The Digital Journalist
Heroes and Legends
August 2007

by Peter Howe

Jeanette Chapnick died today. For the ever-increasing segment of the photo community that is younger than I, and for those reading this outside of the United States, please allow me to explain who she was, and why her passing is important. She was the widow of one of the giants of our profession, Howard Chapnick, and it's a sad reflection on our memory span in this information-overloaded age that many of you reading this may not know who he was either.

In an era when the words "hero" and "legend" have been so overused as to render them virtually meaningless, Howard was both. He worked his entire career at Black Star, the photo agency, and was its director for many years. He launched and guided the careers of more great photojournalists than probably any other single person in the 20th century. He was one of those rare people that you never heard anyone say anything bad about. At least I didn't, and I've heard most people say bad things about almost everybody in photography. He used to say that during his life he had one job and one wife, the implication being that both were more than enough for him. Jeanette was the one wife, whom he loved with the same passion that he brought to everything. Even towards his end, when he was wheelchair-bound from the terrible effects of Lou Gehrig's disease, they were like teenagers on their first date.

I first met Jeanette when I came to live in the United States early in 1979. I had been shooting in and around Europe for Sipa Press in Paris when the opportunity arose to do the same for them in this country. Having been fascinated by America for many years, and a frequent visitor to its shores, I jumped at the possibility. There was only one problem with the arrangement. Sipa was owned, run and got its name from Goksin Sipahioglu, who may be the only other person to have launched as many careers in photography as Howard. He was, however, and probably still is, a rogue of major proportions, although a wonderful one who to this day brings back many warm memories. He was born and brought up in Turkey, and ran his agency on the same business principles as a rug dealer in Istanbul. Money to him was a flexible concept, and getting it out of him in the late Seventies was as hard as getting a grammatically correct sentence out of George W. Bush today. It was possible, but infrequent and random. It also often necessitated paying a visit to him in his enormous office in Paris, not a problem if you lived in London, but more so if you were based in New York.

The solution to this predicament was in the unlikely form of a short, feisty woman called Jeanette Chapnick. In 1979 there were two situations that operated in my favor. The first of these was that two Iranian brothers, Reza and Manoocher, were shooting for Sipa, covering Iran's theocratic revolution and the hostage crisis in Tehran that it precipitated. Their photographs were in high demand, especially for the American newsweeklies, and they generated a considerable amount of income. Fortunately for me this revenue flowed through the second favorable situation, Black Star, Sipa's sub-agents in New York. At the time Goksin had tried to convince all the U.S.-based shooters that the French government was preventing him from sending money to foreign lands, especially America, much as he wanted to. When Jeanette heard about this she came up with a wonderfully simple solution. She would take the money that Reza and Manoocher's work earned and use it to pay the Sipa photographers in this country. Goksin would then pay them through the money that we had been earning over here. It was an uncomplicated formula that worked brilliantly and saved me from homelessness and near-starvation.

It also highlights one of the ways in which this profession has changed since those days. Working with Black Star, even if you weren't one of their photographers, was to be involved in a family business. Actually it was a lot more pleasant and functional than most real families, and, although some of the relatives were a little weird, you felt taken care of. The Chapnicks really cared for you and your profession; it wasn't a job, it was a commitment. They were among the last of their generation of 20th-century humanists, and they both passionately believed that photojournalism existed to serve humanity. It was never about money as an end in itself, but as a means of continuing what you and they did, and also because getting paid meant that you weren't being exploited. Howard even went after Andy Warhol when he discovered that he had used a photograph of a Black Star photographer, Charles Moore, as the basis for one of his paintings, "Red Race Riot," a silkscreen of Moore's photograph. At the time Jeanette was quoted as saying, "Howard has eagle eyes. He might not remember what he had for breakfast but never forgets a picture." All the photographer and Black Star got out of the settlement was two of Warhol's flower prints, but Howard felt that justice had been served.

The period during which Howard and Jeanette worked, lived and breathed photojournalism was a remarkable era in the profession. They experienced its golden age, when assignments from Life, Time, Newsweek, Look and others were a reliable and sustainable source of income. They were also there for its decline in the late Eighties and early Nineties, and even got to see some of the possibilities of its renaissance through digital technology. Howard became an enthusiastic, although inept, user of computers and the Internet. He was not so much a Digital Tourist as a Digital Alien, but he enjoyed his forays into cyberspace. Towards the end of her life Jeanette and I communicated by e-mail more than through any other form of contact. They remained, however, characteristically of their generation. They looked like any other conventional Jewish married couple, but inhabited the world of photojournalists with aplomb. Nothing seemed to faze them, whether it was Donna Ferrato at one memorable dinner asking Jeanette whether she was mono or multiple orgasmic, or Howard getting back from his editor the finished manuscript of his book Truth Needs No Ally with the note "Voi-fucking-la." They were, in fact, ordinary people who were larger than life.

Tom Brokaw termed their generation The Greatest Generation for its sacrifice and courage during the Second World War, and in the world of photography it was a group that produced some colossal figures, most of whom are now gone. The remarkable John Morris, like the Ever-Ready Bunny, keeps going and going in Paris; Cornell Capa silently suffers the ravages of Parkinson's disease in New York; the irrepressible Goksin talks about starting a new agency at the age of 80 after selling Sipa a few years ago. One of my favorite Goksin stories was from the time when Corbis were actively courting him to sell to them. When he decided against it he was asked why he hadn't taken what would have been an attractive offer. His dismissive reply was that he would never do business with people who ate sandwiches for lunch. No wonder they gave him the Legion d'Honneur this year.

Unfortunately many of us eat sandwiches for lunch nowadays, both literally and metaphorically. It is a different time, lived at a different pace and with different priorities, and in celebrating the achievements of the past we should not overlook those of the present. But neither should we forget that the ideals that Howard and Jeanette held dear, those fundamental truths of humanity, compassion, and justice upon which they based their lives and their careers are the same credos that must carry forward into the new world, for without them the technology that can reinvigorate this profession is just meaningless code.

At her request, and completely in character, there will be no memorial service for Jeanette, except for those of you who take your cameras out of the bag tomorrow and shine light in dark places.

© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor