Specialization in the Age of the Platypus
Editorial by Dirck Halstead

Our new television contributing editor Amy Bowers writes in her column this month that despite the message of the Platypus, that there is a coming convergence between stills and video, that her experience tells her that a contrary movement is now under way. That increasingly, television shooters are being narrowed down into specialties, with a proliferation in numbers of camera people and crews to handle smaller and smaller aspects of overall coverage. 

I have just completed the first swing of a nation-wide tour doing on-camera interviews with photojournalists, editors, publishers, and television news managers trying to discover what the trends are out there in the country. 

At first, what Amy reports is indeed true. 

I interviewed Douglas Kirkland, one of the legends of photojournalism during the Photo Fusion week at the Palm Beach Photo Workshop. 

Douglas, who started his career on the old LOOK magazine, and then went to the staff of LIFE, bemoaned that the thing that first drew him to photojournalism, the ability to move back and forth between different types of assignments, with an ever-increasing perspective on the world, no longer exists. He finds himself pigeon-holed as a movie or glamour photographer (not a bad place to be), but with little opportunity to spread his wings in conventional magazine photojournalism and take risky assignments that would 
challenge him into new directions. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY photo editor Mary Dunn told us that one of the benchmarks of photo journalists used to be the ability to cope with any type of story that might be assigned. Today, she almost entirely hires photographers with very narrow specialties. " I know that if something were to happen on the shoot... the strobes didn't work, or there was to be a change in the shoot, many of these photographers wouldn't be able to handle it... but unfortunately, that is no longer a consideration." Faced with ever higher pressures placed on the magazine by the demands of the subjects, and the budgets required to do the shoot, the editor must be sure that he or she is dealing with a known factor...that this particular photographer will deliver EXACTLY what is required. 

It is the same thing in television or the movie industry. Doug Kirkland tells of a Director of Photography for a feature who was asked to submit a reel showing how he photographs RAIN.  He assembled a reel from one of his features that featured a rain sequence. The word came back... "But we want NIGHT RAIN !". 

What we are seeing here is ever narrowing selection based on the ability of the photographer to handle one particular subject. 

Traditionally, the PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR selected by the National Press Photographers Assn., was based on a portfolio showing an ability to deal with a wide variety of assignments. Realistically, in today's market, these abilities become counter-productive. 

Having said all this, something else is happening, that is still below the horizon. I visited both the Orlando Sentinel and the Sarasota Herald Tribune in Florida. In both newspapers, we see new cable TV channels becoming part of the newsroom. The photographers of the papers are now shooting video as part of their daily assignments. 

I went on a shoot with Tom Burton, a photographer for the Orlando Sentinel. It was a local theater production that he was shooting for the drama section. Arriving at the theater, he first did his normal still photo shoot, as the players went through various scenes. After about 15 minutes of shooting with his still camera, Tom switched to his Panasonic Mini DV video camera, putting it on a tripod, and shot the same scenes again in video. 

Back at the paper, Tom will print his photographs for the feature section. His video will be cut on the TV station's avid, and be used under a voice-over by the newspaper's drama critic. 

Ultimately the photos and video can be used on the paper's web  site. 

The interesting thing is that he has gotten much more reaction from the public for his video than he does for his stills. 

What we are seeing at work is full utilization of the photographer's craft. 

At the Sarasota Herald Tribune, where the 24 hour news channel occupies one wall of the paper's news room, the photographers talked to us about their experiences with video. At first they were very leery of the experiment. However, as time went on, they began to realize the potential for story telling that goes beyond what they are able to do on a daily basis with simply their photos. 

In interviews with Sam Roberts, the New Media Editor of the NEW YORK TIMES, and Dan Okrent, New Media Editor of TIME INC.., both men talked about the coming expansion of band width for the World Wide Web, and what that will mean for photography. The bottom line is that video will become a dominant means of illustrating their sites. 

So what we have in major league photojournalism, is an ever-narrowing opportunity base for photographers, but just beyond the horizon a new means of telling stories. 

I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. 

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