Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Newspaper Days: Shout-out to the shooters

So into our home mailbox a few days ago drops the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, to which I've subscribed for over 20 years. And there's a poignant feature on the thankless job of being a photojournalist in Iraq during our war there, with a long quote from the introduction to Michael Kamber's new book, Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories. After a sentence lamenting the lack of interest among Americans in that horrendous conflict comes this one: "There was plenty of good reporting out there, and good photojournalism."

Now, I'm not about to play "gotcha" with a man braver than I (he "covered the war from beginning to end," says CJR), but that's an unfortunate sentence, and it leaped out at me as I thought about my gratitude to the newspaper photographers I have worked with and admired.  Yes, it's true that "reporting" is commonly linked to the job of a reporter, someone who delivers the news through words, but it's crucial to ask from time to time: If photojournalism isn't reporting, what the hell is it?

Have we cleared the air now?  Good, for I want to praise what I've learned about reporting from photographers. First, I have never met a cynical photojournalist. (Pause for derisive laughter.) No, really: They may have cynical moments, but they seem to draw on reservoirs of curiosity, ingenuity and eager instinct that nature has supplied only fitfully to reporters. That's amazing, considering that the story idea usually springs from the brain of a word person, and the bias in favor of words rules.

I wish I had had more opportunity to go on assignments with photographers, because I can see right off what the good ones do, and it's thrilling.  Upon arrival, they're drinking in the scene or the setting, trying to tease out its visual eloquence. William K. Zinsser in one of his essays offers this warning to writers: describing a scene with attention only to accuracy and clarity tends to make for dull reading. Better to discover the point of the scene, and make your description serve that point. Photographers instinctively work at finding what the scene, including the human subjects at home in it, is all about.

Besides alertly registering this information silently, they are also on the job making small talk with the people they'll be shooting. Many of them are geniuses at this, including the shy ones. In features photography, getting the subjects relaxed is particularly important, because the essence of the assignment rarely involves showing people ill at ease. Some of the small talk seems idle, but often it exerts almost magical control over the person being photographed and interviewed. I've looked back afterward and marveled at how innocuous chatter had given the photographer vital information that showed up in the images turned in—always glossy black-and-white prints back in my Flint Journal days.

Jerry Lewis: Photographer got him to "do the faces."
Here's an odd example, because the subject was a self-important celebrity. I had the assignment to interview Jerry Lewis, who was part of a weekly summer series of shows called Star Theatre of Flint. Most of Star Theatre's book comedies were wretched, but occasionally you'd get a Vegas-style star turn by an old pro who still had his stuff. Lewis was that in the 1970s, with an ego to match. The Journal photographer—Barry Edmonds— couldn't have been a better partner for me; I was tickled whenever he shared an assignment with me. One of the most respected Michigan photojournalists of the time, he was utterly unassuming, and his work  unfailingly brilliant.

So Barry sat beside me, not saying much during the interview, just getting candid shots of Lewis talking. The comedian, like many famous people a control freak with paranoid tendencies, was in charge. He wanted to talk about how tough he was as a director of his own movies on "the kid," as he called the goofball persona that had made him wealthy in film after film. "If I look at the rushes and I don't like them, I say, 'Get the kid back in here and let's reshoot this.' I don't let him get away with sloppy work."

I'm afraid I was almost impressed that Lewis was such a stern taskmaster of himself. Maybe he was a great artist after all, as the French famously thought. Only later did it dawn on me that Jerry Lewis finding fault with Jerry Lewis was a closed circuit: The mock tyranny of the director and the slipshod tendencies of the actor formed a little play surrounding one big ego. I was getting boilerplate interview stuff that a lot of reporters had doubtless lapped up before me.

As the interview reached a natural end, Barry put his camera down. "Could I get you to do the... faces for me?" he asked, in a respectful yet not pleading tone. Lewis said, "Sure, you mean like..." and bam-bam-bam, in the next 10 seconds the star—one of the few comedians ever who could make just his face do pratfalls—went through about 10 idiotic expressions, each one different. And Barry's going click-click-click, of course, and Lewis the goofball  is running his silly-putty repertoire two feet in front of me.

