Bemoan The Present

by Mark Hertzberg

A recent column in the Toronto Globe and Mail rued the current state of photojournalism, its glory days long since gone.

There's no question that the business side has take a turn for the worse. This site's publisher, Dirck Halstead, has written eloquently about the cutbacks in editorial photography from companies such as Time, Inc. The Associated Press forced an unconscionable contract on its stringers several years ago. Some newspaper staff positions, like reporting positions, have been eliminated in the recent advertising downturn.

It's a grim situation, indeed, but I disagree that the sky has fallen, and that the best we can do is bemoan the present and cry that we've lost the past.

The columnist looks young, perhaps too young to remember newspaper photojournalism before the mid 70s when, in addition to the sickening "photo-ops" that often dominate the national wire today those sort of photos made up the local photo report of newspapers large and small.

Photographers were often mired in the ways of shooting a single sheet of 4x5 film with a flashbulb or two, and if you look through the microfilms in newspaper libraries, you'll find nothing but vapid, posed, and airbrushed photos of athletes, politicians, celebrities and community leaders. Why here's a swell photo of the garden club committee planning its annual luncheon!

Some of that is still around, and some of it is driven by made-for-TV photo ops, but technological advances have brought us photojournalism of a kind readers never used to see. A picture editor can see an electronic disk full of photos phoned in from the field, instead of waiting interminably for a single wet 8x10 print delivered on deadline after a mad drive in from an assignment.

It's nothing, now, for many newspapers to send photographers abroad to report on human stories with searing photos.

Budgets have shrunk, and freelance contracts are worse, but don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

One problem is that sometimes there are too many strong images flying at us.

Our readers - and editors - get glossy eyed. The AP used to deliver one black and white photo to their subscribers every eight minutes, or one color photo every 24 minutes. We now get a new color photo every two minutes. After umpteen strong photos from the Mideast, from Kosovo, from Rawanda, from Macedonia, from
wherever, how do we make the reader still take notice and care?

Add to that the presence of photos on the Internet. Still photojournalism now is close to the immediacy of television.

Certainly there are things wrong with the profession, but it's a quantum leap to look at them and say we've gone completely to hell in a hand basket, as the columnist did.

Mark Hertzberg
Director of Photography,
The Journal Times, Racine, Wis.

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