Posts Tagged Robert Capa

The Heyday is Now

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. © Kevin Moloney, 1995

This is a sermon, so feel free to mutter an occasional amen or shout a hallelujah. And like any congregation of believers, you probably already know some of the things I’m going to say. But we are here to reinvigorate our faith, so please be seated while I take the pulpit, thump the mic and clear my throat.

You are living in the best time in history to be a photojournalist.

It may not seem like it considering the ever-present industry bad news. (Yeah, I just heard you mutter, “this guy is nuts.”) Old media is in trouble. New media is thrashing around for an economic model for news. Dayrates have been stagnant for a decade. Rights are being grabbed. Amateurs with cell phones are covering breaking news. Journalism jobs are going away. And this week Eastman Kodak slid closer to bankruptcy. But Horace Greeley, a 19th-century journalist and inveterate forward thinker once wrote, “The illusion that times that were are better than those that are, has probably pervaded all ages.”

So what makes now so great?

On way to an assignment. © Kevin Moloney, 2011

To start, you have an enormous array of tool choices. For a recent New York Times shoot I eagerly packed in my bag a vintage-1948 press camera, a medium-format TLR and a DSLR. I used all three on the shoot, swapping sheet-film holders, cranking 120 through a Rolleiflex and twitching images through the pixel array of the little high-tech wonder alongside them.

We are now deep enough into the digital age that the quality of that equipment has reached heights we could have only imagined a few years ago. And with the recent and expected announcements of new gear from the big digital players, we are in for astounding advancements this year.

But we also have the entire world of film cameras to use, with all those delicious differences in look, point of view, depth of field and other things that make various cameras see the world differently. As Kevin Kelly, author of the book What Technology Wants, recently told NPR,“I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.” Today we can still use pretty much all of the photographic technology ever invented.

Yes, you can buy color transparency films in 620 and 127 sizes (hand-cut and rolled by a few dedicated souls) and new single-use, screw-base flash bulbs (from Ireland), if you’re willing to pay the price. Online you can buy kits to make cyanotypes, argyrotypes and kallitypes. You can buy the chemicals to mix any developer formula concocted or to embrace the silvery glow of a daguerreotype. “Everything that we have made in the past,” said Kelly, “is still being made somewhere in the world today.” And it is available to us thanks to the reach of the very same Internet that has upended our old business models.

In some areas there is even expansion. More black and white films are available now than there were in 1990. With their manufacturers out from under iron curtains or no longer forced to compete for shelf space with the big three film makers, more than a dozen brands of monochrome film are readily available. Some have been made in Eastern and Central Europe for decades.

Snapshot. 1933 camera. © Kevin Moloney, 2008

My favorite leisure camera of the moment is a folding Kodak/Nagel Vollenda 48 from the 1930s. It takes 127 film (thank you, Croatia) and gives everything at which it is aimed the feel of the decade in which the camera was made. It took the place of a digital point-and-shoot in my pocket. I love all of that variety. Sure, about all of it can be modeled with good digital technique, but art is in the process, not just the product.

And the latest round of digital technology has brought us fantastic ISO capability that will probably reach a usable six digits before we can say “existing light in a coal mine.” We now have rich color even on the extremes of exposure and more dynamic range than I could have dreamed a decade ago. Remember all those color correction filters we used to have to carry around just to get accurate color? Now they’re a button and knob on the camera or two sliders in your raw conversion software. Soon enough we may see professional light-field cameras that allow focus correction in post-production.

In an advancement that would make filmmaker/photographers like Robert Frank, William Klein, Raymond Depardon and Tim Hetherington jealous, we now have HD video available in our camera bodies with a sensor twice the size of high-end cinema film. The once high cost of entry into documentary film production has just dropped faster than one of Herman Cain‘s shoes.

