Q & A:
Richard B. Stolley
November 2009

by Julien Russell Brunet

© Steve Northrup
Richard Stolley on the patio of his Santa Fe, N.M. home.
Richard B. Stolley is one of the preeminent names in American journalism. Over his 56-year career at Time Inc., Stolley spent 19 years at the weekly Life, capturing the events and people of our time, and placing them in perspective for our history. "Life," he once said, "wasn't simply about taking great pictures that knocked your socks off, but taking pictures of human contrast and emotion. We saw violence beyond human comprehension and outstanding incidents of human compassion, and we recorded it all for the readers with such skill that pictures we've seen a hundred times still evoke exactly the same emotions as they did when they were first published." After Life suspended publication in December of 1972, Stolley became the founding editor of People, the most successful magazine in publishing history. Upon his retirement as Editorial Director of Time Inc. in 1993, Stolley was appointed the company's Senior Editorial Adviser.

Last month, Stolley spoke with Julien Russell Brunet about photojournalism – its past, its present, and its future. An edited transcript of the interview appears below.

Q: When you were at Life, was there a sense that you knew that you were covering history? And when you're that close to history, you're also helping to make it?

A: There is no question that was true of Life and, particularly, in the South when I was down there in the late 1950s. I went into the South not quite sure of what I was going to find. I just knew this [the civil rights movement] was going to be an immensely important story and that Life was in a position to shape history. I think that was true of any journalist in the South. But that was particularly true of us. One, we lived in the South. We didn't just parachute in when there was a big story. We were there every day and travelled extensively to many small towns throughout the South. And we were covering the South with both words and pictures. There was no way to convey to the rest of the country and the world what was happening in the South without photographs. That was a very powerful experience for me. More than ever before, I realized the power of the photograph and, particularly, when the photograph was accompanied by words which filled in the gaps. And Life was very tough on the subject.

Q: I understand you identified individuals whenever you could.

A: Yes. In Charlotte, North Carolina, one black girl integrated a high school. Usually they never sent one kid in. There would always be a group like in Little Rock, for instance. In this case, it was one tall, nice-looking girl going in. They had cops there, but they weren't doing anything. So the boys gathered around her and began screaming and spitting on her. I was right behind her. The photographs were very disturbing and revealing. The editor of Life, George Hunt, said, "I want those kids' names." He wanted to identify the boys that were spitting on this girl. The whole point being that their names were part of the story, and I think there was some sense that they would be ashamed when they saw their pictures and names in Life, trying to make life miserable for this poor girl. Of all the magazines and publications that covered the South, Life showed the world what was going on in the South and, perhaps more importantly, showed the South what was going on in the South. I think we helped encourage the good people of the South to accept the rule of law.

Q: Speaking about your work in the South, you once said, "We were showing America what the face of hate and the face of courage looked like. And it helped bring about an understanding and a reconciliation in America that would not have occurred if the Life cameras had not been down there."

A: No question. There is a book called "The Race Beat" by two journalists [Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff] and it's about the role of the press in covering civil rights in the South. They talk more about word journalists. They do cover photographers, but the two authors were word journalists and I think they minimize the role of pictures. Photographers from Life and other publications showed America what was happening. People could read about these events, but the photographs were inescapable. You could describe boys spitting on Dorothy Counts, the girl in Charlotte, but showing that photograph of her in this beautiful dress going in and just three or four feet away these boys were screaming with faces all contorted ... photographs like that explained to America what was happening in the South in a way that words never could.

Q: Is that what you mean when you use the phrase "the majesty of the still picture"?

A: Yes. The majesty and the power.

Q: But for many photographers who grew up in the days of Life and Look, photojournalism as they know it is dead, isn't it? As Dirck [Halstead] wrote in an editorial several years ago Revisiting the Death of Photojournalism, at that time "budgets were not a concern. All that mattered was that the photojournalist came back with meaningful and wonderful images."

A: I wrote the foreword to a new textbook ["American Photojournalism"] about photojournalism by a professor at the University of Indiana [Claude Cookman]. He talks about its impact over the years and I say that, in the sense that it was practiced at Life and Look, there isn't as much of it anymore, no question about that. But I was just looking today – as a matter of fact, it's on my computer screen now – at Time.com and its photo archives and, god, it's just enormous. I am looking at a photo essay called the "Top 10 Doctored Photos." It's really interesting. Looking at all this and at the new Web site, Life.com, I don't know whether you can get away with photojournalism in print anymore, but I think there is a place for it online. There are a lot of photographers out there shooting photo essays and nobody is printing their stuff. But from Dirck's point of view, he is unhappy and he has the right to be. The kind of photojournalism that did change the world in so many ways, there isn't much of it anymore.

