THROUGH A LENS DIMLY
COMMUNICATING IS A GOOD THING
Communicating amongst ourselves is a horse of a different color. Miscommunication seems to be the operative word here.
As a working journalist of the photographic kind, I have found that getting a clear understanding of the assignment that I have just been handed can often be a frustrating quest. Too often, the Photo Editor who handed me the assignment sheet knows only what he/she has read on the piece of paper. I can't really blame him/her because I was once a Photo Editor for a brief span of time. I know how harried a Photo Editor can get trying to sort through the quagmire of paperwork and staff scheduling. Phones are ringing all the time; editors screaming for prints to look at (ok, now it's digital images on their computer screens. Same thing.); photographers screaming for better addresses; darkroom staff (or now, imaging technicians. Same thing) screaming for more time to do a decent job. Everybody is screaming. How in Hell do you expect me to finish the Times' Crossword puzzle, for cryin' out loud. And how do you expect me to track down the reporter who initiated the assignment to find out what in the hell it's all about?
In last month's journal, "Shall We Dance," I talked about the potential for photographers to miss good shots when they don't have knowledge of what the assignment is about. It's all about communication.
An associate of mine told the story of having to go to Carnegie Hall in New York City, years ago, to get a photo of the renowned maestro, Jascha Heifetz. While my friend could rattle off the names and instruments of most of the pop musician genre, he knew next to nothing about classical music. After being introduced to Heifetz, he asked him to please sit down at the piano so he could make a picture.
Heifetz responded icily, "I play the violin."
I'm sure that I am not the only news photographer who has ever gotten a call while on the road, to hurry to an address and grab a head shot of someone. No information; just a name and an address. Usually, I'm grateful if the address is complete and correct. You get to the location only to find that your subject is morose and not too cooperative. You try to coax a smile out of the individual only to learn that he/she had just received word of the death of a loved one. Now, doesn't that just make your day?
Y'know, we marvel at the advances being made with our cameras and stuff. But, look at the technological miracles that are taking place with our communication devices.
It seems like we went from beating messages out on jungle drums to using satellite phones in the blink of an eye and every week there's better technology on the drawing board.
OK. So I never personally used a drum to contact my Photo Editor. It just seemed that way. In the early '60's, when I schlepped my 4X5 Speed Graphic around from assignment to assignment, I was expected to phone my desk after every assignment to see if there were any new assignments, or changes to the list that I already had. And, if there was a long time between assignments, I had to call every half hour. That made sense, as annoying as it was, because the desk had no way to contact you if they got word of a breaking news story.
You were lucky if you were at someone's home when you needed to call. You could ask to use their phone. But, if you were out in the boonies, as was often the case, you had to drive around to find a pay phone. You'd look for a drug store, stationary store, service station, restaurant, maybe an outdoor phone booth. Not every store or restaurant manager would accommodate you. They liked to keep their phones open for their paying customers or their bookies. Outdoor phone booths were more convenient, if you could find one that worked. More often than not, they were vandalized. People would unscrew the ear and mouthpieces off and swipe the speakers and stuff to use in homemade radios or walkie-talkies. When the phone companies sealed these units, people would just cut the cable and steal the whole handset. There were also cases where thieves would jimmy out the coin box, rendering the phone useless. Here's an example of the word "frustration?" You have to check in and you've been to three or four vandalized phone booths. Finally, the next one has a hand set and a coin box so you drop your last coin into the slot and there's no dial tone. The phone is out of order; you've used your last coin; the smallest bill in your wallet is a twenty, and no one will make change for you. That really blows.
The cost of the phone call keeps rising and your pockets wear out from keeping a supply of nickels/dimes/quarters in them. Your Photo Editor seems to always be busy and so is the phone on his desk. You are spending more and more time in phone booths and you are very aware that they seem to be in vogue as convenient urinals, judging from the stench. Now you always wipe the ear piece and the mouth piece with your sleeve before bringing it to your face. Jeez! Finally, your call connects. Your editor gets on and before you can say anything, he/she says, "Please hold," and there you are, with friggin' elevator music to sooth your savage beast. Just when you were beginning to tap your feet to the rhythm, the Operator comes on with "Twenty-five cents for the next three minutes." Sometimes you can go through a pocket full of quarters before your editor gets back online and tells you that there are no changes to your schedule.
Advances in technology happen and the cumbersome 4X5 Speed Graphic gives way to the 35mm single lens reflex. Yippee!
