The Editors Speak Up

Why Pictures Matter

A Web Chat with David Friend

In June, the Digital Journalist asked David Friend, an industry leader and longtime booster of photojournalism, to talk about the power of pictures in the '90s. Friend, Editor for Creative Development at Vanity Fair Magazine, was Life Magazine's Director of Photography and Assistant Managing Editor until January of this year. (Friend's email address is

Digital Journalist: Many people in this business seem to feel that photos don't really have as much impact on the culture these days as they used to, say, in Life's heyday, during the '50s and '60s. Would you agree?

David Friend: I'm a glass-is-half-full person. I take the view, probably a minority one, that pictures matter MORE in 1998, not less. Sure, I've read the statistics. That a typical urbanite absorbs about 11,000 images in the course of a given day. Last year, Life reported that every day something like 46 million photos are generated in the U.S. alone. These numbers, to some, might induce a sinking feeling, a sense that we're over-saturated with pictures, and that, as a result, the impact of an individual image is diluted. I disagree with this. Instead, I believe that there's an implication here that as a society, we're rather visually astute. As a society, we communicate in extremely visual terms. As a society, we've become comfortable with images, and with the immediate and often emotional gratification that pictures provide. We are now accustomed, and I would even say conditioned, to needing a "picture fix" from many, many media outlets. We're voyeurs. Let's see Michael Jordan sink that jumper ONE MORE TIME. Let's see THOSE FACES--of the refugees as they flee the fighting in Kosovo. Let's see what Monica Lewinsky really LOOKS LIKE. Pictures still move us, day in, day out.

DJ: Do pictures translate well from culture to culture?

DF: Yes. Photos are like the euro--a common currency. Still pictures, in newspapers, magazines, websites, TV, ads, and catalogues, have become an accepted coin of the realm all across our culture and throughout the world. And that currency isn't necessarily devalued because of the so-called glut of images, any more than books, or radio stations, or cable channels, or websites are automatically devalued simply because of their abundance.

DJ: What about the fate of documentary photojournalism?

DF: The situation might seem a bit dire on that front, at least in this country. But, I take a sort of gallows solace in something photographer Brian Lanker once said to me. I was visiting him in Oregon, in the summer of '96. The new issue of American Photo had just arrived. The coverline read: "Is Photojournalism Dead?" Brian just kind of popped and rolled his eyes, as he sometimes does. He said, "David, that's the same coverline they used 15 or 20 years ago, when it was called American Photography Magazine. We've been playing Chicken Little for years! Why do photojournalists think they're any more noble an endangered species than people in any other risky profession?" I guess his point was that, yes, it's bleak. But, if we believe in the values of the tradition, and keep trying to find venues for good work, we'll tough it out and figure out a way to make the pendulum of concerned photography swing back in our favor, somehow, some way, someday. Our kvetching sometimes drowns out the opportunities lurking in the dark out there. Too often people in our business spend so much energy bemoaning our worsening plight that you'd think we were a group of existentialists--or Chicago Cubs fans.

DJ: Some would say you're overly optimistic, David, maybe to a fault.

DF: For some reason, I see a light--a little strobe--at the end of this tunnel. I'm a bit of a dreamer in this regard. Somehow great documentary work and great photography in general, like those weird tube-like plants on the ocean floor, will find a way to wriggle and eke through, into the light.

DJ: Give an example or two. What pictures have really had an impact recently?

DF: First, there's last summer's pictures from the surface of Mars. They helped open our eyes to reconsider our place in the solar system. The scenes, some of them panoramas made from mosaics of pictures pieced together, were captured by a little rover, with a still camera. The lens focused on some piles of old, red rocks. But, it was pure magic. Second, consider the images that keep being beamed back from the Hubble Space Telescope. For years now Hubble has peeled back the secrets out on the edges of the heavens. And that telescope is only in its infancy really. Third, I recall a New York Times headline, last year, when the comet came by: "Hale-Bopp was a Photo Op." Across the globe, amateurs were pointing lenses toward an object that would not pass this way again for decades. People were using photographs to connect to something otherworldly--and to each other--and to past and future generations.

DJ: Fair enough. You make a case for science photos. But, what about news photos? Many say news pictures have lost much of their potency.

DF: Maybe so, maybe no. There may be fewer venues for photojournalism, but great pictures still manage to claw their way to the heart. Take North Korea. There were rumors last year that a famine was sweeping the country. Some were skeptical. The West didn't have any way to VERIFY the tales of starvation since this was one of the world's most "closed" societies. That is, until a photo emerged. It showed three children, looking gaunt and forlorn in a blue-rimmed window. It was published in Newsweek and elsewhere. Once published, the image transformed rumor into reality. Or, take Cambodia, Dirck. You were there last year, right?

