A celebration of the darkroom ages and a pressing question about the drive to digital: does it threaten the integrity of photojournalism?
Boris Spremo lugged his 125-pound trunk through Toronto International Airport. The Toronto Starphotojournalist was off on a six-week assignment in several countries of famine-ravaged Central Africa. Inside his trunk he’d packed a small retractable enlarger, film-developing chemicals, processing trays, a hair dryer and a thermometer. The photographer, who had dark shaggy hair, also carried a transmitter inside a heavy black briefcase and one small bag filled with clothes and toiletries. His Nikon F3 and half a dozen lenses hung from his neck and shoulders. Even he thought he looked like a Christmas tree. Once in Africa, Spremo set up his darkroom in the hotel bathroom before heading out to shoot. He placed a towel under the door to keep the light out, lined three trays—for developer, fix and water—in the tub and tied a string across the top of the shower to dry his film. Outside, he posted a note for the chambermaids: “Please don’t enter. Just bring the towels.” After a long day of shooting, Spremo retreated to his room, “souped” his film in the developing chemicals and printed the images onto photographic paper. Once he was happy with his pictures, he unscrewed the phone’s mouthpiece, hooked two butterfly clips in place, dialled the Toronto Star’s line, and rolled his prints through the transmitter’s black drum. The process took about eight minutes per picture. At the other end, the images rolled off a similar machine in the paper’s darkroom. The photo editor then chose the most striking, well-composed shot to complement the article.
The process was tedious. “Sometimes I didn’t finish until one or two in the morning, and the next morning I had to be out on the road already shooting for the next day,” Spremo says. “But today it is much easier.” Everything he did in that makeshift darkroom, Mike Carroccetto can now do from a local Starbucks. The freelance photographer for the Ottawa Citizen downloads his pictures of a pumpkin carving contest, the advanced mayoral polls and a ballet rehearsal, from his digital camera’s memory card onto his Apple Macintosh iBook laptop. For these three assignments, Carroccetto took more than 200 photographs. He selects about five or six photos per shoot that have the potential to make the paper. As Spremo did, Carroccetto crops and adjusts the brightness and contrast of his photos before sending them, but instead of doing it in a darkroom, he uses Photoshop. He adds basic cutlines using Photo Mechanic, and he dumps his images into the Citizen’s Merlin archiving system. It takes only seconds and can be done over a latté.
Spremo, who started at The Globe and Mail in 1962, and moved to the Toronto Star four years later, is now 70 and retired after an award-filled, 40-year career. Also retired from photojournalism are film, darkrooms and transmitters. Digital technology has revolutionized newsrooms in recent years and the main tools of the industry are now digital cameras, memory cards and laptops. Many news photographers are pleased to see the end of developing pictures in small, dark, chemical-filled rooms. But this new technology comes with its own dangers. Photographers now have to compete with citizens armed with digital point-and-shoots or camera phones. And with newspapers posting original video clips on their websites, photojournalists may soon become videojournalists. Worse, photojournalists are now under greater scrutiny as more and more people question the authenticity of pictures appearing in print.
Photojournalism didn’t have the most ethical start. In 1855, William Howard Russell, a war correspondent for the Times of London, had been writing accounts of military mismanagement and the soldiers’ insufficient and unsanitary living conditions. In response, Thomas Agnew of publishing house Thomas Agnew & Sons sent photographer Roger Fenton to cover the Crimean War, instructing him to produce photographs that would offset the public’s aversion to the war. Using daguerreotype, an early process that exposed images directly onto silver-coated copper plates, Fenton produced 360 photographs in four months despite developing with dirty water in high temperatures under enemy fire. Some of these photographs appeared in the Illustrated London News. Like Fenton’s photographs, the first newspaper pictures had to be carved into wood to run through printing presses, so they were often unrecognizable.
The Ermanox in 1924 and the Leica in 1925 were landmark developments for photography. The two German cameras had wide aperture lenses that allowed short exposure times for outdoor work. The Leica camera had the added advantage of using 35mm film, which advanced quickly. The technology was not perfected, so Canadian photojournalists stuck with the Speed Graphic, which used four-by-five inch film, from the 1930s to the end of the ’50s. It’s the big, black box-like camera Jude Law’s character, Harlan Maguire, uses to photograph crime scenes in Road to Perdition, a 2002 movie set in the ’30s.
Spremo, whose old Speed Graphic now sits on his office desk in his basement, says it was like a “piece of furniture.” He couldn’t shoot discreetly because it was too large to camouflage and it didn’t have a telephoto lens.
When the single lens reflex camera arrived in the early ’60s, photojournalists finally started using 35mm film. Spremo, who bought his first 35mm, a Pentax S1, in 1961 for $125, says that once photojournalists could use telephoto lenses to shoot from a distance, they could get more candid shots. One result was the rise of the paparazzi in the late ’50s. Tired of dealing with publicists and movie studios, Robert Harrison, publisher of the scandal magazine Confidential, hired freelancers to capture stars on film. By the mid-’60s, Nikon’s super-long telephoto lenses allowed the paparazzi to shoot from afar, making it easier to satisfy the growing obsession with celebrities.
