By David A. Cantor.
|strength and the context of impending crisis, it is easy to surmise that other forces besides those associated with outstanding visual reporting were in play during the judging process.
Before continuing, let it be said that the ensuing criticism is not aimed at the photographers who made the images in the prize-winning group.
Some of them were surprised by the recognition and a few of their editors even expressed a sense of mild dismay at the award. As a group, wire service photographers have been the unheralded heavy-lifters of visual news for generations. However, anyone concerned with the direction of news photography today should take notice of the implications of this award.
For example, there is a shot of Chelsea and her parents holding hands while walking away from the camera. How many times have we seen this picture? Its a White House lawn departure shot that editors pass up regularly. How are we to determine the significance of the gestures or body language? Who knows if it was genuine or staged for the benefit of the cameras?
Who would think that a politician under scrutiny might exploit a family member for directed media coverage, especially in the spin-oriented, cover-our-ass, media machine of the current Administration?
One image from the group is of videographers rolling tape on a stack of transcripts on a table. Even if the transcripts portrayed are those of the Presidents testimony, this news-covering-the-news photo is at best a pedestrian image. How many of these handouts of printed records photos are never run? Now, it is a prize-winning photo? Incredulity is being strained here.
An AP editor exclaimed in a wire report how a photographer was outside of Ken Starrs house every morning. Tenacity and timeliness are laudable photojournalistic traits, but if the continued portrayal of the subject gives little insight to the viewer, then what's the point? To be sure, there was the quandary of having to cover the special prosecutor every day, but many editors made do with file headshot photos and looked for different images to fill the dominant picture space on their pages. After all, do the readers care what kind of thermal cup Mr. Starr uses for his morning cup of commuting coffee?
Mr. Clinton emerging from the columns at the White House ... a good photograph that approaches the tenets set by previous winners. It is not however the late George Tamess photograph of a backlit JFK standing at his desk or the triumphant Harry Truman waving a newspaper's wrong headline. In other words, the best of this lot is still not the exemplary photograph that defines truly memorable photojournalism. Basically, many of the images comprise the usual daily record of the working White House, with no obvious visual signpost of any underlying crisis or concern.
President Clinton adopted a whole set of self-absorbed expressions during the scandal, playing to the cameras and making the opportunity for any telling photographs minimal at best.
Remember he has Hollywood connections, and anyone who saw The Man from Hope video knows full well image-shaping has reached new heights in this White House. Look at the image of the President's Dec. 19, 1998 press conference, thanking those Democrats who voted against impeachment. Again note, the studied pout of contemplation, bordering on contrition, while Hillary looks on with an expression that certainly wouldn't grace the faces of any of the wives I know if their husbands had humiliated them so egregiously. Harry and Linda have a better cast of actors in the White House than they ever did on Designing Women.
|This informal survey shows us that three times in 10 years, for whatever reason, scheduled political coverage has been recognized with a prize that many feel should go to the kind of exploratory and revealing photography to which fewer and fewer media outlets want to subscribe or support. Now don't go and call Oliver Stone about your screen-play outlining a new media conspiracy just yet.
The domination of Ego and of Subject seems to be growing; I often think what a thin shadow play the world must appear to those bloated egotistic militaristic predatory bastards that run things.
You probably think that this is a quote from a photographer describing the recent shift in the paradigm of news photography. Since it was written by Ansel Adams, we realize that it predates our current concerns. Because it is from a letter he wrote to Alfred Stieglitz in March of 1946 about staff changes in the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, we can surmise that leadership in photography has historically forged ahead on avenues of its own design, with little regard for the opinion of, or the consequences to, the practitioners.
When the Columbia Journalism Review's cover touted an article about going inside the Pulitzers I thought that maybe the questions to some of these mysteries might be answered. Well, I think it's time we gave CJR a dart for not mentioning one word about how the photography award selection process was conducted. For wordside managers, this happily reinforces yet another recurring event in our business: the ongoing diminution of respect photojournalists and their work are accorded in the newsroom.
At the end of May, Max Frankel commented on the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism in his New York Times Magazine column. Titled The Pulitzer Paradox, I thought that maybe someone else echoed my concerns. Well, the paradox mentioned doesn't involve photography, but it does relate to problems seen on the visual side of the award. Mr. Frankels contention that those who administer the awards have managed to usefully stretch the rules and standards from time to time relates to concerns about how and why the Feature Photography category seems prone to fits of whimsy.
While he bemoans the fact that newspapers seldom share the content of awarded stories, we in news photography see and use the award-winning photographs, often before they are recognized, depending on the news services to which our papers subscribe. All the more reason that we should have Pulitzer jurors who subscribe to ideals that reward the best of what photojournalism has to offer viewers, instead of recognizing what looks like the usual rote news photography production in Washington. (It is ironic to note that the most vivid attempt over the past few years to produce photography that transcends the usual ops in Washington has been made by Stephen Crowley of The New York Times.)
Perhaps, too much is made of these prizes. Among the revelations in his book, Scooped, former NY Daily News police reporter David J. Krajicek provides a synopsis of the history of yellow, or what we now call tabloid, reporting. It clearly shows how the man whose legacy established these awards contributed to much of the tone that mitigates the visibility of honest and well-meaning reporting for the easier-to-sell sensational side of life.
Can it be that Joseph Pulitzer's true colors have occasionally shown in the Feature Photography category?
If we examine the images that make up the winning group for Feature Photography in 1999, devoid of their supposed shared