1948 camera, 1927 lens. © Kevin Moloney, 2011

The learning curve has become impossibly short as we can experiment furiously and see the result immediately. The digital age also means unprecedented speed of delivery. In the decade some have called the heyday of photojournalism — the 1980s — to get an image from a revolution in Iran meant sweet-talking a diplomat or a traveler into carrying your film on a flight from Tehran to Paris or New York. It was days from event to publication. Now with a satellite phone and a tablet computer a photojournalist can publish from Libya a split second after the image is made.

Combine the incredible power of digital photography with the variety of analog and you can do anything.

But what about that business model? Indeed the methods we’ve used for a century to make a living seem to be going away. They’re not dead yet, though, and that gives us time to transition and reinvent how photojournalists live on their good work. Almost a century ago a few business-minded photographers and a few German magazine editors created the freelance model we’ve used so far. They created that out of a vacuum that we don’t face.

Pieces of the solution for an economic puzzle are popping up all the time. In my 25-year career I’ve spent haystacks of money chasing personal projects that at best have returned break-even cash. We are driven to document whether we have a patron or not, and in the past that was just one of the costs of doing business. But now thanks to the Internet-made idea of crowdfunding a good project can have hundreds of patrons who may not only cover the cost of field production but also provide a little financial breathing room. Pay close attention to Emphas.is, Kisckstarter and IndieGoGo to see where that leads. Watch how photographers, agencies and collectives  like LUCEO Images repurpose work for alternative venues and media, and then both make money and market themselves in the process. Frankly, you have it much easier than Jacob Riis did.

Keep your eyes on other media for answers as well. For example the music industry is in the grips of an economic chaos that looks remarkably like what the news media has been facing — loss of markets, lack of control over the means of distribution, ease of amateur production and distribution, and the free and open spreading of their product. Out of that, musician and entrepreneur Trent Reznor has figured out how to make piles of money from giving away most of his music. It’s the Nine-Inch Nail meets the Long Tail.

Like for Reznor, the Internet’s reach is a valuable tool for photographers to sell their work. Once forced to use agents and portfolio reps to market themselves, we now have — for better and for worse — the unfiltered channel of the Internet to find new buyers, collectors and clients. It is a crowded market out there to be sure. Everyone wields a camera, thinks they are brilliant and shares their images for free with everyone. But competition forces us to think harder, work harder and be better image makers to rise above all that noise. And this is not a new phenomenon.

When in 1888 George Eastman put the first point-and-shoot camera into the hands of the public, professional photographers across the land surely panicked about the loss of their businesses. But that and its cheap offspring, the Brownie camera, helped launch a century of stunning photography. Why should we be afraid of all the dilettantes? As photo blogger Jörg Colberg aptly put it, “Isn’t it funny that you never hear writers worry about the fact that everybody knows how to write?”

So here’s the most important fact to remember: Rather than killing the professional photographer, early 20th-century advancements allowed professionals to reinvent the art itself. In 1914 Oskar Barnack put some cine film in a new little camera he crafted in his workshop and the age of 35mm photography was born. Innovators like Kertész, Cartier-Bresson, Capa and Eisenstaedt were more than great photographers. They were revolutionaries who picked up surprising new “amateur” equipment, filled it with fast new films and revolutionized the way we see the world.

This is that moment all over again, where new and innovative technology in brilliant hands will change the paradigm. Like me you’ve daydreamed about shooting alongside the likes of those guys in the last paragraph and helping to redefine what photojournalism would be for a century. But this is your time, and you have the opportunity to upend everything just like they did.

Seize it. Foment revolution. Change the history of our art and our profession.

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This post is a reworking of a presentation I gave at the 2011 edition of APAD’s Geekfest in Denver, and an article published in the excellent January/February issue of Photo Technique magazine.