DJ: Yes, the New York Times asked me to accompany their reporter, Elizabeth Becker, to do both still and video reporting on Pol Pot (whose political faction had invited the Times coverage, then changed their mind).

DF: Several months ago, reports were circulating that he had died in captivity in Cambodia. One of the masters of modern genocide had just gone like that - blip - in the dark of a jungle night. But people didn't WANT to believe he had shuffled off without a whimper. Then, of course, a photo surfaced. It wasn't until people saw a PHOTO of his corpse—with their own eyes--that the imagined became actual. They needed "evidence," and a news photo provided it. The image, incidentally, was made all the more powerful by the fact that a book and exhibition of Cambodian pictures was touring the world and receiving awards at the time. The exhibition was part of a collection of 7,000 archival portraits of doomed prisoners, before their execution, taken by Pol Pot's henchmen themselves.

DJ: Isn't this just shop talk, though? Do pictures matter to us only because we're in the business?

DF: Pictures matter because they're an integral part of our everyday experience--and many of us just don't realize the hold they have on our lives. This week, the image of President Clinton on the Great Wall was transmitted around the world. The deliberate ease of his posture, even if self-conscious, the fact that he was captured alone with his wife and daughter, visually conveyed the distance we've come since Nixon and Kissinger were photographed, surrounded by officials, trodding these same stones; Clinton, in  contrast, looked less like a political pioneer and more like a statesman-tourist. Last week, a story about the first photo of the AIDS virus, in full attack-mode, made the front page of the New York Times. Last month, the Indian government, paranoid about space-based surveillance cameras, successfully tested a nuclear missile launcher. They achieved this by deliberately timing their preparations to elude spy satellites. Earlier in June, racing fans could tell that "Real Quiet" had lost the Triple Crown--by a nose--thanks to a Photo-Finish camera. My copy of Sports Illustrated this week has an ad for Rogaine hair treatment, and the ad's major assets are before-and-after shots, showing the swirling hairline of Utah Jazz star Karl Malone. Pictures serve as a sort of visual undergrowth in the recesses of our lives. The weather forecast that helped me determine how I'd dress today was created by meteorologists examining sequences of still photographs. The security cameras in my office, my bank, and various public buildings around me, are snapping my picture in a stream of still frames. My wallet contains pictures of my kids, and a photo I.D. that allows the state and national governments to keep tabs on me. My computer screen-saver consists of a virtual slide show of pictures of my family. When I took a spill on my bike last month--on my way to our friend Carl Mydans' house, by the way—an X-ray photo in the emergency room determined that I hadn't broken anything. We're all living our own "Truman Show"--with photographs at the center of it all. The bottom line is, that our culture's addicted to pictures. Pictures are direct, visceral, sensory, and immediate. They just get people's juices going. They're visual Viagra.

DJ: Do you think the average person has an opinion on all this, or even cares?

DF: Look, when Newsweek used a computer to alter the bridgework of the Iowa mother of septuplets last year, it took on a life-of-its-own as a news story. Cab drivers, and receptionists, and commentators were yapping about the digital manipulation of photographs. It's a topic you'd think would be suitable for J-school classes, not the masses. But photographic subjects seem to strike a nerve now. People were talking, last year, about O.J. Simpson's civil trial--which was decided on the strength of 31 photographs--photographs of a pair of Bruno Magli shoes. PICTURES— not DNA evidence--were the key to that verdict. And when John Kennedy, Jr., posed nude for the editor's note of George Magazine, pretending to be Adam with an apple, columnists and pundits spun like tops for the good part of a week. And, last year, I remember the raging debate about "heroin chic" photography. Even the President got into that one, deriding photographic trends in fashion ads and edit spreads. At one press conference, I could have sworn he sounded less like a politician and more like a critic covering the Nan Goldin show at the Whitney.

DJ: The President, and the people who serve him, of course, are always image-conscious these days.

DF: The "photo op," as you know, from all your experience covering the White House, was a creation of Richard Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler, and coined in 1969. Unfortunately, the current administration is a big fan of photo ops--and too rarely allows intimate access to glimpse "real life" behind the scenes. Maybe, if they did, the Clintons would receive more sympathetic treatment from the press corps and the public alike. Don't get me wrong. I'm a big supporter of how the President and First Lady have protected Chelsea's privacy. But we never ever see the First Family today, as Lyndon Johnson allowed Yoichi Okamoto to capture his White House. Or how Nixon gave carte blanche to Harry Benson. Or how Gerald Ford treated David Kennerly. So, the Clintons are image-conscious, yes. But, c'mon. Remember the stink that was raised earlier this year, when the Clintons were caught on film doing a little jig in their bathing suits in a private cove on an island somewhere? The whole White House flap seemed disingenuous. They looked GREAT. The pictures couldn't have come across with better spin if they'd been scripted.

