Monday, April 23, 2007

Photojournalism in print

In recent years there have been two books published of photojournalism as it has appeared in print throughout history. I’m speaking of Mary Panzer’s book Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context Since 1955 now out in paperback and the book Kiosk: A History of Photojournalism which is the catalog from an exhibition that was at the Reina Sophia Museum in Spain. Both of these volumes do a handsome job presenting actual spreads from magazines and newspapers of photojournalistic features and serve as nice companions to one another.

Things As They Are, published by Aperture and World Press Photo, shows a chronology of published “stories” from 1955 until present day. It features work you might expect like the W. Eugene Smith Pittsburgh essay from Popular Photography (1959) but also more obscure like an essay on the study of the soles of feet by photographers Myrzik & Jarisch from 2004. An interesting aspect of the book is how it traces the changes in photojournalism alongside advances in technology. By reproducing the full spreads we are able to see how the text and the page layout worked with the images. With 125 featured stories, there is a wide variety of work and photographers.

Kiosk: A History of Photojournalism (Steidl 2001) compiles printed material from as early as 1839 (illustrated journals) through 1973. Being that it starts from the inception of photography, most of the material here is obscure and would probably be new to most readers. As in the Panzer book, there are a lot of features dealing with war. In Panzer it is Vietnam that gets the most attention. In Kiosk, it is the World Wars. What I liked a bit better about Things As They Are is that each story featured has a new text dedicated to it. In Kiosk, there are only texts at the start of each chapter and the featured spreads are only accompanied by basic information like which publication it appeared and when. It serves more like an index of the material and some of the reproductions are too small for each feature to be studied.

Now, taking nothing away from how interesting and informative these books are, I have a basic problem with the idea of photojournalism. It has to do with the way that I have come to understand this medium and my inherent distrust in the truth-telling or storytelling capabilities of photographs. This was a thought that continuously occurred to me while reading both of these books.

My understanding is that photographs do the following:

They describe a selected group of facts (actually they describe the light reflected from that group of facts if you want to be specific) and they remove those described facts from their original context. In other words, the information in any photograph has been re-contextualized and as such, it is processed by the viewer in a much different manner than if the viewer was an actual witness to the original situation. This sounds obvious enough. But the person who was witness could tell you what happened. Photographs alone cannot.

Photojournalism is described as a medium in which a story (most often a news or issue related story) is told primarily through photographs. It serves to inform the viewer in a truthful manner. Photographs are often used alongside the writing of history.

It’s a popular thought that photographs tell the truth. Photographs do not lie. Actually, cameras are very slick liars. They present you with the illusion of literal description but they lack the original context which is most informative and important in storytelling (or truth-telling).

Now, I know that photojournalism is almost always accompanied by text or at least captions. My problem with the “truthfulness” of photography is that all the journalistic integrity of the who, what, when, where and why of the situation, is provided in the caption.

When I see the cover of the New York Times, I look at the photograph featured there for about 3-4 seconds. My eyes then eventually have to read the caption to tell me what I’m looking at. Without the captions, we have little idea of what we are seeing. It is there in that text that the context is re-established.

The reliance of text is what makes photographs suspect.

There is another problem. As photographers, like most professionals, we learn and hone our instincts of the medium. Those that work in the field, go out to “tell a story” or describe a situation as clearly and accurately as possible. Part of this process happens out in the field and another part happens in the editing. Photographers speak of “getting the shot” that will convey what is being reported to the collective understanding of the viewers. Often this can be a kind photographic equivalent of the lowest common denominator.

At a funeral, maybe the “shot” that will be collectively understood is made when the widow reaches out and touches the headstone while weeping. We have seen many variations of this exact image. Photographers know the “success” of such images in conveying a strong gesture and hence, an emotion. So that moment gets filed away in the photographer’s head and serves as something to possibly look for in future situations. This is done repeatedly as they devour imagery. There is a point when the instinct to make good photographs takes over and the real facts are slightly distorted. Remember, the photographer is dictating what will be recorded and afterwards, through editing, what will be seen and captioned. So your potential information and visual reference points are at their discretion. And often their discretion is determined by their desire to be a great photographer and succeed. If an editor has the final say on which photographs are used, they as well are looking for the most dynamic images that fit their understanding of the piece and excite the readership into buying the product in which it’s featured.

I believe that for the most part, photographers (and editors) strive to be truthful and they are often oblivious to where the impulse to make photographs originate but we cannot take the ego completely out of the equation. Photography, especially photojournalism, is a very competitive arena and making “the best” photograph is a way of succeeding.

Magazines changed greatly and in reading these two books that is strongly reflected. Now, a viewer is lucky to have one photograph as an illustration or visual reference point for the written text. In years past, we saw full photo essays that featured 10 or 15 images. Although I believe that viewers still couldn’t make out the facts of a story even with 10 to 15 images given the images alone, I think that when we see many images, our assumptions of understanding narrow to the point of a potential better understanding.

For me, photojournalism is meant to provide nothing more than visual reference points in history. I believe that that is all it can do. In my mind, since the photographs themselves are unreliable, the captions that serve these visual reference points are the same as writing history. And as Stendhal wrote, “The first qualification for a historian is to have no ability to invent.”

Unfortunately, that completely cancels out all photography.

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Book Available Here (Paperback Edition)

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