Thursday, January 28, 2010

Honestly, I'm no artist

Is photojournalism art?

There's a fine line.

Many photographers primarily known as artists have produced moving works of important social commentary. Great artists have helped shape and change the way we understand the world around us.

And photographers primarily known as photojournalists have produced finely crafted works of high aesthetic value. The great photojournalists bring creative vision and unique perspectives to the people, events, and issues they document.

Others, like portraitist Mary Ellen Mark, move fluidly between the commercial and editorial worlds.

Should there be a distinction? Well, I say it's always worth discussion because a photographer's intent is important in helping us understand the world through images.

Occasionally, people will see a photograph of mine and say something to the effect,"Scott, you really are an artist," or "Photography really is an art, isn't it?" And as appreciative and flattered as I am, I have mixed feelings.  A little bit of embarrassment. While I don't think I am without talent, I constantly see the work of others who seem to always have a magical way of seeing light, or composition, or color, or way of always finding the beauty or the defining moment in any subject they photograph. It's truly amazing. I'm just not in that league. At least not on a consistent basis.

Others seeing my work as "art" can be a source of frustration, at times. And admittedly, the source of this frustration is the frequently word-centric newsroom culture more than newspaper readers.

I find newsroom jargon entertaining, mostly. References to all head shots as "mug shots." Calling the first paragraph of a story the "lede" instead of lead. Editorial content (the news) is not the same as an editorial (opinion). There are terms like headlines, bylines, cutlines, datelines, and of course, deadlines. Graphs and nut graphs. Kicker heads, drop heads, and mastheads. Typos, jumps, teasers, dummies, and refers (pronounced REE-fer). And don't forget those names need to be CQed (checked for correct spelling).

But there's one term I have come to resent: Art. In the newsroom, art is a blanket term commonly used for any visual element to a story. A typical news meeting conversation may start like this:

"Okay, what stories do we have for the front page? Great. Do we have any art?"

It's usually uttered innocently enough, but it reeks of visual illiteracy. It comes from a mentality that subjugates anything visual to words. It lumps anything not text into a category considered by some to be decorations or window dressing. The term fails to recognize photographs and graphics as news content, with the ability to expand our understanding about stories, to help our readers really connect, instead of simply regurgitating what's already in the text or merely draw attention to a story.

I always hated when an editor or reporter asked me to help them "illustrate" a story. I'm not an illustrator. Instead, I might say, give me an understanding of the story, then let me explore the visual elements of it.

While attending a seminar a few years back, former Dallas Morning News Director of Photography John Davidson explained how he went about changing newsroom culture towards photography. One of the things he did was to ban the use of the word "art" to describe photographs. His superiors backed him up, too. Some may have griped about semantics, but it was a step towards recognizing the importance of photographs in communicating the news.

I can't say how refreshing it's been to work in a newsroom today that calls photographs photographs, graphics graphics, and illustrations illustrations. Each has a unique way of communicating information. They deserve as much thought and recognition for the skill required to produce them as do words.

Anyway, back to intent. An artists uses a medium - paint, clay, words, photography - to express a deeply personal vision. With imagination. Creativity. Skill. Talent.

Great photojournalists bring these traits to their work. And it would be dishonest to say that photojournalists do not bring a point-0f-view to their work. All photography is ultimately an interpretation of what the photographer sees. In journalism, objectivity really isn't the objective ( and that's a frequent misunderstanding about journalism - and the subject of another post, at another time). While the artist has few boundaries and the freedom to change or alter what they see if it better expresses their vision, the photojournalist is bound to a code of ethics that include a commitment to fairness and accuracy in all they portray.

I think what ultimately distinguishes photojournalists from artists is their fundamental role as witnesses to history. While the artist is a voice who reflects and comments on culture through his or her work, the photojournalist gives a voice to others.

Both noble and valuable objectives, in my opinion.

Seriously, I'm not an artist. Not by trade, at least.


  1. Whew, Scott, just trying to define what is art could take until the end of time. Some would classify a great writer as an artist. What about an architect, I'd bet he would not refer to himself as an artist, but people looking at his building might call it a work of art.

    I think it comes down to this: most people don't know what is art, what is a good photo or what is great writing. It's a loosely tossed around term. I think when someone sees something that pleases their senses they call it art, whether it's their kid's drawing from school, or a picture of a cute puppy. They like it, so it's art. And I think what initially draws them to liking the work is the color, contrast or subject matter, not contextual meaning.

    And, I would propose, that when someone sees something hanging in a gallery that they don't understand, they question whether this IS art.

    I think the term art in newspapers is just one of those last holdout antiquated terms left over from the "old days" of newspapers, where photographers were thought of as members of the photo "service" department, and not as journalists, and photographs were required to be much more literal.

    We don't have photo assignments at my paper, we have photo requests, but photos are still referred to as "art." Change comes a little at a time and somtimes very slowy. I am sure if I mentioned the semantics to my coworkers they would agree with me as they rolled there eyes.

    I don't see photojournalists as artists, but more as visual historians. Of course doing this in an artistic manner certainly elevates the impact of the photograph above just standing in front of a scene and recording what you see.

    My thought is that artists create something from nothing, whereas photojournalists interpret what's already there.

    But then, what do I know about art?


  2. You're probably stepping into a big pile of doo doo anytime you try to define art. And I think that's why I tried to frame it in terms of motivation in stead of results.

    I began my post talking about a "fine line," and that's probably not a good analogy. Everything is so fluid these days. You say artists create something from nothing, yet classic painters were attempting to interpret what they saw before photography was invented. How's this for irony - artists frequently create works based on photographs these days. The Obama campaign poster comes to mind.

    Personally, I feel if people are admiring my cleverness or skill, then I haven't quite succeeded as a journalist. If they are talking about the subjects of my photographs, or what conditions are depicted, or the issues brought to light -- then maybe I'm getting somewhere.


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