Someone has invented the pager; often known as a beeper. It is an unobtrusive little device that clips onto your belt. It is a frustrating little device that works in only one direction. It communicates to you with an annoying series of beeps indicating that your editor wants an immediate phone call. It cannot be reversed to annoy your editor. While the damned thing did have its use, the same phone frustrations mentioned earlier, still applied. For the most part though, it did eliminate the need for the half hourly call-in. If something changed, you would know.
'BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP."
It would invariably go off when you were nowhere near a phone and you would have to drive miles to get to one. We had one particularly annoying editor who was always paging us. When you finally found a phone that worked and called in, you would hear, "See me when you get back. I want to talk with you." Ya hadda love that when you were on the Long Island Expressway in bumper to bumper commuter traffic, trying to get to Manhattan for an assignment that you were already 40 minutes late for. Now you had to get off at the next exit and try to find a working phone. "See me when you get back. I want to talk with you." Hoo ha.
Those early pagers all had the same sound. "BEEP BEEP BEEP." They all sounded the same. If you were covering a big story, there were sure to be a roomful of beepers going off. I remember covering a press conference at a Queens, NY police precinct during the infamous "Son of Sam" serial killings. The room was packed with news people and detectives when a loud "BEEP BEEP BEEP" sounded. Thirty hands reached for their belts.
Eventually improvements were made. Pagers came out that sported LED screens that showed text messages that could be inputted by the editors. That came in handy when your pager beeped and a message came up saying, :"Go right to 437 Floral St. Major fire. People trapped." Or even better, "Your next assignment has been killed. Head back to the office."
During the CB Radio craze of the 60's and 70's we photographers bought them out of our own pockets, thinking that it might enable us to pass information to one another. It turned out that the range was limited and in a densly populated location like the NY Metropolitan area we were in, there was too much "Good Buddy" chit chat tying up the airwaves. About the only use they were to us was helping us know how the road traffic was doing.
My paper dabbled with the use of walkie-talkies for awhile. They were big, heavy, clunky sets in those days that were little more than glorified CB Radios. They looked like the sets you see in movies about World War II.
Once they sent three of us to cover a World Series game at Yankee Stadium and they wanted us to be able to coordinate with one another because one guy was covering the first base side; another at third; and I was in the press box above home plate. The only problem was that one of the sets was on a different frequency and I had the only set that covered both frequencies. So all the chit chat had to go through me, which didn't give me much time for shooting. Plus, the Night Editor wanted a phone call every half hour and I was the only one with any kind of access to a phone. Even then, I had to leave my camera position and climb a flight of stairs to get to a pay phone in the stadium's mezzanine. It was an excruciatingly dull game, with little or no action. Every half hour I would mount the stairs to call in and report that we had little in the way of action shots. Finally, about the sixth inning, things started to heat up. I missed the periodic phone call. My beeper went off. I knew what was expected of me, but there were men on base so I held off for awhile. "BEEP BEEP BEEP."
I made my way to the phone and called the desk. "Where the hell were you? You were supposed to call in 15 minutes ago," were the shouted words of my Photo Editor.
At that moment, I heard a tremendous roar resound from the stadium.
"Where the hell was I?" I shouted back. "I was about to make some great sports action pictures until I had to leave to make this f---in phone call, that's where I was."
One day, the paper installed two way radios in our cars.These units had the advantage of being detached from the car base and clipping onto our belts. They weren't CB Radios. They were for real, honest to God commercial radios and operated on a special radio frequency reserved for the media. Wow! What progress. We could talk with our desk and we could communicate amongst ourselves. The only problem was that we also shared that particular frequency with one of our competitors; the NY Post. We newspukes from both sides knew one another and we enjoyed chatting with the enemy. It was really funny, though, when one of our desks was onto a hot breaking story. Trying to tell their own staff about it and give the location so as not to tip off the competition was a real hoot. The editors tried to devise all kinds of elaborate codes to get around that problem. But, us newspukes could never be bothered to memorize all of the code. So, the end result was a message to the photographer; "Give me a land line." We were back at square one, using telephones. Maybe we should have used jungle drums.
Cameras got better. We went digital. The radios went digital, too. We got units that were smaller and no longer did we share the airwaves with anyone else.
Just before I retired in 2002, photographers were using digital Nikons and Canons and downloading their images to their laptop computers. You could hook up your laptop to your cell phone and from your car, or wherever you were, you could transmit your shots within minutes of making them, Crikey!
I can remember when I was a kid, I used to read that famous comic strip about a detective named Dick Tracy. He had a radio strapped to his wrist that was no larger than a wrist watch. He could contact his HQ from the field. This was in the ' 40's. "Nah. That's crazy," I thought.
Little did I know.
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