Friday, June 21, 2013

Shout-out to the shooters postcript: The pride of photographers


With the news that the chickens quickly came home to roost (Chicago Sun-Times photography division), I feel impelled to revisit my salute to newspaper photographers.

If you haven't heard, the Sun-Times, after discharging its entire photography staff, soon laid an egg by failing to get a photo of long lines at a new Chick-fil-A in the Loop to accompany its reporter's story, in comparison to rival Chicago Tribune, which still employs photographers, oddly enough. Instead, the story was illustrated by a stock shot of the fast-food outlet's product. I guess it will take a while for the S-T to keep its iPhone-toting word people from looking like dumb clucks when it comes to photo coverage in the print edition.

Anyway, I may have idealized  photographers in my earlier post.  I will do so here in a different way, by recalling a couple of unforgettable examples of photographer pride and sometimes injured self-esteem. It happens a lot, and recent technological developments in newspaper journalism have merely underscored the history of disrespect.

The photo-department gender barrier was finally broken at The Flint Journal many years ago by two women, hired in quick succession. I believe the second was a young Hawaiian who still had a pioneering attitude. Quite gifted technically, and with a keen eye, she was the only photographer I ever argued with while on assignment.  It was a civilized, muttered-under-the-breath sort of argument, and I lost. We were doing a feature on a local sculptor whose work in clay and wire, often using  basket or container forms, was gaining increased attention far beyond Flint. The photographer and I went to his home studio, and in and around my interview, she snapped pictures.

The sculptor showed us around his cluttered workshop, full of paint cans, strips of wire, clay, works in progress and tools. Naturally, my reporter's perspective was that a photo here would tell quite a lot about the artist in one abundantly filled shot, reducing the need for me to have a couple of paragraphs of description.

The shooter was having none of it.  She wanted quite deliberately to avoid clutter — even if it meant turning aside the chance to get an information-packed image. I pleaded with her just to take one picture of the studio to add to the mix she would turn in. No way.

Back at the office, she submitted several great images, and they supplemented, and even enhanced, my story better than I had any reason to expect. Maybe she was right in nixing the studio shot, but it still stung a bit. I'm sure she felt my suggestion as intrusive of her professionalism as I would have felt if she'd said, "Be sure to describe how his face lit up when he answered that question" or "That will be a great quote in your story; put it high up."

Another thing about her: She must have prided herself on turning in hard-to-crop photos. I was often charged with laying out arts pages, and, when she was the assigned photographer, it was typical for me to get several glossies, all of them quite usable, with the unspoken hint that they would best be run "as is." If she moved in tight on a face, for instance, the top of the head was often missing. I thought of this as an importation from art photography; in newspaper work, if you were laying out photos, you didn't want to be working with prints that wasted a lot of space, true — but you also weren't expecting next to no chance to crop a photo without ruining it. This woman was an expert at framing an image and, by extension, framing the debate that always lies just under the surface between word and image people on newspaper staffs.

Here's another instance of photographer pride from my Journal days. Out in the Thumb of Michigan, at the very fringes of our eastern coverage area, a bank robber (I think it was) remained at large for days on end, giving the local constabulary fits. We'd covered the story,  so were receptive to the information that the perp had arranged to turn himself in without a fight. The Journal accordingly sent a reporter and photographer out to the little town of Yale.

Sure enough, the cops-and-robber arrangement came to pass. A disappointed, sullen expression on his face, the handcuffed suspect was  caught on camera about to be escorted into the squad car, flanked by two policemen. It was just before the last moment of the "capture" ritual, when a law-enforcement hand is placed on the suspect's head to keep him from bumping it as he gets into the back seat. (I love the recent New Yorker cartoon of such a scene. The hand-on-head cop is saying to the arrestee: "Hate the crime, love the conditioner.")

But something happened after the photo was turned in. The photo editor apparently thought there was something prejudicial about presenting the suspect in an identifiable manner. Presumption of innocence, after all, don't  you know! So when the photo was published, a black bar had been neatly placed over the young man's eyes, giving that day's Journal something of the look of the old Confidential magazine, which frequently sought to spice up its celebrity scandal coverage by resorting to such a rudimentary protection of identity.

Lots of us at The Journal had a good laugh over that published photo; I wish I had saved it. The photographer was not amused, however: "They sent me all the way out to Yale, then they ruined my picture!"

Forgivable vanity, in my book.