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The Photojournalist’s Canon: Part Two — Early 20th Century

In the last post I started on a list of the photographers who have made the greatest influence on successive generations of photojournalists. To recap, this is a start on a “canon” to which you may contribute a suggestion. I’m looking not just for a list of the “great photographers” nor the most famous or successful. I’m looking for photographers who:

  • Produced documentary work reflecting the important standards and ethics of the profession,
  • Stood the test of time by repeatedly producing notable work, and
  • Innovated in the art or profession by being first to adopt an important style or approach, break a barrier or rise above the limits of the day.

Think of who might have been the first to think of something or do something important. That’s a tougher standard that might be immediately apparent.

So here’s part two, the photographers that opened the 20th century. This is the generation of photographers who picked up the new small cameras that shot roll film and started documenting life in action. They created what we consider photojournalism out of a near vacuum:

 

Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Grand Prix de l’AAF, 1912 © Estate of Jacques Henri Lartigue

Jacques Henri Lartigue — Lartigue picked up a camera as a very young boy and aimed it at his adventurous family at the end of France’s Belle Epoque. His best-remembered images are of auto races, early airplanes and cousins leaping in midair. His early images are of the fascinations of a young wealthy boy of the gilded age, but they show a joyful innocence unmatched in most documentary work. They are exuberant, ecstatic and defy the limitations of the photography of a century ago, capturing peak action and decisive moments with very slow plate cameras. To any child — which is what he was when he made his best-remembered images — there are limitless possibilities and no hard rules. His work shows the possibility in working without any adult-world-imposed constraint. He lived a long life, working as an illustrator and painter, then again as a photographer after his rediscovery by John Szarkowski and the Museum of Modern Art in the 1960s.

‘The Terminal’ or ‘The Car Horses’ New York 1893 – By Alfred Stieglitz © Estate of Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz — Photojournalism is inextricably attached to the art of photography, as we make thorough use of light, form and composition in our work to change the world. No single photographer or curator did more to battle for the status in America of photography as an art or to promote its practitioners. His own work is often documentary, capturing steaming horses on cold New York mornings, and street life on the edge of night much as his European contemporaries Eugène Atget and Brassaï did in Paris. He promoted many photographers on or linked to this list, from Paul Strand and Edward Steichen to Ansel Adams who, in addition to his famous landscapes, documented the Japanese internment camps of WWII. Though his photography career crosses the 19th and 20th centuries, his influence was strongest in the years between the world wars.

Preparing for the strike on Kwajelein Photo by Edward J. Steichen aboard the U.S.S. Lexington (CV-16), November 1943

Edward Steichen — Few working lives spanned more interesting changes in photography, more genre of the art and more positions of influence than those of Edward Steichen. He began his career at the dawn of the 20th century by making an amazing array of portraits of the luminaries of the day, from J.P. Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt to Pierre August Rodin, Henri Matisse and George Bernard Shaw. His portrait style has resonated through subsequent generations from Yousuf Karsh and Philippe Halsman onward. That work moved him quickly into the world of fashion where his images helped define the styles of magazines like Vogue for a generation. Himself a WWI Signal Corps aerial photo veteran, Steichen volunteered for duty in WWII, was commissioned by the navy at the rank of commander, and formed a team of photographers to document the war in the Pacific. His team included notables Wayne Miller, Charles Kerlee, Fenno Jacobs and Horace Bristol, among others. His own images, made of combat when he was already in his 60s, are notable for their capture of war action and the strange, graphic beauty of naval aircraft carriers. On war’s end, Steichen took the position as the first-ever curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York he mounted the “Family of Man” exhibition in 1955 which gathered images from around the Cold-War-stricken world to illustrate his point that, “The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself. And that is no mean function.” The massively successful exhibition helped define what photojournalism was at midcentury and influenced most of the work that has come since. Inclusion in the exhibition launched the careers of many photojournalists around the world, and the exhibition catalog has remained in print for more than 50 years.