I was just as impressed with Edmonds' mastery as Lewis'.  He knew when to ask for the silly faces. He knew how to ask. He knew when to raise his camera and when to lower it. And that ellipsis I inserted up there in his question? That was the briefest of pauses as Edmonds flashed a knowing look at Lewis and instantly connected. OK, maybe Lewis would have been hurt if he hadn't been asked, but it took the photographer to make the connection and come away with the real Jerry Lewis. My written interview was decent work, but I immediately knew where the heart of the reporting lay—and it wasn't in my words.

Me in the 1970s: Tie in place, hair out of.
Edmonds, whose unexpected death at 51 shocked the newsroom like nothing else in my 15 years at the Flint Journal, loved above all to shoot football and ballet. That was to my benefit; as chief photographer he could get his pick of assignments, and he always saw the point of a ballet, down to the most telling moment.  Prowling the sidelines of a Detroit Lions game, he had the reputation of never missing a nuance. I think he had the attitude of many news photographers, especially where there's action involved, the excitement of thinking, "My very next shot could make this whole story."  Now, how often does a reporter think, "My very next question—depending on the answer—could make this whole story"? More power to the ones that do.

Barry liked bodies in action, which is why he also admired ballet, despite the absence of the accidental factor that pervades football games. In both the art and the sport, his images didn't seem to be "frozen motion," but to somehow be actual motion, because he brought  the stretch and the striving out of bodies into the light around them, the way Michelangelo classically released human figures from marble.

The photo of me on this page is part of the Edmonds legacy. I had just come in out of the wind and sat down at my desk, the hair gel having held in some places and being a total loss in others. Barry was passing by and told me to look up. I did, of course, and he captured an untypical smile, bold and almost leering, that has never shown up on film since. In all my 67-plus years, it's the only photo of me I'm tempted to call sexy. My wife is wild about it. One such image is probably enough.

Bill Gallagher's Pulitzer shot of Adlai Stevenson
A different kind of excellence, marred by a casual, fun-loving attitude toward his work that kept him from  being consistently the top of his game, characterized Bill Gallagher. On a pedestal at the Journal because he had brought the paper its only Pulitzer Prize, Gallagher was too down-to-earth to seem vain about his lucky, intuitive shot showing the hole in the sole of Adlai Stevenson's shoe during the 1952 presidential campaign. But that famous image was typical of his strengths. He was a street photojournalist almost in the Weegee tradition; he liked the offbeat, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't bits of life, the eccentric and unpredictable.

He had no use for art, and I frankly dreaded his name on photo assignments where I was down as the reporter. He could make an art-gallery installation look like a crime scene; all that was missing was the yellow police tape. Gallagher missed the point of art galleries.

He was the assigned photographer at one of the poetry readings I used to go to when a famous poet came through Flint; this kind of story was thought to be "Harvey's hobby." While we were waiting for the poet to be introduced, Gallagher said cheerfully to me: "I did another one of these poetry readings once." He paused, then asked in astonishment: "Ya know some of that son-of-a-bitchin' stuff don't even rhyme?"

I allowed as I had heard of such stuff.

Marlene Dietrich, long before she snuck into Flint
But Bill Gallagher was capable of admirable work, some of it self-assigned and unlikely to fascinate others on the staff. Once the legendary Marlene Dietrich came to town — I'm not sure what for. But the word went out there would be no interview and no photographs permitted. She was said to be determined to avoid publicity. That was like throwing down the gauntlet to Bill, and called for only one response: Stakeout!  He must have spent the better part of a day waiting for Miss Dietrich to emerge from her hotel, one of the newer places, slightly swanky, with a lush, thick sodded lawn around it.

Gallagher knew better than to be near the front entrance, and his patience paid off. Avoiding the paved walkways, Miss Dietrich snuck out of the hotel toward a waiting limo, holding her high heels in one hand and walking carefully through the grass, watching every step. Gallagher snapped the perfect picture of an imperishable star unsuccessfully evading notice and looking elegant about it.

In my mind's eye, that picture has always seemed like excellent reporting — one of those that justifies the "worth a thousand words" cliche.

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