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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Photojournalism: Something Old, Something New

It all started with a
blog in the NYT about the death of photojournalism. Quoting Neil Burgess, former UK Bureau Chief of Magnum: "Magazines and newspapers are no longer putting any money into photojournalism. They will commission a portrait or two. They might send a photographer off with a writer to illustrate the writer’s story, but they no longer fund photojournalism. They no longer fund photo-reportage. They only fund photo illustration."

His comments remind me of one of the great examples of modern photojournalism that originated in the NYT photography blog, Lens. One in Eight Million was groundbreaking, based on the simple concept that NY is a city of interesting characters. Each piece (running about three minutes) plucked a New Yorker out of their every day life and told their story with a sound montage of their voice and evocative B&W photography by a NYT photographer. The people came from all walks of life and the series described as an "ode to the city," won an Emmy for "new approaches to documentary." I found "One in Eight Million" fascinating, posted several blog entries about it, "One in Eight Million" "Letter to Michelle McNally" , told friends and colleagues. It takes empathy and considerable skill to create a compelling story arc in three minutes. You can still see the pieces by following the link above.

But that was that. For whatever reason, the NYT decided to end it. I'm sure that Emmy was a bittersweet moment for the series producers and photographers.

I see other examples, too. Here's a link to NYT Photographer Chang Lee's innovative "Second Chance" series that also died on the vine. It launched in the NYT website in June, 2009 and I believe ended later that year. I wrote several blog posts "A New Way of Seeing" and "Capturing the Stillness" about his work, too. Chang was incorporating video and photography to frame a person's story in key "moments." He created those moments to allow the viewer time to pause and reflect, and gain a deeper insight into the story he was telling. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Chang Lee helped show the truth behind the cliche.

So, for about a year or two, the NYT was one of the most innovative sites on the web for using video and photography to tell stories. And yes, I still see the names of their great photographers in picture credits, but now it's news photography, not explorations of ideas, issues, people, environments, etc. that seemed to offer such promise in the early days of Lens.

Well, I can't end this post with such a downer, so I want to point you towards something new. New to me, anyway. And that's a new site devoted to photojournalism. It's called Fraction Magazine and it features a wide variety of work, much of it devoted to telling stories with pictures. And reviews. And sometimes wonderful surprises, like the work below, created in the 40s by Gita Lenz. Her work, recently rediscovered and published, was featured in the Edward Steichen-curated exhibit "Abstraction in Photography" at the Museum of Modern Art and calls to mind some of the great work of that era.

And these days, Fraction is a great place for those interested in new ways of using images to capture character and exploring the art and ambiance of storytelling. And, hopefully, it will be around for a long time as a source of inspiration for all of those involved in the visual arts.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Time and Space

Working on a short video celebrating the contribution Planning Director Amanda Burden makes to the City of New York has me thinking about space in more ways than one. I've been editing and interweaving the comments of five people (architects, planners, innovators, etc) describing the impact she's made on the city. I organized their dialogue thematically, added pauses between their thoughts and selected music to bind everything together and create an emotional arc. I've found that designing video this way makes it easier to absorb their thoughts. So all of this had to be accomplished before adding images of a revitalized New York.

And while they're all talking about Amanda Burden, creating a livable city, urban design, space and sustainability, I'm thinking about how to create a different kind of space within the boundaries of this short three to four minute video.

First, some background:
Editing what people say is quite a different experience than editing their words on paper. Most people tend to speak quickly; their thoughts tumble out a melange of phrases, repetitions, with stops, restarts, stutters and an often twisted sentence structure. Reading allows you to stop and consider. But video keeps on rollin' by, so if you're not careful with the words, music and images, it's easy to bombard, overwhelm or simply bore your audience. So how one fills up the space in a three to four minute video is the difference between ho hum and wow.

And what makes it more complicated is this:
When we speak face-to-face we can usually decode what someone is saying by paying attention to their tone of voice, emotional cues, hand gestures, facial expression and body language. But making a video, we usually try to avoid "talking heads," so all those comprehension cues get thrown out the window as we cover up their visual insights with images. Which makes the ability to carefully edit and place spoken comments all the more important.

And you have to do it invisibly, making it seem and sound like the words weren't edited at all.

Once you've mastered that skill, you need to orchestrate how the words are delivered for maximum impact. Any seasoned public speaker knows that timing is the riverbed through which the words flow. It's what comedians and actors live for: Timing. And that's also crucial when editing and structuring someone's words.

And no, I don't change their meaning. I use editing to enhance what they're saying, making their remarks succinct and crystal clear. And then I surgically add space between the phrases, sometimes even adding full stops, to create, with the music, an internal rhythm. Giving greater weight and impact to the words that remain. And giving the viewer the space to process what's being said.

It's a little like a poem,
where the visual space
on the page
gives the words
greater meaning.

