Weegee, Couple in Voodoo Trance, ca. 1956, © Weegee/International Center of Photography.

The Shooting of Neda Soltani, video still.

'A Good View of a Nice Battle:' Photojournalism in a New Light

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Nehru announces Gandhi’s death, 1947.

Roger Fenton, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855.

Weegee, Ambulance, 1943-44.

Édouard Manet, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, 1867, Oil on canvas, 252 x 305 cm.

Weegee, Accident, 42nd Street at Third Avenue, 1946.

Alberto Korda, Guerrillero Heroico (Version I), 1960.

 

By STEVE SHAPIRO

Amateurs become professionals through talent and practice. Art is especially slippery to prove when the dividing line is crossed. For Pollock, it was the breakthrough when he went beyond the squiggly Jungian motif paintings of the moment and struck straight at the canvas with his brush like a fist. For Charlie Parker, it came after years of sitting in with older musicians in Kansas City nightclubs when he was finally paid to play with Jay McShann’s touring orchestra. For Arthur Fellig, known to everyone as Weegee, it was a process of hard work and almost cat-like intuitiveness as to when and where disaster had struck in New York and whether he would be the first photographer on the scene. Manhattan circa 1930s and 1940s was his turf; it remains illuminated in our memories in black-and-white, in part because of him. Yet basking in his tabloid success — he collected his crime photographs into the best-selling collection Naked City (1945), which was followed three years later by a movie of the same name directed by Jules Dassin, and by more photographic books — his art went to his head. In the 1950s, he began to shoot “art” photographs: celebrities and nudes in distorted compositions. His art had reverted back to amateurism.

Photojournalism can be taught, like any aspect of photography; but it cannot be duplicated. Photojournalism, perhaps more than any other field of photography, must be earned. No amount of schooling, of immersion in the past masters of the medium, in expensive cameras and high-end technology can substitute for being there — when a naked Vietnamese girl is caught running from a Napalm-bomb explosion; when a soldier in the Spanish Civil War is shot and his body arches backward; when an Alabama sharecropper need only stare back into the camera for his, and his country’s, soul to be bared. Photojournalism is many things, but lately it has become something wholly different: a revolution led (if that is the word for a mass transformation made up of thousands upon thousands of individuals) by amateurs.

Art has always been half-technique, half-technology. The Impressionists gained by the use of paint boxes and tubes of paint to move outside the studio. Similarly, photographers were freed up by the lightweight Leica, the German version of a Mini-Cooper, when it appeared in 1925. Like the iPod, it took on an iconic life of its own; everyone had one, from Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstadt, and Josef Koudelka to Robert Frank and Alberto Korda, famously, when he took the portrait of Che Guevera in a beret, in 1960. (Che, too, used a Leica in his travels when he shot photographs.) Whatever camera of choice, professional photojournalists have always relied on their artist’s eye first before setting the button on their camera’s eye. So what if the technology exists to make the traditional notion of technique suddenly obsolete?

Photojournalism in this bravado new world of iPhones, computers, and digital technology means it must compete with itself — and everyone else. The amateur with a cell phone can be as adept as a Magnum veteran at quickly taking a picture; and there are hundreds more amateurs at any one place at any time than a professional can predict where he should be. One of the most prescient ironies of this development came on September 11: as it happened, Magnum Photo, the admired photojournalist collective started by the wartime photographers Robert Capa, Cartier-Bresson, and David Seymour in 1947, was meeting in Manhattan when the two towers were attacked. Though James Nachtwey among others raced to the scene, hundreds of amateurs also recorded what they could and what they deemed important — and in that context of complete chaos, like a volcano erupting or an earthquake jolting the landscape, who is to say whose picture is more meaningful? Yet, when commemorative exhibitions were curated with amateur or a mix of professional and amateur works the fascination of the amateur often anonymous photographs came because of their one-off-ness, their incongruity between the event and the impulse to take the image. How much was honest, a need to preserve the truth of the moment; and how much was a kind of cultural fallback to taking pictures because the individual was there, the way many people spend their time in museums not looking at the art but photographing it? That way is an entirely different way of looking; that method is really about photographing oneself, through others.

Until very recently, photojournalism was a crucial art. Specific words can be edited, reports censored; during the Iranian elections, foreign correspondents were quarantined in their hotels or saw their passports non-renewed. The most dramatic news was the assemblage of images that seeped out via cell-phone photographs, many from protesters on the street; the single event that will stay with most of the world that saw it, like the lone Chinese protester who warded off a tank in Tiananmen Square, was the shooting of young Neda Soltani, whose death recorded on a cell phone video was forwarded to Facebook and viewed by millions around the world. In impact it recalls Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of Gandhi after his assassination, in 1948. The photographer rushed to the scene much like Weegee to a murder site, except that Cartier-Bresson (who knew Gandhi) followed up, expanding on a nation’s grief as the beloved leader was taken by train to for cremation along the Ganges; one scene depicts a tree weighted down by onlookers, while in another frightening photograph the funeral procession is mobbed as mourners crush the train’s sides to touch it. The directness and the completeness of each photograph maintain the overall tragic overture in a way that neither film, video nor a random collection of images could because they would become either too much about the technology or about the photographer.

Photojournalism — the phrase was used by Cliff Edom, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, in 1946, when the first such course in the country was started (some believe it to be the university’s dean, Frank Mott) — was not initially the random picture-taking into which it has (d)evolved. One hundred fifty years ago, it was a novelty but an increasing necessity to make the news more vivid across long distances. Paintings could bring events to life, yet even one like Manet’s The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (1867) was after-the-fact, with the painter’s point-of-view aesthetically significant. One of the beginning photojournalists was the renowned Roger Fenton (1819-1869), a British lawyer and painter who began to use a camera in 1852, three years before his travels to the Crimean War. His pictures, of people and places, have none of the emotion of Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs (one exception is Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855, which depicts said valley strewn with skulls). But they are important because Fenton reported back in a way that no amount of writing could equal, though he was more gentleman than adventurer. He even said in a lecture he had gone “in search of the picturesque,” hardly a term that, say, Gilles Peress of Magnum would use about his horripilating images of the Sarajevo atrocities in the nineteen-nineties.

Reviewing Fenton’s work for a 2005 retrospective in The New York Review of Books, the poet James Fenton (no relation) quoted a joke going around during the war: a young woman writes her fiancé, “If you could send me home, dear, a good view of a nice battle, I should feel extremely obliged.” Nonprofessional photographers certainly find themselves in the heat of conflict; and they may be cognizant of their surroundings and the political mise en scène; but they are only passing through, usually, and their pictures reflect it. The problem, an article in The New York Times reported, is “newspapers and magazines are cutting back sharply on picture budgets or going out of business altogether … Pictures and videos snapped by amateurs on cell phones are posted to Web sites minutes after events have occurred.”

So, art comes down to money. Celebrity tabloid pictures, of dead pop and Hollywood stars, rank much higher than muddy, bloody photographs of starvation in Darfur. For the former, TMZ is on the move like assassins; they make the noble Magnum photographers, who photographed D-Day and the Chinese Revolution, seem like amateurs. We are coming full circle back to Weegee’s “scoop” — but at what cost?

Steve Shapiro has contributed essays and reviews on art, architecture, books and film to numerous arts journals, newsweeklies and NPR for the past twenty-six years. He divides his time among things high and low in Kansas City, San Francisco and New York.

Weegee, Ballerina Marina Franca in her peacock costume, April 18, 1941, 1941, Gelatin silver print, © Weegee / International Center of Photography.

 

Weegee, Heatspell, 1938.