, 1997. The "above-the-fold" color photograph is now a daily feature and color itself is a strong graphic element given the mediocre reproduction quality of newsprint. Here are three images bathed successively in green, yellow, and blue.
One of Chris Hondros’ final photos for Getty Images is an apocalyptic study of rocket flame and fiery sun reflection off an aloft bayonet. Its stark graphic of contrasting vectors of death is exactly the kind of formal design that separates the camera artist from the camera shooter.
Sometimes, it is nature’s wrath rather than man’s that brings devastation to us. As the planet hurtles into ever more frequent and devastating natural disasters, Bill McKibben’s dire prophecy of irreversible climate change, years before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, provides unwelcome but haunting images of familial loss to even those most removed from the frontiers of the third world’s wars.
Cameras, both still and video, have given us access into the world of politics with all its highs and lows. The scrim of illusion can sometimes be torn from the windows of power brokers for the world to see. It has contributed to the downfall of dictators in the Middle East. It has also given unprecedented access to the inner workings of democratic decision making, even to the point of pixelating a security document sitting atop what seems to be Hillary Clinton’s computer.
And for sheer Dada theater, it would be hard to top this bizarre photo op of a once and future, er, once and past king. When will Newt see the “elephant in the room?” Maybe the pachyderm is there just for his book signing.
The New York Times website for the “Year in Pictures” is a trove of the best photojournalism we have seen this past year and a portal through which we can pass while secure in the safe, mediating presence of our digital screens.
All of these camera artists are indebted to an earlier generation of “war photographers” who fought and died at the front lines of a lost cause in 1936-39. The Spanish Civil War, along with the retrieved photos from The Mexican Suitcase, is the primal arena of conflict that served as prelude to the first full flowering of war photography of the Second World War. We will look at Trisha Ziff’s documentary the next time.