Thursday, September 11, 2014

What I Learned Working at a Newspaper

Photokina will take place in Cologne, Germany from September 16-21, 2014, and already a slew of new equipment announcements are preceding the event. The flood of chatter on Twitter and on blogs makes me recall a few lessons I learned not that long ago, and which remain true today.

I worked as a photographer at several newspapers. I don't use the term "photojournalist" to describe that time. Anyone who has worked at a newspaper knows that there is little, if any, photojournalism involved. Photojournalism is about telling a story through visual media. Working as a photographer at a newspaper is about finding a picture that supports a writer's story.

Newspapers are all about deadlines. The only thing interesting to a newspaper is something that's happening now. That means spontaneous assignments. It means working with the equipment you have on you and the light that the situation provides. It's about being creative on demand.

I've read a lot of articles and heard a lot of podcasts lamenting the lack of useful critiques for new photographers. Invariably, the lamenter talks about the good old days when photographers worked together and reviewed each other's work. That wasn't my experience. Working at a daily newspaper is all about getting the assignment done on time. Everyone in that racket knows the difficulties: no preparation time; no control over the light; no control over the venue; little if any control over the subject. Depending upon how close you were to deadline, the film would be developed normally, or in Dektol 1:3 for 3 minutes. Selection was made while the film was still drying and uncut. It was printed fast and sometimes provided while it was still wet.

Anyone who has done it is reluctant to Monday-morning-quarterback another's work, and newspaper photographers rarely critiqued each other. Moreover, the target audience was rarely the photo editor. The target audience was the section editor. That person is the one who would make the call of whether your picture would be used and how big it would be run. The photo editor usually was stuck in a logistical role of managing assignments. Instead, the camaraderie among the photographers was about the difficulty. Not about the technique.

The process was the furthest thing from art and sucked the creative life out of people.

It did teach me many things, however. It taught me that all that matters is the image. All that matters is composition and timing. Gear was irrelevant, other than that the faster the lens the better because you were invariably going to be working under the worst light imaginable. Whatever the dynamic range and detail the film could provide was also irrelevant because the film was rarely processed properly and even if it were the half-toning process would decimate the quality anyway. Queasiness followed any request for color photographs because it was rare that the registration would be accurate when the paper was printed. That made every color picture look, at best, blurry.

Color never looked right, because color doesn't like raw newspaper, and half-tones killed the detail in any image.

Even if, by some miracle, everything came out looking good, the next hurdle was the reader. People who look at newspapers and magazines do so at a mind-bogglingly fast rate. Being able to grab someone's attention immediately was the key.

All that mattered was the subject matter and the composition.

In this day and age of high quality digital images printed on high-quality printers and crisp computer displays, the lessons still remain true. No matter how technically perfect, a picture which doesn't do its job is still a bad picture. And even when compared to a technically perfect photograph, a poor quality image that is evocative is still the better photograph.

The lust for the latest and greatest is not new. I certainly am not immune to it. I have gone through lines of Canon, Nikon, and Leica, and made my way back around again. Nowadays, gear envy has been supplemented with tech envy. Aperture versus Lightroom versus Photoshop versus whatever. Workflows and filters and sharpening and histograms. Pixel size and density. Flame wars on the web have replaced the flame wars of photography magazines.

But the truth remains that it's all irrelevant. When a photograph is engaging, moving, evocative, when the  photograph does it's job, no one asks with what camera brand it was taken.

Gear envy and tech envy are about one thing (as unpopular as it may be to say): avoidance. A bad image will not be made good because you use a different camera or different lens. Bad photography is only improved by working on yourself: by treating photography as an art, and by having an emotional investment and a passion in the work that you do.

If you want to be a better photographer, quit reading equipment ads. Quit reading technical articles. Start looking at good photographs, and reading good books. Turn your attention to art of all kinds. Start understanding why images are eternally appealing to the human mind, but also look at the commonality of all forms of art and how they all tell stories. Engaging in that process is liberating because it is true. Equipment and techniques come and go. What remains is people's interest in the art of a captured moment.