Kodak, Canon and RCA began researching digital technology in the ’70s, but the first cameras weren’t available until the early ’90s. Though early models were bulky, had long shutter lag and could shoot only one or two frames per second, by 2003 the technology had improved enough that most news organizations had switched. Digital cameras allow photographers to shoot without worrying about film costs and to see their shots right away on an LCD screen.
Although the camera of choice has changed over the decades, the power of photojournalism hasn’t. “When you walk across a newsstand, it’s a photo or a headline that grabs your attention, never the text,” says Carroccetto. “Text is text —it always looks the same.” One of the most dramatic news photographs in recent years is Falling Man. Taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew, it shows a man in a white dress shirt and black trousers falling head-first from the World Trade Center. Even the most talented writer would have trouble depicting the despair felt by those trapped in the burning buildings as well as this picture does. Another haunting example is Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of Pan Thi Kim Phuc with her arms outstretched from her naked and burned body as she fled her village after a napalm bombing. The horror of that picture only increased the American public’s aversion to the Vietnam War.
After Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, Spremo travelled with the press on the train carrying the body from New York to Washington. The train kept stopping as people lined the tracks to pay their last respects, so it didn’t arrive until midnight. Kennedy was buried at around 1 a.m. After a night of shooting and developing the prints, Spremo woke up early and returned to the cemetery. Knowing the best shot would be of Ethel Kennedy visiting the grave for the first time, Spremo staked out a spot under a tree about 50 to 75 metres from the grave and waited. Soon other photographers and news crews gathered until military police asked everyone to leave out of respect for the family’s privacy. Not one to abandon a shot, Spremo took off his jacket and press credentials, grabbed one camera and telephoto lens and joined the line of people going up the hill to visit the grave. Each time he passed the grave, he would jump the line and go back up again, circling for two hours before Ethel and her son Joseph arrived. Dressed in a dark suit, with black wrist-length gloves and a scarf draped over her head, Ethel leaned down to place a single white rose on her husband’s grave, while Joseph knelt and crossed his hands. Spremo was the only photographer to get the shot.
Spremo doesn’t think staying at the cemetery was unethical. Emphasizing the importance of being discreet and shooting people respectfully, he says, “You’re there because it’s a news event. You can’t just say, ‘Okay, you kicked me out of the cemetery,’ and that’s it. No way. I’m going to go back again and do whatever I can do just to illustrate that event.” Refusing to name names, Spremo does, however, admit that he’s seen competitors stage photos and remove billboards from backgrounds.
Even though most newspapers have policies in place against manipulating pictures, some photographers have fallen prey to Photoshop’s temptations. Last summer, Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj was covering the Israeli- Lebanon conflict until blogger Charles Johnson publicly exposed the repetition of Beirut buildings and billowing smoke in one Hajj picture. “This Reuters’ photograph shows blatant evidence of manipulation,” wrote Johnson, speculating that it was done using Photoshop’s “clone” tool. Reuters responded by advising news agencies of the discrepancy, severing ties with Hajj and withdrawing 920 of his photos. Hajj told the BBC that rather than doctoring the image, he was cleaning dust off it.
No one bought that excuse though, especially after blogger Rusty Shackleford found a problem with another Hajj photo of an Israeli F- 16. The caption said the plane was firing missiles at the southern Lebanon city of Nabatiyeh, but Shackleford figured out that the warplane was firing flares, not missiles, and that only one of these “missiles” was real. The other two had been “cloned.”
Bloggers, who had already appointed themselves watchdogs over reporters, editors and producers, were now taking on photographers. While the goal of increased transparency in the media is laudable, it may foster greater cynicism about journalistic ethics. “Photographers were always able to manipulate pictures in the darkroom,” says Keith Morrison, a former Calgary Herald photographer who is now publisher of C-ing Magazine, a publication about photojournalism. “But now, as the public gains awareness of digital photography and Photoshop, they have stopped trusting the pictures in newspapers and magazines.”
Alfred Hermida, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism and a founding member of the BBC’s website, says photojournalists shouldn’t fear greater media accountability. Instead, he says, newspaper websites should clearly state the organization’s code of ethics including what types of photo manipulation are acceptable. As for the Reuters debacle, Hermida says Photoshop is a dangerous tool because it allows photographers to distort what really happened. “Photographs are supposed to show a moment in time,” he says, “and ultimately the Reuters photos show a moment that never happened.”
When on location at sporting events in the ’60s and ’70s, UPI technicians would convert deserted change rooms or janitorial closets into darkrooms. “All we needed was water and we would beg, borrow and steal any table we could to put our easel on and make prints,” says Bob Carroll, formerly a UPI photographer and darkroom technician and now the photo editor at The Windsor Star. They would cover the windows and cracks with black garbage bags and duct tape so white light couldn’t creep in. After shooting a roll, a photographer packaged the film in an envelope, wrote simple cutlines on the outside and handed it off to the runners, who took the film to the temporary darkroom. “And then,” says Carroll, “we would process and transmit them in the dumpy little room.”
