The Digital Journalist

The Platypus Papers
Part One

by Dirck Halstead

A few days ago I received an email from Andrew Tolson, a young photographer who had some questions:

"I work at a small paper in western Canada that gives me a lot of freedom to do in-depth photo essays. The documentary style of photography is where my passion lies and I have been to both the Eddie Adams Workshop and the Missouri Photo Workshop to learn more about journalistic story telling in this tradition. But I would like to take what I have learned in the last couple of years with still photography and try to use a video camera in the same sense. A few questions: Where can I start? Is anybody offering workshops on documentary video like the Missouri Photo Workshop does with stills?

What is the industry standard high 8 camera that the "new breed" of television journalists use? Will I have to re-mortgage my house to get one.?

What does the job market look like for this "new breed."? Can a video freelancer sell a feature story like a still photographer would propose/sell a photo story to a magazine or newspaper?"

In this series of papers, I will address these questions directly.

I was stumped trying to find a title for these lectures until Mark Loundy weighed in on the list with his story about seeing the Platypus.

If you didn't see it, the essence was that until someone discovered the Platypus down in Australia, the biologists had comfortably placed the animal kingdom into distinct categories - birds, mammals, reptiles, etc., but once this new beast appeared, that crossed the lines between the classifications, it threw all the conventional thinking on the subject out the window . . . and the question was, "is there a Platypus in photojournalism ?"

Mark Loundy suggested that I may have "seen the Platypus", and he may be right.

So in sharing some of these views of this strange new breed with you, I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't create some of the same sort of controversy that happened after that sighting down under.

Before we start on this subject, its necessary to take a look around at our profession as we enter the last three years of the century.

On a spring day in 1972, the staff of LIFE magazine were assembled in the auditorium of the Time Life building in New York to be told that effective immediately, the publication that had defined photojournalism would cease publication.

Late that afternoon, the photographers of LIFE were sprawled on the floor in front of their offices on the 28th floor, polishing off whatever bottles of wine they had in the lockers, and talking about what had happened. Carl Mydans, who had photographed the very first photo essay for the magazine, a study of depression-era Texas, mistily said, "I never thought that I would outlive my profession".

To some extent, the newsmagazines tried to take on the mantle of keeping photojournalism alive . . . Time, Newsweek, and US News in this country have somehow managed to nourish the flame though the past quarter century, but as we wound through the merger mania and downsizing of the eighties, less and less resources have been available to the heroic picture editors that have done their best to keep their photographers in the field.

The use of ROP color lost the space that had been available to the magazines when each editorial color page was balanced by a advertising color page. With the loss of that space, the photo essay disappeared, to be replaced by "the big picture", as part of the editorial layout.

Meanwhile, across the country, two and three newspaper towns were watching as papers were consolidated, sold, or just plain closed. We have all heard the mournful roll call as these great publications were put to rest.

The very last big time bastion of magazine photojournalism has been without doubt, National Geographic Magazine. It's masthead has contained some of the great names in our profession . . . William Allard, Sam Abel, Steve Rymer, David Allen Harvey, Jodi Cobb, James Stanfield, and David Doubilet. Their photographs have year after year taken the top prizes in the Pictures Of the Year contest.

With a guaranteed member base, the magazine's coffers have overflowed, yet, between Christmas and New Year, management suddenly terminated all contract photographers. Their offices were closed, and the remaining staff photographers were told that henceforth they would be sharing offices.

As one senior official at NGS told Fred Ward, "35 years ago when I first came to the magazine, we had 35 photographers and one Vice President. Today we have 42 Vice Presidents, and 2 staff photographers."

Yet, as we look across the country, there are more photographers than ever vying for what little space is still left in magazines and newspapers. This has led to downward pressure on pricing . . . as a fundamental law of economics . . . the more supply, the less the cost.

The loss of the form of the photo essay has reduced the image of the photojournalist as a story teller . . . the thing that made him or her standout. OKAY, ALREADY !! ENOUGH !!

That is the last negative thing you are going to read in these posts, as we now go we try to find the Platypus, and see if that sighting can change the way we view photojournalism.


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