DJ: According to people involved in that incident, it appears that the whole thing was a manipulated event by the White House.

DF: Over the past decade, the Clintons might have faired better, over the long haul, if they had loosened up earlier on their photographic coverage. I know that White House photo director Bob McNeely has been instrumental in getting access for great black-and-white photo-reportage within the corridors of power and the private areas. Harry Benson, P. F. Bentley, David Kennerly, Diana Walker, the White House photographers-- and you, if my memory serves me--have all produced images that shape our understanding of the Clintons. But they've managed these successes DESPITE the White House. Theirs has not been an easy task.

DJ: Now, we have a new photographic furor related to the White House. Tell me about the Monica Lewinsky pictures Vanity Fair just published. You were involved in that, correct?

DF: I just called her lawyers and pitched them on a simple notion. I said that the only images the public had seen of their client showed her in a yearbook-style portrait, or a screen-grab from a blurry video, or a long-lens shot of her sliding in and out of cars. I asked them to ask Monica if she'd like to be photographed by a Vanity Fair photographer. And they got back to me immediately. Like the next day. "She'd be flattered," they said. They agreed, so they said, because they perceived, and their client perceived, that Vanity Fair was a class act. They were tickled with the idea of Herb Ritts doing the shoot. And, I think, they may have believed that even in this digital age, people feel they'll somehow get a fairer shake if they're photographed--as compared to being rendered in words. It's picture power.

DJ: Those pictures caused a firestorm.

DF: So-called experts debated them on TV--before they had even been published. Herb's photo shoot has been depicted in nine--nine!--political cartoons. Can you imagine? Cartoons--based on photographs. And Harry Benson's cover shot of Ron and Nancy Reagan, in that same issue--the first formal photo of the Reagan's in six years--received amazing attention. I'm certain it'll end up being a classic, historic image. Due to the Reagans cover and the Lewinsky photos, Vanity Fair's issue received over a thousand press mentions in newspapers, on TV, etc.--the most ever for a single issue in the magazine's history. That's picture power quantified.

DJ: So, what you're talking about is the power of celebrity photography.

DF: Only in part. What I really want to convey is the power of photography, period. Auction prices for vintage prints aren't rising at record rates for nothing. Bill Gates, and the folks at Getty, and the rest, aren't continuing to acquire photo archives on a whim. There is a recognition in this society, and this economy, that pictures have value. They have an impact. The New York Times is no longer the "gray lady." The Times is having a real influence on our image-consumption and our reaction to pictures now that it's running color, and inventively displaying pictures with graphic flair. Ken Burns has created wonderful television documentaries over the last few years on a string of topics--using still photographs, almost exclusively. According to the new issue of Brill's Content, which I read last night, there were 852 new magazines launched last year. Many of them were packed with images. Disposable cameras and these chic mini-cameras with the Advanced Photo System, and high-resolution portable printers, even these throw-away panoramic cameras, which my kids like using, have altered the course of consumer photography--and our respect for images.

DJ: So, in conclusion?

DF: In conclusion, we are worried, all of us. Photojournalists right now are making wonderful feature stories and news pictures and portraits and shooting personal projects all over the globe--and there are too few venues to publish their work. And we're still feeling the effects of a chill toward this business because of the public's perception, however skewed, of some culpability or contribution, however large or small, on the part of still photographers, in the death of Princess Diana. Because of this horrific, unspeakably horrific incident, and others like it, we are all questioning ourselves and our roles, as we should. In addition, because of a general decline in picture magazines, and in the use of pictures to tell impactful documentary stories in American magazines, we are currently in one of the frostiest periods in this business. But I just believe--and I know I sound like some photo-evangelist--but I just believe that the pendulum will swing back. To more documentary photography. To more "reality," along with the fantasy. In part, it will happen because these elaborate, set-up shoots, with multiple assistants and stylists and all, are just too costly to produce, week after week, month after month. Editors seem to be getting tired of kowtowing to the publicists, issue after issue. Already, we're seeing the shift on television: the network newsmagazines, ostensibly reality-based shows, are expanding their prime-time exposure from one or two--to four, and maybe five nights a week. It's more riveting television than the alternative--and it's cheaper to produce. So the dreamer in me asks, naively: Why not a trend toward a modest commitment to reality-based photography on the printed page as well?

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