Friday, December 28, 2012

What's Wrong with This Image: Addendum

While he's making a separate political point, Daily Beast writer Michael Moynihan finds another fine example of what I was talking about in my last post.  Would any aspiring writer, or even political essayist, have gotten a millimeter of space in The Nation if he submitted this "stew of words" without the name Sean Penn attached:

“Ostreicher, whose innocence was maligned by an arrest where only vague illusions to money laundering have been shown to be fabricated by corrupt officials within the Bolivian judiciary, whose motivation has proven to be extortion.”

Seriously.  He uses the wrong word (illusions instead of allusions), but that's the least of its incoherence.  The whole sentence has a subject, but no verb or object.  The name, Ostereicher, just hangs out there, isolated and abandoned, waiting to make a point of some sort ... I think.

Moynihan finds another writer who makes my point, however:

"It’s difficult to improve upon the brutal verdict of New Yorker writer George Packer, who wondered why 'someone like Penn think[s] he can do this job [journalism], which isn’t his job?'"

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What's Wrong with This Image?

So I get a Twitter recommendation, "Suggestions similar to Black Star," and one of the is the Wall Street Journal photo Twitter feed.  Are you old enough to get the problem there?  Traditionally, the Wall Street Journal didn't have photos.  At all.  Zero.  Even to the point that I used to joke that I wanted to have business cards printed advertising myself as a staff photographer for them, and then see how long it took me to get busted.

But of course it's all just part of the changing media world.  For a long time, for example, I've carried around a note to myself to blog about Chelsea Clinton and Ashton Kutcher.  Not that they're an item or anything (now there's an image, isn't it?)  No, it's because they symbolize a lot of what I think is going wrong in the media world.

Chelsea (who I refer to by first name -- if I must refer to her at all -- to distinguish her from her distinguished parents) was recently looking for, I guess, a purpose in life.  Simply getting a job was insufficient.  So she had a meeting with Steve Capus, the president of NBC News.  According to The New York Times, "Mr. Capus said he had met with Ms. Clinton and had a long conversation that began with a simple question. 'I asked her: "What are you interested in doing?"'

How many things are wrong with those two sentences?  Why is the president of a network news division meeting with her?  Why isn't she meeting with, at best, the executive producer of a show, someone who might actually be expected to be doing hiring?  And I guess the question of qualifications or some sort of vetting is unnecessary.  Just look at how the meeting began.  Reading that quote over again always makes me quiver with fury.

And now Ashton Kutcher thinks, or at least acts like he thinks he's a photographer.  Perhaps he's a better actor than I give him credit for (though still waiting for evidence of that from his work).  No, he's on my naughty list for doing Nikon ads.  Now perhaps I should blame the nabobs of Nikon for this concept, but many of the ads are based on how he, with his smug good looks, is just as good as the pros because he uses fancy Nikon cameras.

In one ad,  he saunters into a fashion show, where he gets marvelous pictures of the runway models while amusingly blocking the pros.  In another, he visits a wedding, where he makes dozens of charming photos while the actual wedding photographer is nowhere to be seen.  In all, of course, he smirks and sashays about with that coolest frat boy overconfidence.

In the end, this is my point: there are professionals who do this stuff, people who have worked a long time to become journalists and photographers.  I fail to see how being Chelsea Clinton (even conceding that she may be very smart) gives her any ability to do anything in any form of media.  And it should be no surprise that she quickly foundered in the dummied up job Capus found for her.

And while I can see the concept behind the Nikon campaign (Buy our cameras and make better pictures, duh), the whole scene creates a coarsening of life.  Go ahead, block a real fashion photographer at a Paris show and see what happens to you.  I'm betting the next day's headlines would describe how American actor was found beaten in alleyway.

We work hard at what we do, perhaps harder than many other professions.  In news and news photography, the rule is: What have you done for me lately?  Either keep producing top notch work, or you'll slowly drift into second-rate jobs.  And if you want that first-rate job, well you have to show you can produce at that level ... before you get to that level.

So who's job did Chelsea Clinton take?  What hard working young reporter spent years aiming at the network, only to be told: "Sorry, the president of the news division called."

And if Ashton Kutcher thinks he's going to step in front of me and block my picture, then make it all okay with a winsome smile, he better protect his knees ...

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Future of Media

Naturally, I think pretty frequently about where the media -- particularly journalistic media -- are headed.  Will it eventually all be on some form of the internet?  Will there be a place for print, either literal (ink on paper) or figurative (online "publication," like The Daily Beast/Newsweek or, for that matter, this blog)?  And what about broadcast, which sends me my regular paycheck?  Will there be something like TV, something that's a prescheduled, one-way experience, where the viewer arrives at a particular time of day to be fed, passively, a particular program?

