The Digital Journalist

The Real Decisive Moment
by Peter Howe

Michael Caine once said that anyone who remembers London in the sixties wasn't there at the time. The fact that I was there and do remember significant parts of that decade probably indicates the differences that existed in our lifestyles.  It was during this era that I served my apprenticeship in photography, working as an assistant/indentured servant to two of London's pre-eminent "swinging" photographers. For those who weren't there or don't remember, it was the time that the movie "Blow-up" fixed the image of the photographer in both the public's and my mind as 1) male, 2) rebellious, 3) glamorous, and 4) rich. I already made it on the first two, and fervently hoped to qualify for the others. The phrase that was around then, claiming that "David Bailey makes love daily" also brought an added cachet to the profession for me. Having worked as a freelance assistant for him, I can attest to the accuracy of the expression.  

The sixties were also when I was first exposed, mostly through the newly published Sunday Times Magazine, to the work of Don McCullin from Vietnam, the very young Mary Ellen Mark's photography out of the United States, and started to develop an interest in the same kind of work that had preceded them. For a young man in England this was as much the work that had appeared in the venerable Picture Post as Life or the FSA, especially the photography of the quintessentially English shooter Bert Hardy. But wherever it came from, this genre of photography seemed so much more interesting and important to me than photographs of miniskirts and Vidal Season's latest haircut. So I abandoned ideas of fashion photography and a studio in the King's Road, and became a photojournalist. This meant that I was now 1) male (one of the few areas in my life where I've been totally consistent), 2) rebellious (that ended about a decade later), 3) unkempt, and 4) constantly poor.  

Those of you reading this who share the obsessive pursuit of inquisitiveness through a camera will sympathize with what seems on the surface to be a stupid choice. I exchanged gorgeous models for welfare recipients. My locations changed from Chelsea to Belfast. During the course of my career I was shot at, beaten up, half frozen to death, and averaged about three hours of sleep a night for weeks at a time. I also discovered a remarkable camaraderie among my fellow photojournalists, an intense fascination in the world around me, and an unparalleled satisfaction in my work. It was a choice that honestly I have never once regretted.  

I recently read a phrase in a Salman Rushdie novel that really struck home. He describes a photograph as being: "a moral decision taken in one-eighth of a second." Although he may have gotten the shutter speed wrong, he got the process right. If you look back on those photographs that have scorched themselves into our collective memories, most of them are the work of photographers who fall under the broad category of documentarians. There are some exceptions to this statement. Marilyn Monroe's skirt blowing up in "The Seven-Year Itch," or Richard Avedon's portrait of the Beatles don't belong to this group. For the most part though, from Matthew Brady to Jacob Riis, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke White, Robert Capa, Joe Rosenthal, and Carl Mydans, the photographic icons of each generation have been created by photojournalists.  

Last month's 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War was a reminder that the images that help define our memories of that turbulent time are remarkable in several ways. One is the high number of them that remain memorable. Just think of them. The wounded American soldier standing Christ-like in a shattered landscape; the naked napalmed girl running toward the camera; the police colonel executing a Viet Cong suspect; the Kent State "pieta" photograph. Another is that whether they sprang from the cameras of Larry Burrows, Nick Ut, Eddie Adams, or John Filo, their relevance today is guaranteed by the fact that they are more the products of a moral decision than the reaction of light upon silver chemistry.  

Memory-searing photojournalism is never neutral. It is not the act of a dispassionate witness but the passionate expression of a determined moralist. Most of the surviving photographers who created these icons probably would not recognize themselves in this description. For them it was simply being in the right place at the right time, more happenstance than moral conviction. But the "right place at the right time" is a moral decision. When describing his participation in the D-Day landings, Robert Capa portrayed using his life as a stake in the gamble that was the D-Day invasion. He decided to go in with the first wave. Similarly, during the Vietnam War many photographers earned the respect of the "grunts" alongside of whom they worked. The soldiers realized that they had to be there, but the photographers didn't. What they didn't realize was that some photographers spent much more time under combat conditions than would be required of any draftee. Although for a few this may have been motivated by bravado, for the vast majority it was a moral decision.  

So maybe Rushdie didn't get the shutter speed wrong. Probably none of these photographs were taken at one-eighth of a second, but when I re-read the quote I realized that's not what the writer said. It's the moral decision that is taken in one-eighth of a second, not necessarily the photograph. And it's the moral decision by the photographer to place the bet on this horse or the other that guarantees that a photograph taken thirty, fifty, or one hundred years ago is as compelling today as it was when its creator "happened" to be in the right place at the right time.

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