Q: Of course, changes have also occurred: television, the emergence of the Internet. Do these changes outshine the negative developments? In other words, will the role of the storyteller – visual storytellers included – be enhanced?

A: It already has been. The 2 billion bloggers, or however many there are now, these are all storytellers. Citizen journalists, these are storytellers. There are more stories being told now than ever before in the history of journalism or the history of storytelling. Now, the problem is that the kind of standards of accuracy and fairness that the journalists in the 20th and 21st centuries think are important to apply to storytelling are not being applied to a lot of these stories.

Q: You mean the problem with reliability? Oscar Wilde once wrote that modern journalism "justifies its own existence by the great Darwinian principle of the survival of the vulgarest."

A: Many of them are just opinions, or made up or Wikipedia facts that turn out not to be true. But that slowly is changing too. Internet storytelling just gets better all the time, whether it is under the umbrella of an established publication or new ones like The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post or Slate. The standards are improving. And, I think, the mainstream media are largely responsible for that because we have said, partly out of self-preservation, that electronic storytelling is dangerous because so much of it is untrue or unfair. And, as a result of that warning, the standards of conventional print journalism are now being applied more and more to Internet journalism and we are all the better for it. This is going to continue. The age of storytelling has never been so robust.

Q: If, as you say, the standards on the Internet are improving, will there be a demand for trained professionals? In other words, is there a future for aspiring journalists or students in journalism school?

A: Yes, I think there is. Right now, we've got two major problems. One is that there is a lot more journalism coming from people who are untrained than there is from those who are trained. That is changing, as I said. The second, of course, are the economic difficulties: until the economy recovers, both print and online journalism are going to continue to suffer. But, are there going to be jobs? Yes.

Q: That's encouraging. Sometimes, the future looks pretty grim. In the July/August issue of The Columbia Journalism Review, David Simon calls on the publishers of The New York Times and The Washington Post to "rescue an imploding industry and thereby achieve an essential civic good for the nation." Simon writes, "Content matters. And you [Mr. Sulzberger and Ms. Weymouth] must find a way, in the brave new world of digitization, to make people pay for that content. If you do this, you still have a product and there is still an industry, a calling, and a career known as professional journalism." Do you buy the pay wall argument?

A: There has to be some way for publications or news generators to get paid for some of their content. But I don't know how to do it. There are three or four experiments going on now. I think sometime in the next five years they will figure this out; people will start paying for some content and it will become an important source of revenue. Newsday, a Long Island (N.Y.) newspaper, has just put all of its online material behind a pay wall. I don't think you can do that because people can get the same kind of news in a lot of other places. Unique contributions that publications can offer the public are the ones that, I think, have the best chance of being sequestered in some way so that you have to pay to get to them. But a lot of very smart people are trying to figure this out. I don't know enough of the details to come up with the plan. But somebody is going to.

Q: Others suggest philanthropists should come to the rescue.

A: That's baloney. Leonard Downie, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, just put out a report ["The Reconstruction of American Journalism"]. They're talking about philanthropy and foundations coming to the rescue. I just don't know why a foundation would do it. You also run the danger of foundations wanting to have some control over the content if they invest a lot of money. Nothing overt maybe, but all kinds of subtle, covert things. I don't think that's an answer. I think some kind of payment system for online content will happen. There will be efforts to do this and, at first, they'll fail. There will be some stumbling around. It may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. There may be a whole variety of ways, but I think it will happen.

Q: Some say the Amazon Kindle will be our saviour.

A: It's possible. But if you are going to get a magazine reader to switch from coated paper to Kindle, it needs to be improved so that the beauty of a magazine – photographs, layout, use of interesting type and all the rest – is reproduced. The Kindle is not there yet. But some of these other reading machines coming down the line may be able to do it.

Q: Does the world still need a picture magazine?

A: My devotion to the still picture is intense. And I think that with the right kind of format, with the right kind of backing, and the right kind of culture, that a picture magazine – one that really stresses the photographic element – could work. In so many ways, television and the Internet have taken over, but I am still a believer in the idea that if you get a magnificent still picture of a news event or of rare beauty or tragedy, people really will want to study it. If you run it big, good quality, it will just stop people.

Q: In spite of having seen it on television?

A: I think because of having seen it on television. It flips by on TV and then the still picture is in front of people and they can look at it and study it. They will. I have seen them do it. Maybe the picture magazine I am talking about will be online. Or maybe, sooner or later, somebody will come along and invent a high-quality, expensive picture magazine that will catch on. I think that's the way magazines are going to survive in the future: have lower circulation and higher prices. They are going to have more select audiences. Magazines do have an affinity with their audiences that no other medium does. Somebody is going to take advantage of that emotional tie and provide a way to showcase the majesty of the still picture that will be successful online or in print – or, God willing, both.

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