Friday, June 28, 2013

"Can I take this post as an opportunity to speak about photojournalism?"

So a long time ago, I learned to not read the comments on news stories, especially those on websites that are aggregators.  But this was recommended on the NPPA Facebook page, and I couldn't resist.

Maybe I should have.

"FrederickBarnes" felt the need to share his thoughts.

"Can I take this post as an opportunity to speak about photojournalism?" he asked.

"I realize some people are just not 'artistically inclined'," he explained, "but taking photographs like the ones that regularly fill a newspaper is not exactly 'difficult.'"  You're already way ahead of my reaction here, I bet.

"I realize," he said, obviously not actually realizing the depths of ignorance and irony into which he has already plunged, "not everyone is a fucking genius, but today, in the age of digital media and manipulation, its not exactly difficult to take good photographs. Understanding a few tenets can have the person of average intelligence taking photos of the technical level of any Pulitzer winner.
So really what makes a great photojournalist has little to do with the technical aspect of photography. Its much more to do with being there and having the strength to be in some places. Once more, any photographer can now take hundreds or thousands of high resolution photographs in the space of minutes. Out of that many, some would be good just by accident. Its like playing baseball and having a batting average of .001 and being lauded."

 Well, it goes on, providing little more in terms of illumination.

So let me tell a little story.

When working in Washington, DC, I volunteered for the White House News Photographers Association contest committee.  It was a purely selfish act, as I wanted to decipher what would be the most clever method to win prizes.  (There is with all contests in photojournalism a continuing myth of how to strategically win through clever use of categories or trendy photographic techniques or whatever.)  I never came up with a system, but I did happen to coincidentally be working the year that Carol Guzy shot her Pulitzer-winning photo of a Marine in Haiti.

It's a helluva' picture, and there's no denying she deserved all the prizes she got for it.  (She cleaned up in the WHNPA contest too.)  But here's the thing: the US deployment of troops to Haiti that year was the story, and a lot of press covered it.  The small riot that brought the Marines out into the street that day got everyone's attention, so there was a crowd of photographers around that Marine, and because I was on the committee and sorting the entries, I got to see all the pictures that everyone thought were "just as good" as Carol's.

They were wrong.

They were wrong because it took more than just being present.  You not only had to figure out what was going on around you (as apposed to sitting in Port au Prince airport or some other part of town) and get there, but then position yourself in the right place (a lot of the losers were off to one side or another, missing the dramatic composition of the arms reaching out directly towards the camera), and finally hit the button at the right moment.  Banging away with an iPhone just won't hack it.

Okay, I've posted on this way too many times now, and I'll let this subject rest for a while.  But "FrederickBarnes" so perfectly articulated the thundering idiocy that results in acts like dismissing the entire Sun-Times photo department that ... well, I just couldn't let it go.

Finally ...

A review of the M(240) with someone who knows about video.

Sadly, it's not very positive:

"Did Leica Camera f... up?
"In my opinon, short and simply yes."


"Why would Leica produce a number of prototypes to send out to photographers so as to use their response to fine tune the Leica M camera concept, but never involved any videographers in the development of their first Leica M with video?

"I'm taking a bold standpoint here and saying that they didn't. So many things are not designed for video in the Leica M Type 240 that it indicates that Leica Camera AG simply tried to resemble the Leica D-Lux 6. A consumer camera that is very good for consumers, but unlikely to be used for videographers or professional filmmakers ..."

Oh dear.

Some colleagues at the TV station wandered over to look over my shoulder as I played the accompanying video, and we agreed that the same could be done with a DSLR for a half the price required for the Leica.  Why get it then?  Well, I said, if you wanted to go to the wilds and do, say, a multimedia documentary project while carrying just one large camera bag, this would work.  But, they countered, couldn't you do that with a Canon D5?  Uhhhhhh.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Love You Take ...

Every young photojournalist -- or at least when this photojournalist was young, it was true of me -- approaches every demonstration with visions of Stanley Forman's Pulitzer winner, or some other great moment that every old guy has overlooked in his nonchalance.  And every young photojournalist eventually becomes one of those old guys, knowing how every demonstration plays out the same as the last one, aware that moments that win Pulitzers are rare and special things ... and something that could happen at any time.  So, yeah, they go to the demonstration with the exact same hopes.