 

Shadows of the Eiffel Tower, Paris, 1929, by André Kertész © Estate of André Kertész/Higher Pictures

André Kertész — Cartier-Bresson once said on behalf of himself and others of his generation, “Whatever we have done, Kertész did first.” Kertész started photographing in Hungary before WWI, and through his service in the Hungarian army in that war. After developing his style — one of intricate and graphic compositions, geometric patterns and decisive moments — he moved to Paris in 1925. His work there was warmly received, but in 1936 he accepted an offer to go to New York, both to work and escape the Nazi threat building in Europe. He stayed until just before his death in 1985. He was also an early adopter of small handheld cameras allowing him to catch fleeting moments and travel lightly. Kertész’ work is artful, perfectly crafted, subtle, delicate and deeply inspiring. In perusing it you can see not only his brilliant seeing, but premonitions of all that followed.

 

Wall Street, New York, 1915. © Estate of Paul Strand

Paul Strand — Strand was not a self-described photojournalist and he is certainly better known as an art photographer. However he was instrumental in breaking the photography of the early 20th century away from the soft-focus romantic “pictorialism” of the day and showing that the power of the medium is crisp realism. He made powerful documentary portraits and photographic essays, and his art remained rooted firmly in the real world. And in anticipation of the early 21st century and visual journalists like Tim Hetherington, he was an accomplished cinematographer and film maker, documenting New York, the Spanish Civil War and the struggles of Mexican fishermen in his cinema career.

 

Aristide Briand, pointing at Erich Salomon, exclaims, “Ah, there he is, the king of the indiscreet!” Paris, Quai d’Orsay, August 1931. © Estate of Erich Salomon.

Erich Salomon — Advances in photojournalism come on the heels of technological advancement. From images of the still and quiet death on mid-19th-century battlefields to the galloping horses of Muybridge, film speed, camera handling and lens speed have all influenced the state of the visual art. But until the 1920s, candid, handheld photography with a small camera was a challenge. Though “press cameras” and SLRs had been around for decades, the first camera that actually allowed the kind of photography we now relish was the Ermanox. It was a 645-format plate camera with a focal plane shutter that could shoot up to 1/1000 second (also not new), but it had an incredibly fast f/1.8 lens. On that format it was as difficult to engineer and had less depth of field than a 50mm f/1.0 has in the 35mm era. Complicating its use was that the focus at that narrow depth of field was done simply by guessing the distance. The master of Ermanox use was Erich Salomon, a German Jewish law school graduate who introduced himself as “Doctor.” With little prior photo experience, Salomon picked up this new little camera (one nearly universally shunned by professionals) and started talking his way into venues where no one had yet ventured with a camera — courtrooms, political meetings, the homes of the famous. He always dressed impeccably, conducted himself with the manners of a person who might be expected to be at such scenes and made pictures either overtly or by concealing the camera. Soon his images were being published by Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung — a political weekly that had pioneered visual reporting. Salomon was fluent in several languages and a talented political observer. Politicians either loved him and invited him into their worlds, or hated him and worked to make sure he was spotted at scenes. He also pioneered the technique of handing over unexposed film with supplicating apologies when caught where he should not be, and keeping the exposed films for publication. Though he had considered emigrating to the U.S. where his images were also being used by the new illustrated weeklies, he kept putting it off until in 1943 he and his family were forced into hiding. They were betrayed by a meter reader who noticed the heavy gas consumption at the house where they were staying in Holland. Salomon was killed at Auschwitz in July 1944.

 

A goalkeeper dives for the save, Budapest, 1928. © Estate of Martin Mukácsi.

Martin Munkácsi — Munkácsi is perhaps most famous for making the image that inspired Henri Cartier-Bresson to drop a paint brush and pick up a camera. The image — of a trio of boys running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika — is his most often reproduced, thanks to HC-B. But behind that image is a career as an action photographer. In Europe before WWII he was the toast of the fashion and sports photography world. Anyone who assumes sports photography is only possible with autofocus and ten frames per second needs to look at his tightly cropped, shallow-depth, razor-sharp images of goalies diving for a save or polo riders in mid-strike made in the 1920s on 4X5 and larger plates. Skiers breaking over cornice lines, dancers in flight, and models in mid leap hallmark his work. He went to challenging lengths to get his images — laying in the surf with a bellows-focused camera to photograph swimsuit fashion in the 1930s.  Like his Hungarian compatriots Andre Kertész and Robert Capa, he was drawn to the U.S. before the war, and like Kertész, he languished here among much less inventive editors and publishers.

