What’s wrong with this picture?

By Hartley Butler George
Depends whom you ask . . . a look at the relationship between photojournalism and artistic photography.

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Related Links: But is it Art?Take a look at some photojournalists whose work treads the grey area between art and reportage …

James Natchwey

Margaret Bourke-White

Paolo Pellegrin

Larry Burrows

Bill Luster

Sam Abell

Todd Korol

Eric Hayes


By Hartley Butler George

Art and journalism. Mentioning both in one breath can lead to a string of near hang-ups, unanswered emails and lengthy conversations that play out more like a wrestling match of words than an interview, leaving both opponents bitter. But the question is really quite simple; is it important to keep photojournalism and artistic photography separate? When it comes to news photography, does the journalistic purpose leave little breathing room for artistic sensibility? Many of the skillfully crafted photo spreads in daily newspapers and news magazines would not seem terribly out of place on a gallery wall. In fact, more and more we see photojournalists’ work finding homes in art exhibits across the nation. So what do we make of this grey area between valid news and art piece? Colourful opinions fill the spectrum.

Kitra Cahana, a Montreal-based photojournalist who has worked for the New York Times and USA Today, recently
wrote an article tackling this sticky subject, titled “Photojournalism as Art” for Lightstalkers (an online forum for journalists and photographers). In it, she argues that photojournalism and art share a lot of common ground because they are both expressive forms, they deal with moral truths and share a similar set of narrative qualities and esthetic ideas. Arguably the only difference is that photojournalism is more concerned with content, documenting information and conveying facts to the public.

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Some believe that, like written journalism, images should be impartial and accurately capture the reality of a situation in order to satisfy the journalistic goal of informing. This can mean, for example, steering clear of extremely high or low angles that give a sense of power or weakness in the viewer-subject relationship. It can also mean something as simple as not straying far from authentic tones or colours, not altering lighting that can affect the emotional quality of a piece or not bending the focal length so more is visible to us than would be to the human eye. From this view, pictures made for the sake of reportage should be done in a shoot-and -transmit manner and put as simply as possible to present the most unmediated, straightforward depiction of a moment.bgeorge1_01.jpg

As photographer David Alan Harvey said in an interview for National Geographic Photography Field Guide: Secrets to Making Great Pictures, “You can get so caught up with your style that you destroy the subject . . . I prefer journalistic integrity where style does not overwhelm content.” He says he tries to keep his work “all straight.”

Eric Hayes, who has been a photojournalist since he was a teenager in western Canada’s Okanagan Valley, believes that “news photography should be unbiased and neutral like writing. You have to get out of the way so that the picture can tell a story, not use smoke and mirrors and tricks.” One of his biggest pet peeves is when news photographers go out with the intention of making their work “artsy.” Hayes spent his early career documenting the lives and performances of some of the biggest names in rock and roll history, including Lennon, Jagger, Hendrix, Joplin and Dylan. He toured with Joe Cocker (he is responsible for two of the photos on the back of his legendary album With a Little Help From My Friends), photographed the Rolling Stones at the Olympic Studios and worked for publications such as Maclean’s, Canadian Living, Canadian Business and Atlantic Insight.

Hayes believes in the possibility of fusing the two types of expression. Much of his work, including two of his covers for Rolling Stone Magazine, have been featured in Halifax’s ViewPoint Gallery and the Sherman Hines Museum of Photography in Liverpool. “People now say that my photographs of Hendrix are artsy,” he says, “but at the time I was just doing my job.”

On the other hand, Conrad Duroseau, a Canadian photojournalist and documentary photographer who is in his fifth year of teaching photojournalism at Concordia University, believes that art and photojournalism couldn’t be further apart.
“Photojournalism is not an area where someone has the opportunity to express themselves, or take expression, or show their artistic point of view,” he says, “but rather to communicate things that are important because of large consequences, or of proximity, or the people in the photos are prominent. It is not the venue for photojournalists to express their personal artistic side.”

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The topic becomes more sensitive when discussing photographs about human misery, such as war or famine. As Cahana asks, “is there something wrong with photojournalism when it presents ugly truths with such beauty?” Some take offence when beauty and suffering are connected, believing that the execution of a picture can distort the message of horror behind it. If for example, a picture of a person dying from AIDS seems to focus more on the colours of the sunset behind them, or the way their shadow falls, a moral component comes into play. There is a belief that to infuse artistic elements into a photo such as this is to beautify misery and disregard both the subject and the message, in favor of aesthetics. Some call this sensationalism and perceive these pieces to fail as journalism.