I got to thinking more about that last as we moved this summer.  As with any move, there is always a gap in services -- that time when your internet service and TV (at least in our case, as we are on DirectTV*) are turned off in the old place, but not yet installed in the new one.  This isn't necessarily a clean break, though, as in this move there was a period when there was TV in the old house even though we were in residence in the new one.

My girls -- six and nine at the time -- took the blackout well, and were most happy when the internet came up in the new place, but there was an interesting point when they requested ... well, demanded that they come with us on our loading trips to the old house so they could watch TV.  And it caused me to wonder: Is there something we crave, something special about that passive watching experience that the new media just don't give us?

I guess, if you think about it, Homer didn't engage in a discussion when he would recite the  Odyssey a couple thousand years ago.  Storytelling has always been a function of human society, as has gathering together to share in that story.  This in the face of my running comment that, in years to come, our children will look at us in disbelief and ask: "So you would go to the TV at the time they told you to in order to watch whatever program they chose to show?"  Will social imperatives cause passive watching at source-chosen moments to survive?

*Here's the thing: in Southwest Virginia, where I live, something like half of the TV viewers get their signal by satellite (either DirectTV or Dish) and around another third get it on cable.  The mountain and valley aspects of the landscape have always made getting over-the-air TV signals a dodgy proposition.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Terrorist?

A random thought ...

So lately, mostly because of 9/11, there have been a spate of unpleasant encounters between police and security guards and photographers, like this one, or this, or perhaps more generally this.  Usually, they have reminded me of my first trips to the old Soviet Union, when we were warned that photographing such harmless locations as airports or train stations or even major road intersections could result in an unpleasant encounter with the militia, as such locations were considered strategically important.  We all laughed.  But now, it's not unusual for Americans and Brits to have these problems.

When today, for some reason, Henri Cartier-Bresson's iconic 1932 photo, Dernier de la Gare Saint Lazare, popped into my head.  You know the one, the picture that everyone shows when they talk about the Decisive Moment.  In it, a man hangs suspended in mid-jump over a puddle ... not too high, not too low.  It's the perfect fraction of a second.

It's also a picture of a train station, shot between the bars of the fence surrounding it.  What would have happened to Cartier-Bresson today?

Then again, we already know what would have happened to him last year in Boston ...

Saturday, December 1, 2012

What Makes a $100 Book?

When we produced our book, Rockbridge: A Photographic Essay, there was a debate about price.  I guess we could have actually sat down and done the math in terms of time and film and processing, pro-rated out equipment and gas and production (editing, cropping, etc.), as well as the obvious expense of getting the damn thing printed and shipped from China.  But if we were that good with money ... well, we wouldn't have gone broke in the meantime.

So instead, we just tried to choose a price point that would get us the maximum amount of income without hitting a chill point for the buyer.  $39.95 seemed about right, and that became the cover price.  (You can get it, by the way, at local Lexington, Virginia, bookstores, or on Amazon, or even from the publisher -- makes a great Christmas present.)

Since then, I've seen it pop up on the rare book sites for as much as $107, apparently because it was an autographed copy.  Wow.  I've only paid that much for a book once ... and regretted it.

It was a photographic history, written on a subject that is critically important, in my opinion, but inadequately covered.  In other words, it's the only book about it.  Why so vague?  Because I'm about to be cruel.

You see, the book was written by amateurs -- amateur historians and amateur writers.  It's horribly organized and poorly written, wandering from subject to subject, scrambling events in apparently random non-chronological order.  It's packed with illustrations, most of which I have seen nowhere else, but they're laid out like a 19th Century page of classifieds: wildly cast upon the page as if handled by cats or monkeys.

And yet, I paid over $100 for it, unknowing at the time what a disaster it is.  Nonetheless, perhaps I was extreme in saying I regretted it.  I wish I had paid less -- much less -- but I am happy I own the book.  It really has a great deal of useful information buried within its chaotic pages, information I've seen only in sources that cite this book.

Now, there is a new book, Leica 99 Years, for a neat $130.  (I wonder what the additional $31 are for.  Wait for it, the joke will come to you ...)  Its gotten good reviews from the Leicaratti, and it does look beautiful.  I would be tempted ... but for the price.  Seriously.  $130?

Of course, using my own equation, your average Leica buyer had a pretty high chill point.  I mean, $7,000 for a camera body ... without the $1,000 lens.  But, for what appears to be a coffee table book of pretty pictures, a celebration of just, well, being cool enough to be Leica?

I suspect the cover price was chosen in a more sophisticated, perhaps Machiavellian,  version of the process we used.  It's expensive because it's something from Leica.  The brand's image must be maintained.

Yet, in my lizard heart of hearts, I know that I would buy the damn thing if I could afford it.  What a sucker.

Maybe I can scam a review copy ...