 

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, 1933. © Time-LIFE, Inc.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, 1933. © Time-LIFE, Inc.

Alfred Eisenstaedt — Eisenstaedt’s career began in Germany in the late 1920s with the illustrated press that arose there and ran into the 1990s for LIFE magazine, for which he was one of the first staff photographers in 1936. His last photographs were of Bill Clinton and family in 1993. He used small cameras from the start, making active images in low light on the heels of Erich Salomon. A few of his images are enduringly remarkable — Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels glaring with hatred, The V-J Day kiss in Times Square, a parade of gleeful children marching behind a drum major. But by today’s standards most of his images — though technically solid and timed well — seem boilerplate. We feel we’ve seen them so many times before. But what must be remembered in looking at his vast body of work documenting most of a turbulent century, is that Eisenstaedt didn’t have Eisenstaedt to emulate. He is the template for most of what we do. His journalistic sense was impeccable. Not only did he define the genre of photojournalism in how he worked, but he defined what it looks like to be a professional photojournalist. There is some Eisie in everything we do.

 

Madrid, 1933, by Henri Cartier-Bresson. © the Estate of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson — He said that Kertész did it first and that Munkácsi influenced him. Can we put him on this list? I will argue yes, and not because he’s my hero of heroes. HC-B’s influence on all photojournalism since the 1940s is so wide and so deep it would be remiss to consider him derivative. His innovation comes from taking Kertész’ form and grace and combining it with Munkácsi’s timing to define that decisive-moment photojournalism and street photography we so love. He produced, directed and filmed documentary films during the Spanish Civil War and again in the U.S. in the 1970s. He fused high art and incisive journalism more directly than anyone before, and cofounded one of history’s most influential cooperatives to promote it.

 

Running for shelter during the air raids. Bilbao, Spain, 1937. © Estate of Robert Capa and Magnum Photos.

Running for shelter during the air raids. Bilbao, Spain, 1937. © Estate of Robert Capa and Magnum Photos.

Robert Capa — As seen in the last post, war photography was not new and the bon-vivant photojournalist persona was not either. But Capa amplified both to as-yet-unseen levels. Capa was a talented self-promoter, inventing a name with his collaborator Gerda Taro (also an invented name) to make his work seem more valuable to editors. He photographed and filmed conflicts from the Spanish Civil War to the Japanese invasion of China, WWII, and Indochina where he was killed in 1954. His gritty few frames of the Normandy landings on D-Day are some of the most iconic images of the biggest conflict in world history. His style and approach have influenced all war photography that has followed, from David Douglas Duncan to Larry Burrows, Don McCullin, James Nachtwey and the late Chris Hondros. His high-stakes, high-living style has become the cliched image of the gambling, loving, champagne-drinking world photojournalist, so much so that Hitchcock fictionalized him in Rear Window. And on founding Magnum with Cartier-Bresson, David “Chim” Seymour and George Rodger, he was instrumental in reclaiming rights to their images for photographers.

 

Walker Evans, ‘Truck and Sign’ (1928-30).

Walker Evans — We know Walker Evans mostly through his work for the Farm Security Administration Photography Program where he produced some of his most meaningful images. But Evans was an accomplished documentary photographer before he joined Roy Stryker’s team. More interestingly, he was fired from the FSA. Evans and his work are as straight as an arrow. He took the idea of documenting seriously, using large format cameras to meticulously correct perspective and distortion on images of simple buildings throughout Depression-era America and in Cuba. But his images are far from artless. They prove over and again that art does not need to come from gimmick or visual trickery, and that the subtlety of light, shape and content can send a powerful message about the state of a culture. SX-70 Polaroids he made in the 1960s presage even a current fascination with those films and their phone-app emulators.