Really, photography is a special thing, a giving of yourself that everyone gets to see and, eventually, criticize.  And if you make a career of it -- a real career -- it's something that you have to dedicate yourself to wholly.  If you go to that demonstration thinking, "I'll just grab the usual couple pictures of the speakers, maybe a nice reaction shot of the crowd and a wide to show the size, then I'll be done in time for a nice lunch" ... well, you're just not trying, and you will be at best a mediocre hack.  You always need to be looking, hoping, convinced that the one great picture is out there, no matter how boring and commonplace the event.  Every parade might have a little boy talking to a cop on the sidelines.

By extension, if you're just doing this on weekends, if you're the most dedicated of hobbyists, if you have real talent and all your friends say your pictures are better than what they see in the magazines, but you still are doing the day job, well, you may make photographs, but you're not a Photographer.

I have friends who fancy themselves photographers.  They've spent money on gear and time perfecting their craft.  Some have shot jobs for pay.  I look at their pictures -- they're often quite good -- with patience and care, commenting as honestly as possible while remaining polite, but I still can't help regarding them as photo tourists, slumming for a while in the artsy scene, then claiming the title and expecting respect.

I resent that they think they can dip into photography, make some pretty pics in their spare time and collect a prize or two at the local art fair, and then go on with their more profitable lives.  It's like someone putting in a decent time in a 10K and then claiming equality with an Olympic athlete.

You can point out that they've made some great pictures, and I won't disagree, but a weekend softball player can make an astounding triple play ... and he still doesn't deserve to be in the majors.

Here's the thing -- and perhaps I'm now stretching the sports metaphor to the breaking point -- pro athletes didn't just wake up one day and say: "It would be fun to play ball for a living."  They start working in childhood, practicing, going to summer camps, refining their skill in order to reach their level of work.  Many don't make it; are they treated as equals?

I just think that professional photographers -- people who have worked at it, given things up for it, dedicated their lives to it -- deserve some respect for the time and effort and success that we have now spent a lifetime on.  (God knows we'll never be paid appropriately.) And you're welcome to put in that time and sacrifice and join us.

In the meantime, I'll look at your pictures and praise your talents, however meager or grand, but don't act like you're a true Photographer until you've committed everything to it.

This is the problem with things like the Chicago Sun-Times firing ALL their photographers and replacing them with iPhones.  Or, rather, it's one of the problems.  They fail to value photography because they've put no effort into it.  The "leadership" at that paper, and at all the other places that think they can use viewer videos and reporter snapshots and unpaid interns and freelancers who are really housewives and dentists and stuff, of course are happy with second rate material from people who aren't full-time professional photojournalists.  The new "photographers" are people who have not given themselves over to photography, and so they do not value it.  They're happy with a cutsheet and maybe $30.  "Wow, look at me, I'm a real Photographer!  Would you like fries with that?"  This is the easy way for the editors, and less effort is required, less dedication to the craft (and that means the craft of journalism as well as photography) is necessary all the way around.

Friday, June 14, 2013

I Have Absolutely No Interest In This Camera

 I've written before about Leica obsession.  It has many colors, including one of my favorite terms (somewhere just below "chimping"): "Leica Jewelry."  That's the dismissive term used by either working photographers or camera afficiandos (the two are not mutually exclusive -- I feel a Venn diagram coming on) for those who know just enough about Leicas ("They're the very best!") to want to carry one around for the prestige, but not enough about photography to truly make use of it.  Or perhaps know just enough about photography to think they deserve to use "the very best."

Anyway, one of the prestige factors is price.  I'm not revealing anything by saying that Leicas are very expensive.  At the last Leica Historical Society of America annual conference I was able to attend (that was 2009, before the game-changing M9 was released), I watched Director of Product Management Stefan Daniel field question after question about price.  Finally, he came up with what I thought was an impressive answer: the Leica M now costs less in relation to the average income than it did in the M3's heyday in the 1950s.

So now they've released the X Vario.

