The Digital Journalist
IS IT ART?
A Response to Peter Howe

by Tom Hubbard

Peter Howe recently wrote an interesting commentary about art and photojournalism (see the April 2005 issue of The Digital Journalist). He was brave enough to mention the two in the same column.

Generally, photojournalism doesn't appreciate questions. I'm thankful for it, even though I come down on the other side. There's truth in opposites. Photojournalism suffers from the narrows, and denying the art of photojournalism helps narrow it. Photojournalism will get stronger through expansion of concepts, not contraction. Photojournalism has gotten so narrow that anyone with a digital camera can do it. Wire service and newspaper buyers set their rates for the "anyone" because photojournalists haven't concentrated on creating an art that goes beyond what the digital camera can do.

'W&G,S&C'

Too many contests narrow photojournalism to war and gore, sports and celebrities, or "w&g,s&c" for short. No one can subtract from the bravery it takes to cover war but a large percent of photojournalism chronicles the routine happenings of a community. Those photographers who can't get to war and gore are introducing artistic qualities to attract the attention of judges.

Essentially, photography is a collection of light to communicate. It communicates fact and emotion. Any light that communicates should qualify as photojournalism, beyond the narrow constructs of news. In this multimedia era, photojournalism should look around. It should tell the truth, wherever that truth shall lead us.

Should photojournalism contests reward the "art" of photojournalism? Why not? The essence of art is an individual work, not a formula. Art may react to an event or an entire age. When photojournalism escapes formula, its product is art. That's where photojournalism overlaps art. Think about hiring photojournalists. Their individual approach (art) is critical to a hire. If photojournalism was not an art, anyone with an automatic camera could be a photojournalist.

Individual photojournalists are doing great work, but photojournalists haven't advanced the boundaries of photojournalism. Others do that. Before the industrial/corporate world, individual artists tried to be unique in their techniques and their views of the world.

Photojournalists should have as much affinity with Michelangelo or Van Gogh as they do the last contest winner. Anyone can be a visual mechanic with an automatic camera, so the photojournalism world is in turmoil. It's a business/marketing problem, but marketing always begins with product development.

Photojournalism needs product development, to introduce a new perspective, beyond getting better. Photojournalism has been getting better at the same thing for too long. Art is the logical place to turn. The journalism industry has improved over the years but it needs a radical shift in perspective. The psyches of the audience respond on many levels. The rational/objective level is a small portion of that reaction. Photojournalism works on many levels but officially recognizes only the rational reaction. That's like musicians limiting themselves to one note.

Art has a longer history. Our reporter brethren are familiar with the art of writing. A reporter may summon up Plato or Cicero in doing a story. Photojournalism's history is not that long, but it does go back further than last year's contest. If you allow photojournalism to be art, you have thousands of years to call upon, not just deadline chasing.

Everything photojournalism does narrows the scope of the enterprise. College classes, photojournalism seminars, seminar speakers, contests, all contribute to the narrowing of photojournalism. While photojournalism gets narrower, the automatic digital camera has made everyone a potential photojournalist. Photography began by imitating painting. Photography's subject matter has moved far from imitating painting, to general commentary of the world. But, in all this, the camera continues to imitate what's in front of it. The artist behind the camera makes the difference.

But, photojournalists don't control their destiny. The authors of photojournalism control their destiny. Stop and think about this. An author is responsible for conceptualizing something unique. Who conceptualizes a news photo at the assignment stage? The photographer executes and adds individual elements to the product, but the photojournalist is not the originator of the concept in a typical assignment. The art of photojournalism has moved up the chain to the assignment writer. If the assignment writer does the creative work, anyone with an automatic camera can follow through. We admire the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers, but do we follow their example? FSA followed a different set of tenets. Its goal was to document the ordinary, not fill in headlines. They didn't set out to create art, but they raised a government catalog to the level of art. Their work became art without war and gore, celebrities and sports - "w&g,c&s." The FSA art is studied by all photojournalism students, and generally ignored after graduation. It's almost like anything that broadens the scope of photojournalism is considered a virus, an alien force attacking photojournalism.

Photography Lost Its Heritage

When photojournalism historically entered the newsroom, it abandoned, or was stripped of, its heritage. The assignment system, where everyone but photographers can make assignments, makes no sense except historically. Early news photographers were not trained journalists.

They became an adjunct to reporters, adapting those reporter's sensibilities. Photojournalists became closet introspects, but macho news chasers. This adaptation of newsroom culture is so pervasive, no one notices it.

Of course news must be covered, but there are levels of presenting it.

Photojournalism easily exposes psychological aspects that an objective reporter hesitates to introduce.

Photojournalists follow reporters rather than invent a visual sensibility to the range of human experience. News is beginnings and endings. The strongest photography comes from middles. Reporters look for change. Photography handles continuity better. Photojournalists secretly practice this. What else explains the instant insights in great photos, where the photojournalists extracts the exact instant when the significance of a situation is fleetingly revealed? News is conflict. Life seeks harmony. Photojournalism can document harmony. The average person's first-hand experience with "w&g,c&s "is minute. People are satiated with news because it's unreal compared to their lives. Audience is down in almost every news media. Are we doing something wrong?

The visual chroniclers have always been artists, from the cave painters to court painters, until the invention of photography. Journalistic objectivity makes "art" suspect in the newsroom. This is a nave reaction. Art tells the truth. Art is not tricked by a handout or staged event with those ubiquitous, logo-laden, background blankets. These blankets are equal to the old itinerant photographers going through neighborhoods with a pony, leaving the impression every kid had a pony. War and gore, celebrities and sports "w&g,c&s" are being covered, so let's pay a little attention to the rest of the human scene. Art wasn't born in museums. Museums are a historical resting place for art. Photojournalism moves to museums when its specific instants is recognized as universal Art is vibrant, not staid or isolated from reality. Art is born for a contemporary purpose: to inform, to venerate, to coalesce thinking, to point out social well-being or social ills. Art comments universally because it is a product of a long reflective process, by the artist and the viewer. Art is not always literal but good art has honesty, sincerity and integrity. A lot of photojournalism has these qualities.

Journalism Objectivity Is An Invention

Art historically has done exactly what photojournalism does today. The major change is a new tenet that photojournalism should be objective. Artistic objectivity in journalism is a new invention, done for marketing reasons. If you remember journalism history, objective news reporting was invented in order to sell wire reports to newspapers with varied political outlooks. This is new. In the past, an artist was venerated for his or her individual outlook. Veneration may have taken a while for innovative artists, but win or lose, the artist was granted the right to an individual outlook.

For the first 150 years of photography, the individual photographer's contribution was technical as much as artistic. You hired a photographer for your wedding or your newspaper because they knew how to fashion a creative or artistic photo and knew the intricacies of f/stops, shutter speeds and exposure. This technical monopoly has been broken. Photojournalism's contribution now is the art of photography. There are artistic qualities in the most routine pickup shot of daily life. It takes talent to raise an everyday scene to the level of an aesthetic experience. The pickup shot is maligned but it does put people in context of their environment. It may be journalism's only unstaged report. We need an occasional reminder that life can be positive.

The art of photojournalism is where you find deep meaning in an instant. Photography is selective, but in a mysterious way it manages to incorporate what is outside the frame, before and after, in a way that helps people make sense of this world. That's art.

© Tom Hubbard

Tom Hubbard is an emeritus professor of photojournalism at Ohio State University.