 

Relief line following the Louisville Flood, 1937. © Estate of Margaret Bourke-White and Time-LIFE Inc.

Margaret Bourke-White — Bourke-White was not the first woman photographer, but she broke more glass ceilings and social barriers than any other. She was hired as a staff photographer for Fortune on the cusp of the Great Depression in 1929, was the first Western photographer allowed to photograph Soviet industry in 1930, and a staff photographer and author of the first cover of LIFE magazine in 1936. Like her contemporary, Dorothea Lange, she photographed the dire conditions of the Great Depression, and authored a book (with then-husband Erskine Caldwell), Have You Seen Their Faces. She was the first authorized woman combat correspondent of WWII. Her images of the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald are some of the principle historical evidence of Nazi atrocities. With Cartier-Bresson she photographed the partition of India and Pakistan and the violence it spawned, and made moving portraits of Mohandas K. Gandhi on the eve of his assassination. Her autobiography, Portrait of Myself, is a valuable read for any photographer.

Ingrid Bergman at Stromboli, 1949. © Estate of Gordon Parks.

Gordon Parks — Parks was a classic Renaissance man: A concert pianist, composer, photographer, writer, and filmmaker. There were black photographers before him, but none who elbowed his or her way through the discrimination of the day as effectively as him. He was born in Kansas and began his adult life as a railroad porter, but as a very young man he picked up a camera to photograph the plight of migrant workers. He progressed from that first roll to photographing fashion in St. Paul, which caught the eye of Joe Louis’ wife Marva. From there he branched to portraits of black society women in Chicago and on to documentary work about Chicago’s South Side in the Depression. An exhibition of that work caught the eye of Roy Stryker who gave him a fellowship with the FSA. His first images there struck right at the heart of how the nation’s Capitol treated its black workers. After the FSA disbanded, Parks moved to Harlem where he worked for Vogue and then LIFE where he was the first black journalist. He photographed Malcom X, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali and produced a book-length essay on an orphan in a Brazilian slum. But that was just his photography career. He was also a successful novelist and poet, and wrote and directed the 1971 “blaxploitation” hit movie Shaft, for which he also wrote the score and popular theme.

 

Striking Worker, Assasinated. 1934. © Estate of Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Manuel Álvarez Bravo — Like others on this list, he described himself as a photographer, not a photojournalist. And like others he was a surrealist above all in the early 20th century. But his often political work brought attention to the struggles of a nation. His portraits, art and surrealism inspired generations of photographers from Tina Modotti to Graciela Iturbide, Flor Garduño, Miguel Rio Branco and Cristina García Rodero. He was the first Latino photographer to rise to prominence, and he helped define the style of a hemisphere.

 

Dust Storm, Cimarron, Okla., by Arthur Rothstein.

The Farm Security Administration Photography ProgramWalker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Gordon Parks, Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, John Vachon and Marion Post Wolcott. It was the dream team of documentary photography, assembled by economist Roy Stryker to photograph the plight of the American farmer during the Great Depression. The purpose was propaganda, really. But neither Stryker nor his photographers felt they needed to create advertising. The truth of the American economic situation spoke for itself, and as a result we have an incredible document of America at one of its most difficult points. Many of the photographs are the icons of that age, burned into the retinas of Americans born more than a half century after they were made. Most of the photographers went on to long photojournalism careers for LIFE, Look and other popular magazines. Mydans, who with his reporter wife spent time in a Japanese prison camp after the fall of the Philippines, made one of the iconic images of the Pacific War. Stryker carefully populated his staff to allow access to both genders and as many races as possible, to leave no group undocumented. Their work forms a template for cooperative documentary projects and expands on the social documentary started by Riis a half-century earlier. With every subsequent economic crisis, their work has been republished and emulated.