"Leica has always been known as the Mercedes-Benz of cameras," said FStoppers' posting on the announcement.  "With their unparalleled quality of build, and beautiful designs, they’ve been able make and sell cameras at the premium price tags exceeding $7000. With their latest creation, the X Vario, Leica looks to bridge the gap with Leica’s quality, zoom lenses, and a sub-$3K price tag."


Even inside the cult of Leica, there have always been complaints with each digital product release, and not just about price.  They want live screens, electronic viewfinders (another favorite term of mine: the acronym EVIL, though I don't think I take it the way it's meant), video, etc.  Techno-geeks who want cameras that do the very coolest new things, or photographers that think this tool or that firmware is the most useful thing since the pan-tilt lens post in the Leica Users Forum, usually with paragraph of  careful reasoning supported with charts and statistics and sample photos.  I think the X Vario is the camera for those guys.

They can have it.

Not that I'm a Luddite.  Far from it; nobody's happier than me that the new M(240) shoots video.  I fantasize the way other guys do about the Playmate of the Month about what I could do with that video function.  But that's not why I use a Leica.  I like it for the M experience, if you will.

It's something I've tried to articulate before.  Put simply: there is a unique experience, a special feeling that comes when one handles a Leica M, when one brings that rangefinder to the eye.  When one becomes used to the controls, the camera falls naturally into place -- to the point where I catch myself pantomiming holding the camera while thinking about making a picture.  I'm fully confident that, should someone catch me at it, they could slip the M body into my hands without moving them, and everything would slide into place.

The ultra-smooth, almost cylindrical body of the M8 just didn't seem quite right to me, though I understood it as a valiant effort.  The M9 was, in my mind, the turning point.  As I said to friends, I think it is the digital camera that Cartier-Bresson would finally buy.

The EVIL system, I believe, is just that.  I know there are people who think it's wonderful, especially for something like street photography, where people are less likely to catch you at work as they would with the camera up to your face.  I just have a really hard time working with that screen.

And frankly the whole thing smacks of a point-and-shoot.  It's a really nice point-and-shoot.  (For just short of $3,000, I should hope so.)  It has, I have no doubt, a great lens and a great chip and a good, solid Leica construction, and I probably would be impressed by the pics made by an able photographer with it, but still ...

No, I'll stick with the M, while I wish Leica godspeed and massive profits with cameras like the X Vario, my main concern is that they be the support for my preferred system.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Hi There!

I heard a story once (I really should see if there's any truth to it, but why ruin a good story with truth?) that William F. Buckley, Jr., carefully added the name of one of his rivals in the index of a book.  Next to it there was no page listing, just a little note: "Hi there!"  He knew the man's massive ego would drive him, on seeing the book, to flip immediately to the index to see if he was mentioned in it.

I do actually check the traffic numbers on this blog.  Why, I can't really say.  They run in the single digits as a general rule, and that doesn't really surprise me.  If I get over 20 hits, I feel like I've written a best seller.

But I have to note that, pretty consistently, there are four views of this page every day.  That's kind of nice.  I don't know who you are (though I suspect I know you), but I appreciate the interest.  It's nice to know I'm not writing just for myself, and that my stuff keeps you coming back.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

At My Age ...

Last December 13th, there appeared in the newspapers the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary it has ever been my pleasure to read.
It was that of a lady named Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, who had, in her lifetime, managed to acquire as lovers practically all of the top creative men in central Europe. And, among these lovers, who were listed in the obituary, by the way, which is what made it so interesting, there were three whom she went so far as to marry: One of the leading composers of the day, Gustav Mahler, composer of "Das Lied von der Erde" and other light classics, one of the leading architects, Walter Gropius, of the "Bauhaus" school of design, and one of the leading writers, Franz Werfel, author of the "Song of Bernadette" and other masterpieces.

It's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished. It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.

Lehrer said that in 1965, when he was writing and performing for the legendary show "That Was the Week that Was."  He was 37.

I'm now 52.

When he was my age, Robert E. Lee was courted by both sides of the Civil War to command their armies.  Lincoln sent his cousin, Francis Blair, to talk about it so that he wouldn't be embarrassed by being rejected personally.  Lee retreated to his Arlington, Virginia, home for two days, then wrote a letter to his old mentor -- and the current commander of the Federal army -- Winfield Scott, politely turning down the command for fear he would have to invade his home state of Virginia.

