The Digital Journalist
Not Yer Same Old Same Old
October 2004

by James Colburn

Jeez ... If you're an old, famous, iconic, white, male photographer, then 2004 may not have been your year. On the one hand, you've been eulogized by heavy-hitters like The New York Times and The Economist - but, then again, you've been eulogized.

What the heck is going on? It seems like the photographers I grew up admiring are dropping like flies this year.

We'll never again be amused by Carl Mydans' bubbly personality and hear tales of Life magazine expense-account living. Never be able to wonder, "Could that nice old guy over there with the Leica really be Henri Cartier-Bresson and if I stare at him, will he get annoyed?" Never actually get around to playing keep-away with Eddie Adams' hat at the White House News Photographers' annual dinner and never again be able to rock back in a chair saying, out loud, "Just how did Richard Avedon manage to convince the New Freaking Yorker to run PHOTOGRAPHS?"

If you've been a reader of this column for a few years you may remember a strange idea that I presented. The idea was that on Cartier-Bresson's birthday, every photographer in the world should shoot everything in black-and-white and use a 50mm lens (or its digital equivalent.) That way all magazines, newspapers and wire services would HAVE to run black & white. They'd have no choice.

Upon hearing of Cartier-Bresson's death in early August, I checked and found that HCB's birthday (it would've been his 96th) was on Aug. 22nd _ a Sunday about three weeks away. So I approached my editor (Kathy Rutledge) and managing editor (Steve Thomas) with a modification of my strange idea. Could we, an American newspaper in the heart of the Great Plains, devote the Aug. 22nd issue to the memory of Henri Cartier-Bresson? All of the staff photographers would shoot stories destined for that issue, as much as possible, in the HCB style, using lenses taped at 33mm (the digital equivalent to Henri's 50mm,) no flash and with the idea that all of their work would run in black-and-white. Not only that, but could we run ALL of that issue's pictures in black-and-white, even the wire photos? Heck, could we print the ENTIRE PAPER in black-and-white?

Well ... yes and no. I made a few presentations to various groups, explaining how important this old French guy was to news photography in particular and photography in general. I showed The New York Times obit, the Washington Post obit and a few other stories gleaned from papers and magazines around the world. After much thought and discussions with the publisher, the production team, the section editors, the copy desk and the photographers, we got the go-ahead for an all-black-and-white issue ... except for the ads. The advertisers had paid for color and color they were going to get.


In order to inform our readers just what we were doing and why, our arts writer (L. Kent Wolgamott) produced an excellent piece on HCB and his work. With the cooperation of Magnum Photos, we managed to get a few of HCB's photos to run including, to everyone's surprise, some photos taken in 1957 in our city of Lincoln, Neb. (HCB was on an assignment for Life to do a story about the state's one-house legislature.) We even had a local angle!

Sunday dawned and the paper went out to our 85,000 readers. It hit steps and newspaper racks throughout southeast Nebraska and we waited. We waited for the complaints like, "What happened to the color?" "Did your presses breakdown?" and "Why are you saluting a French guy?" We'd run a small word of explanation on the front of the paper but even so, the operators and receptionists had been told to expect a few calls. There are ALWAYS calls, even on a regular day.

Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. No complaints. The only calls to come in were compliments. Instead of a hit on rack sales there was actually a small spike. Circulation was happy. That made the publisher happy. That made the editor happy. That meant I could sleep a little easier.

So. Here's a bit of a challenge. Maybe you and your newspaper can do a Cartier-Bresson issue next year. Run nothing but sports photographs on Neil Leifer's birthday. Nothing but dogs on Elliot Erwitt's. Or have your photographers shoot everything with 8x10 cameras for an Avedon issue ...

© James Colburn
Contributing Writer