To part 3…

 

Please note, all images on this post are linked directly from the originating sites rather than downloaded and republished. Please forgive any dead links.

 

 

 

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Fame is Narrative

Photo by Vivian Maier, Linked from http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/

What makes the difference between a recognized artist and a dabbler, an amateur or a dilettante?

I am sure there are formulas, Ph.D. dissertations and many entire books on the subject. I’m not writing this as an expert, only an observer.

And I’ve been observing the case of Vivian Maier, a long-time amateur street photographer whose work was only discovered by accident in 2007 and attributed to her shortly after her death in 2009. Her images were uncovered by a few auction buyers who purchased her negatives and found themselves intrigued by the images. Through their efforts her work has since been published in blogs and international publications and exhibited by museums.

Photo by Vivian Maier, Linked from http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/

Much of what makes the work compelling is the story behind it — a reclusive and private nanny who never really shared her images and found recognition only after the end of an austere life.

That could be tragic. We all want to know in our own lifetime how our work is received. But then again she appears to have intentionally stayed out of sight. Maybe the tragedy is that we have thrust an intensely private person into the spotlight with our admiration.

Tragedy (and overcoming it) makes a powerful narrative. And that narrative, as much as her work, is what is propelling Maier onto the world stage as an artist. Other tragic photojournalism figures have caught our attention this way, from Robert Capa’s companion Gerda Taro to João Silva. Capa, Chim and Werner Bischof have tragic narratives in tandem with their great images. The story of young Dan Eldon’s death in Somalia would have lingered in our hearts and minds for a relatively brief amount of time. But he left behind his own narrative journals, and those were aired by his mother and sister in an excellent documentary on conflict photographers.

Drama isn’t the only propeller of narrative, though. Character plays an important part too. It’s very hard to think of a canonized artist who was not a great character. Georgia O’Keefe, for example, caught the public’s attention intensely after her work was interpreted as sensual or sexual despite her objections. With that interpretation, she became a character in the art world and more famous as a result. Then after moving to New Mexico in the 1940s she created an entirely new character of the reclusive desert artist. Rarely is her work seen without either persona in mind by the viewer.

When we decide to become photojournalists we are often choosing a character already — one of a world-traveling bon vivant as Andre Friedman and Gerta Pohorylle created in the invention of Capa and Taro. Or we imagine ourselves grizzled war correspondents like Ernie Pyle, artful cowboys like Bill Allard, sensitive investigators like Donna Ferrato, or artists of the ephemeral like Sylvia Plachy or Martine Franck.

Of course art is important. No amount of character can be made up for (for long at least) by a lack of talent. This brings me back to Vivian Maier. In a very recent article in Chicago Magazine, Colin Westerbeck, a former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and coauthor of an outstanding tome on street photography, said in an interview, “She worked the streets in a savvy way,” he says. “But when you consider the level of street photography happening in Chicago in the fifties and sixties, she doesn’t stand out.”

No, she doesn’t. The work is familiar even where it is compelling. It lacks, perhaps, the higher purposes of academic art where the artist strives for a statement, an irony, a challenge that may only be evident to academics or those who bothered to read the analytical preface of the book. In addition, she cannot control how the work is being edited now, so we see her gems mixed with frames she might have discarded.

Photo by Vivian Maier, Linked from http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/

I believe Maier’s work is art because of its absolute purity. I’ve been watching her images appear on John Maloof’s blog since before her fascinating narrative began to unfold, and they had me from the start. Hers is the work of an artist who worked only for her own satisfaction. The opinion of friends, relatives, editors or critics was never sought. The images are wonderful because they are done only for her personal pleasure, yet they still surpass the work of a million other amateurs working contemporaneously.

Yes, she is an artist with a great narrative.

As much as we would hope our being defined as “artists”  is a result of our work alone, the art is only a sliver of the formula. What is accepted as art and who is defined as an artist is as much about marketing our narratives as it is about anything else.