In 2002, James Nachtwey of Time Magazine gave a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society in London in which he addressed the issue.

“I’m not sure that there is anything beautiful about a starving man. I try to make a picture that is eloquent, powerful, that will reach people very directly, not filtered through too many artistic devices, and is accessible . . . If there is beauty there, it is not the beauty that I made; it is beauty that exists. Maybe seeing beauty and also recognizing the suffering makes the suffering more accessible to you.”

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In sharp contrast to this opinion is the debate that creating aesthetically pleasing photography does not mean making the subject matter subordinate to the art but in fact,bgeorge3_01.jpg that creative insight makes an image more compelling and therefore more powerful. Some photographers believe that one can engage the viewer best by presenting an image that is aesthetically interesting, without sacrificing its news value for the sake of art. By evoking emotion through stylistic choices they are able to communicate better, and hence the image is more effective.

Micheal Creagen, an instructor of photojournalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, sees photography as art and emphasizes the importance of creativity and the understanding of basic artistic principals in his lectures.

He believes that presenting news artistically does not compromise the news value but rather “enhances it” because these elements can guide the viewer to see the work the way the photographer wants them to. In fact, he thinks that photojournalism suffers when it is not combined with creative elements.

“What happens after a while is that news photographers get locked into certain formulas that they know newspapers want and that people expect,” he says, “and a lot of the time the best photograph is the one where somebody had broken those rules about formulas and have come along and said lets try this or lets do something different here . . . even though they are news photographers, they are approaching it from an artistic point of view. So I think that it’s important to be an artist first and then be a news photographer second.”

He feels that news photography is just a sub-genre of art photography, because photography is art when the “right people” do it. “The best news photographers are going to bring creative or artistic elements to their work,” he says, ” . . . the most powerful work are the ones that combine content and form.”

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So can a photo be both journalism and art? Hayes says that he first noticed the merging of art and news photography ten years ago, when he went to the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto. “I wanted to see the gallery because I was starting to think about photography as art and when I went there I was just blown away. It was all done by photojournalists. There were black and white photos taken in Salvador, pictures of troupes, kids and people hiding and street scenes, much like the war photography done in Iraq . . . and I thought to myself ‘Hey photojournalism is art, and here’s proof. One of the biggest names in the business is working at this.'”

bgeorge2_01.jpgThere have in fact been photojournalists who have found legitimacy in both the art and journalism world. James Natchwey and Sebastião Salgado, are examples of photojournalists whose creative artistry has put their work on some of the finest art gallery walls in the world. Legendary American photographer Margaret Bourke-White was famous her artful compositions that chronicled the machinery of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Her work has been sold in art auctions and featured in the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York to name a few.

Todd Korol, an Alberta-based photographer who has done assignments for Sports Illustrated, Time, Canadian Geographic, The National Post and The Globe and Mail, believes that there are “definitive lines” between journalism and art photography. “Our work may transform into art but photojournalists want to wear that hat first,” he says, “If their work ends up on a gallery wall and people looks at it and view it as art, all the better.”

For some, the emergence of photojournalism in galleries is not enough to give it authority as “art.” Duroseau of Concordia says, “I don’t see how [photojournalism and art] mesh. Fine art has nothing to do with it. The methodology is separate. One is an artistic view, the other communicates something newsworthy and is about wider issues that people need to reflect of act upon. They are not remotely in the same sphere. They can appear to meet only in the venues in which they are both displayed.” He does believe, however, that “some images can transcend all categories . . . the amount of information and way they are presented can communicate from all borders. Some images can be perceived as art because they are well-executed and well crafted.”

Erina Duganne, art curator and Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow in the History of Photography at Williams College (Massachusetts), says that the relationship between art and photojournalism is something that interests her “immensely.”

In 2005, she organized the William’s College exhibit Photojournalism/Personal Journalism in conjunction with an undergraduate course she taught of the same name. “In the history of photography, scholars frequently discuss photojournalism and fine art photography as separate and discrete categories,” she says. The exhibit attempted to investigate how the line between the two has become increasingly blurred. She thinks labeling photographers as photojournalists or artists “serves to pigeonhole their work” and “masks the complex set of assumptions and beliefs upon which these categories actually depend.”

As photographer Dorothea Lange so profoundly said, “There is no real warfare between the artist and the documentary photographer. He has to be both.” (Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years, Marianne Fulton)