The actual Czar Nicholas II, from Wikimedia Commons.  
I couldn't begin to afford a costume this elaborate.

Last Halloween, my costume was as Czar Nicholas II.  I chose that because I bear a resemblance to the late ruler.  When he was my age, like Tom Lehrer's Mozart, he had been dead for two years, killed by Bolshevik soldiers after being at the center of the most chaotic and important events the world had seen that century.  Then again, he inherited.

Winston Churchill was a globally known author, soldier, and politician by the time he was 30.  Of course, he was a wealthy aristocrat and a genius.  At 52, in 1926, already having been in Parliament since 1900 and First Sea Lord in World War I, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer for Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (then 59 years old), but his best years lay ahead.  When he became Prime Minister himself, in 1940, he was 66.

The Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, was a true late bloomer.  His first real achievement -- the victory at Seringapatam -- was not until he was 30, and his triumph at Waterloo came at age 46.  He became Prime Minister at 59.  At 52, Wellington was Commander-in-Chief of the army.

Dwight Eisenhower was 54 on D-Day.  He was Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.  However, one could be forgiven for thinking that his career was going to peak as the trusted aide to the more flamboyant Douglas MacArthur.  On that June day in 1944, MacArthur was 64, commanding the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific.  When he was 52, he was Chief of Staff of the Army.  It was in that year that he personally commanded the troops that infamously crushed the protest of the "Bonus Army" of veterans in Washington.  

George Patton was 59 on D-Day, though he would live only another year-and-a-half, dying from injuries in a car crash after surviving two wars.  Bernard Montgomery was two years younger, 57, commander of the 21st Army Group, which consisted of all the Allied ground forces in the invasion.  He would live to be 89, dying in 1976 as the 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein.

 St. Norbert died at 54 ... we think.  His birth year is a little fuzzy, but the estimate is 1080.  By the time he died in 1134, he was the archbishop of Magdeburg, Germany, having founded a religious order, "revitalizing many of the faithful who had grown indifferent and dissolute, plus effecting peace and reconciliation among enemies," as I was informed by an email from another order, the Franciscans.  June 6 is Norbert's feast day in the Catholic church.

When he was 43, St. Augustine (feast day August 28, in case you're curious) wrote,  "Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo."  (Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.)  That was in his immortal Confessions, sometime around the year 397, and he does note that it was something that he would pray in his youth.  At 52, he was the bishop of Hippo, in Algeria, where he remained until his death in 430, aged 76.

When he was 52, in 1996, director George Lucas was gearing up to make "The Phantom Menace," to the regret of many "Star Wars" fans.  He was able to make it with his own money, having made such stupendous profits on the original "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" movies.

Francis Ford Coppola at 52 was working on "Bram Stoker's Dracula," having released his own Phantom Menace the year before, "Godfather III."  On his shelves were two Palmes d'Or from Cannes and six Oscars.  In my opinion, the jury's still out on his Dracula.  One of the Oscars was for writing "Patton."

Einstein was 27 when he came up with the Theory of Relativity.  At 52, he was a respected academic in Berlin.  He had received the Nobel ten years earlier.  However, Hitler was on the rise -- he became Chancellor in 1933, aged 44.  That same year, during a trip to the US, Einstein decided to stay.

Hitler, by the way, was 52 in the year 1941.  Things were actually looking pretty good for him then, but it all ended badly just four years later.  Stalin, some 11 years older, was 52 in 1930, which was a pretty good year for him too.  Franklin Roosevelt was older yet, 69 in 1941, 52 in 1924.  (That's two years older than Churchill, for those keeping track.)  At 52, he had already been the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and run for Vice President, but had recently fallen victim to polio (in 1921).

Uh, what does this mean?

Well, nothing, except that I thought of that old Tom Lehrer joke and felt like making some comparisons.

And everything, because every so often I think we all look up from the day-to-day grind and check out the Big Picture, if for no other reason than just to figure out where the hell we are.  Age and the comparison to important and admired people (those are two different categories, before anyone starts wondering if I admire Hitler or Stalin) can be a useful metric of sorts, but it can also be a deceiving one.  Personally, I shall continue searching for the late bloomers and Second Acts.