In marketing that narrative we must also craft our work to the expectations of the critics, the editors and collectors who will buy it, or the academic analysts who will deconstruct it.

For ourselves, though, we need to stay pure and chase what intrigues and satisfies ourselves — all those others be damned — as Vivian Maier did.

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You can help support John Maloof and Anthony Rydzon in their efforts to make a documentary film of Maier’s life at Kickstarter.com.

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Robert Capa and a Perspective on Ethics

A few 4X5 'roids left. Monument Valley, Utah, July 23, 2009. © Kevin Moloney, 2009

A few 4X5 'roids left. Monument Valley, Utah, July 23, 2009. © Kevin Moloney, 2009

Every decade for the past half century the debate over the veracity of Capa’s Falling Soldier image from the Spanish Civil War rages anew. It is all over the photojournalism blogosphere and the media this last week. I am a bit disappointed with the 21st-century demonizing of him for what may probably be a setup.

A decade ago I was eager to believe an elderly Spanish woman who claimed the subject was her dead brother, and the background of the image was where he was reported killed in action. It seemed to set the debate to rest and gratified my respect for Capa.

Of course she might have been mistaken, and new research makes a compelling case that she was wrong.

But regardless whether the image is real or not, we need to remember to judge the photo and the photographer in context.

In 1936 photojournalism and its ethics were in their infancy. Capa would not have had the training of modern journalism professors and an extra 70 years of photojournalism ethics on which to hang his work. It is quite believable that he may have set up the photo, among others. Ethics is an evolution and always starts out a bit feral before civilization is reached.

As late as the 1950s the vast majority of news photos, in the average paper, were completely set up. Fortunately for us and for history we have forgotten most of that work. And even in the early 21st century, many TV news images are set up, along with much suspect work on the Internet.

I have no doubt that as Capa matured, his work progressed and his ethics developed, his work stayed quite honest. A photojournalist’s eye on his work could tell immediately that the vast majority of the moments are spontaneous.

So we can’t and shouldn’t demonize him any more than we would W. Eugene Smith who unquestionably fused two negatives into one on a famous image of Albert Schwietzer, and used the edge of a negative in another from his Spanish Village story as if it were part of the real-world content. In that same story, using retouching brushes, he chose to change the direction of the gaze of a mourner. In his early Country Doctor story he unquestionably set up the lede photo of the doctor walking through a gate, and the closing image of the tired physician slumped with a cup of coffee after a long day.

In his powerful and mind-changing Minamata work, the most famous image is also set up. Smith chose the time of day to ask Tomoko Uyemura’s mother to bathe her so he could catch the light that so effectively evokes Michelangelo’s Pietà.

By standards of the late 20th century these are grave ethical breaches. Making even more subtle changes now get newspaper photographers fired and some magazine freelancers blacklisted from their clients. But at the time Smith was working these were not uncommon techniques.

We all revere Smith’s ability to tell a story, his amazing eye for form, contrast and content, and the wonderful stories he brought us.

And before we crucify Smith along with Capa, let’s remember this: Judge the photographer in context of time. Were they working today they would hopefully not behave this way. Would they, their colleagues and editors would have justifiable grounds to end their careers. They would have no excuses now. Our ethics have surpassed all this.

We also need to be careful not to throw stones. Seventy years from now our very own techniques may be under fire as falsehoods — excessive dodges and burns, exaggerated saturation and contrast, questionable use of light and flash…

Capa, Smith, and the often-mentioned-this-week Robert Doisneau, were imperfect men of their time, who despite their mistakes contributed hugely to our art, communication perspective and ethics. Collectively they created as many falsehoods among their work as the average daily photojournalist publishes in less than a week. And collectively they created as many honest, powerful and world-changing images in their careers as any Pulitzer-winning staff could hope to in a lifetime.

I judge Capa, Smith and their contemporaries based on their era. I will judge my students and colleagues based on this era.

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