With his travelling-darkroom days well behind him, Carroll walks through the Windsor Star’s old darkroom one afternoon last November. Once filled with hurried photographers trying to make prints before deadline, it now has an eerie feeling. The old off-white, five-footlong film processor sits in the back room unplugged. Although it hasn’t been an operational part of the newsroom for about eight years, the film-loaders are still in the machine. Rectangular safelights hang from the ceiling. An old container of fix and a loaded reel sit on the bookshelf in the corner. It’s as though the photographer processing the film abandoned it as soon as he received word about going digital. The water basins once used for developing and processing are now filled with old pipes and there are holes in the walls where the pipes used to be connected. Stacks of boxes filled with old negatives fill the counter where enlargers used to sit. Dust is everywhere. Under the cupboards are drawers that house bits and pieces of the old room’s life, including a holder for fourby- five inch negatives, enlarger parts and an empty rum bottle. As Carroll leaves the darkroom, he says, “They’re thinking about changing it into a web room.” Then he chuckles, ironically.
A month later, it’s no longer just an idea— the transformation from a darkroom to a room for producing website projects is underway. The safelights have been ripped from the ceiling and the old processor has been stripped to its bare bones. The film reel is gone from the shelf and the drawers are empty. Even the rum bottle has disappeared. Carroll walks around pointing out doorways they plan on expanding and walls they want to build. He seems excited about the room’s new life.
Not everyone agrees on the wisdom of the changes. “The one thing I miss is that my creativity isn’t being used here,” says Julian Riches, a former darkroom technician and now a photo editor at the Citizen. “My ability was used in those days and you were famous for your ability.” Today, Riches spends his nights hunched over a computer. But WindsorStar photographer Nick Brancaccio prefers digital. “I don’t miss the darkroom at all,” he says. “I don’t miss getting my hands dirty in the chemicals and the headaches. This is much easier.”
Either way, there’s no turning back. After all, the Windsor Star has begun to upgrade its newsroom to keep up with the demands of the time. Many newspapers now post additional photos on their websites. For example, last October, as part of the paper’s series about Alzheimer’s, the Citizen ran a slideshow about Gerry McKee, who has the disease, and his wife Joan.
Pictures of the couple singing at church, walking along the water, and gardening flicker on and off the screen as Citizen photographer Julie Oliver narrates. Instead of picking one shot to run alongside an article, websites give newspapers somewhere to display more of the photographer’s work.
The web not only offers photojournalists another venue, it may transform their role. According to Dirck Halstead, former Time magazine contract photographer and creator of the online photojournalism magazine,TheDigital Journalist, “The business of still photography is dying quickly and still photographers are an endangered species.”
The National Post, the Citizen and other papers already upload original video content on their websites, and Halstead believes more will follow suit. Instead of hiring videographers, he says, photojournalists equipped with highdefinition cameras will shoot video for the web and grab stills for the newspaper.
Halstead’s Platypus Short Courses are weekend workshops that prepare photojournalists for this new role by teaching them the language of television. CanWest photographers attended the workshop in Toronto early this past October. Halstead is optimistic the change will allow these employees “to step up in the newsroom.”
Even as their traditional job faces extinction, photographers must deal with competition from amateurs. “Now every Tom, Dick and Harry can take a decent photograph because of how easy a point-and-shoot digital camera is,” says Peter Robertson, former Toronto Star photo editor. Citizens captured pictures with cellphones after the terrorist bombings in the London underground on July 7, 2005. Though grainy, dull and unclear, the photos were all news organizations had.
Similarly, the first photographs of the Dawson College shootings in Montreal to appear in newspapers were taken by the college’s photography students. “They were there and they had cameras,” says Lynn Farrell,The Gazette’s photo editor, who, like other photo editors, says she’ll use pictures from the public only when it’s impossible for her staff or freelancers to get the same shot.
Carroccetto isn’t worried about the moonlighters because “most of them have good paying jobs,” he says, “jobs that may pay better than mine.” But with the Windsor Star considering adding a page to showcase readers’ photographs and television networks soliciting pictures from viewers, it’s likely we’ll see more amateur work than ever before.
Remnants of the old days—when professional photojournalists weren’t concerned about their changing role or questions about their ethics — fill Spremo’s basement office. There’s a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Spremo wearing khaki pants and a vest with cameras draped from his shoulders and a display case housing his camera collection. His Pentax S1, finger marks worn onto either side of the base where he used to grip it, sits on a middle shelf. The walls are plastered with pictures: Ethel and Joseph Kennedy, Princess Diana’s flagdraped coffin being carried out of the cathedral and Terry Fox wading in the water.
Spremo, who’s wearing a camera belt buckle, pulls out a black case from the closet. Inside is the blue transmitter that accompanied him on foreign assignments. Although he wants to open a museum with his memorabilia, he sold his enlarger because all he needs now is his computer and scanner. Spremo fondly remembers the darkroom ages—it’s been seven years since he retired and he still won’t leave the house without a camera on his shoulder. He feels naked without one. “I miss, you know, photojournalism.” He struggles for the words as his eyes sadden, “But I guess it’s the end of the line after 40 years. It was good.
by Dayna Dayus
Dayna Dayus was the Visual Editor for the Spring 2007 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.