Ultimately, it's more like designing than editing, with each moment constructed as a brief embrace and then sending them on to the next.

Monday, January 17, 2011

What You See/What You Get

Is what you see inevitably what you get? Well not necessarily. Here's an example of what I mean:

Working on a video for the US Conference of Mayors about JFK and the Call to Public Service. Using still images from his presidency and moments from his speeches to capture that sense of who he was and how he inspired others. And opening the piece with just a few comments from mayors talking about how he inspired them and the nation.

Since this was to be an introduction to the video, I wanted to keep the comments short and succinct. So I chopped up their statements to pare down their thoughts and organized them to get the flow I wanted. So far, so good. But then the question: what images should I use? It would have to be something to visually play off what was being said.

Since this video is being created for the 50th anniversary of his presidency, I wanted something dreamy and nostalgic for starters. That, plus the right kind of music, would give more emotional weight to the opening and more power to the comments. When I saw this photo, I decided to shape the introduction around it. This photo is a great example of the difference between seeing and perceiving. What do you "see" when you look at this image and how do you perceive or take in what you are "seeing?" In considering the creative process, each question gets a different answer. Here's what I mean:

Objectively speaking, the photo above shows President Kennedy consulting with his brother Robert, who was then Attorney General. Their body language shows a personal and "private" moment and reflects the seriousness of what they are discussing. The president is obviously distracted by something or someone. Probably the photographer. He is looking away from his brother, and facing the camera. That's the first thing I "saw." But I perceived something else. If the photo was cropped to focus just on the President, it would give the image a totally different context. Still a serious moment, but more abstract. And now you can read much more into the photo. The President's gaze seem as if he was looking right at the viewer, as if sending a message. Which makes it very engaging.

And look at the background. You can see leaves, but they're white. Meaning it was a sunny day and the Kennedy brothers were in shadow, probably standing under a portico at the White House. Also, the photographer was some distance away, using a telephoto lens, which flattens the image. Now the background is out of focus, making the image a little less "real" and more abstract. If the photo was exposed for the sun striking the leaves, the President would be in darkness. But printing the photo so you can clearly see his face also gives it a grainy quality. Again helping make the image more abstract. And that abstraction takes you out of the "reality" of the moment and makes it easier for you to add in someone's thoughts or feelings. The bottom line? You get a dreamy, almost ghostly quality to the image. Perfect for a representation of nostalgic memory.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Power of Ideas

When our nation's Mayors talk about what encouraged them to enter public service, their focus often centers on President John F.Kennedy.
We've been listening to his speeches and selecting images from his presidency to create a short documentary for the US Conference of Mayors. And one thing that comes up over and over is how much he seems to resonate with every day people. You can see it the photos. A gift for empathy and an ability to inspire. Coupled with a call to help others. The kind of role model that asks us to reach out to serve others, and by doing so, serve our nation. That's the power of ideas.

Friday, January 7, 2011

David Hockney, iPad Artist

David Hockney, ever the experimenter, has found a way to capture and present his art, via the iPad. Here's a link to his latest exhibit. His art involves vibrant color, dreamy images, and the fascination of seeing the work evolve. Perhaps that's the best part of this new creative experience, witnessing the artist constantly change the essence of the object. And as such, seeing the object continually redefined in terms of form, texture and color. I find the process hypnotic. And the interview on the web site illuminating, like his work.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Black and White World in Color

Dorthea Lange, Walker Evans, Jack Delano, Russell Lee. Great photographers of their day, hired by the Farm Security Administration (now the USDA) to photograph America. They traveled our nation documenting how everyday Americans lived and were coping with hard times. It was the first effort of its kind. And the legendary work they produced personifies the Dust Bowl era. The photo of the Migrant Woman and Children by Dorthea Lange is perhaps the best known.

And the whole period is engrained in our collective memory in black and white.
But there's also
work in color.

Who knew? It was one of our first Kodachrome moments as photographers used the new color film stock to give a different view of those difficult times. Does color prettify the images? Is trouble better communicated in black and white? What do you think? The images at the Library of Congress are available here. A haunting memory of how we were.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Glow in the Dark

Neon creates its own fantasy world. I think that electric glow carries its own magic. Certainly draws your eye. Recently the NYT did a piece about one of the few remaining neon shops in NY, Let There Be Neon. The shop was founded by Rudi Stern who used to do neon shows for the psychadelic guru Timothy Leary. There's an homage to Stern on their web site and a nice slide show of some of their stuff. But many say neon is no longer a sign of the times. No longer a city's defining moment - Tokyo, Las Vegas and Times Square not withstanding.

But there's another side of neon beyond the prosaic. There's the work of inventive neon sculptor Lili Lackich, long known by her signature piece, MONA, originally created for the Museum of Neon Art. Her work is displayed in her book, Neon Lovers Glow in the Dark available on her website. Her website is a fascination in itself. And a great reminder that artists help us see the world through a different lens.