Julie Tanenbaum
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The Final Frame

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Twilight descends on the luminous art of photojournalism

To see life, to see the world, to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things—machine, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon’…to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.

So wrote Henry Luce in his 1934 prospectus for a new magazine called Life. His understanding of the power of the image continues to define the photojournalist’s mandate today.

The work of the visual journalist is invaluable. When television cameras rush through a scene, the still camera lingers, cutting to the core of an issue, isolating single moments of truth that become etched indelibly in our minds. Despite the strength of the photojournalistic image, the Canadian magazine reader is left hungering for more than a glimpse of it. For today, it is largely the set-up shot of the commercial illustrative photographer, not the fieldwork of the photojournalist that dominates the Canadian magazine page. Perhaps in light of a national magazine market plagued by extreme cutbacks and American saturation, it’s not surprising that most magazines opt for studio photography, which is cheaper, faster, familiar.

Now, in addition to all this, technology is dealing photojournalism a major blow. The electronic media that are hailed as the saviour are in fact hastening the death of the photojournalist as news gatherer. Technology is challenging the notion of the image as truth, while a valuable form of reportage is quietly slipping away without notice.

There was a time when photojournalism reigned. While its Golden Age is long over, photojournalism’s stint in the limelight was revolutionary, awakening and historic. The era began in the United States in November 1936 with the introduction of what is considered the model of the picture-story genre: Life magazine. Frightening, exciting, amusing illuminating images of the world awakened the consciousness of an audience once glued to the radio dial.

Through few are aware of it, Canada had what could be considered a Silver Age of photojournalism. Little of it has been documented, few would recognize the names or works of its Canadian pioneers and its success relied heavily on government support. Its beginnings go back to the end of World War I, when the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau created a still-picture division to provide government departments with photographs of Canada. Under the guidance of the National Film Board, founded in 1939, the still-photography division’s role expanded, and it began to supply Canada’s newspapers and Life-inspired publications such as the Star Weekly and Weekend magazines with images of ware, poverty, travel and the human experience. Until 1984 (when the government transferred all photo services to the archives and various museums), the National Film Board played a principal role in discovering, supporting and promoting talent in Canada—notables such as Richard Harrington and his poignant portraits of Inuit life; Kryn Taconis and his quietly truthful pictures of the Crystal Spring Hutterite colony in Manitoba; and other gifted photographers such as Sam Tara, Tom Gibson, Horst Ehricht, Michel Lambeth and Ted Grant.

In North America, the photographic monopoly over the public’s imagination and appetite for information ended with the advent of television. By the late 1950s, retailers became always of television’s exploding audience and began rechanneling advertising dollars from the printed page to the television screen. The original Life folded in 1972 and other weekly pictorial magazines soon followed. TV’s instantaneous, mesmerizing coverage bumped the magazine, and consequently the photojournalist, out of place as the primary source of news and entertainment.

Today, the 24-hour CNN feed, the satellite dish serving up hundreds of channels and the rise of tabloid television dominate news delivery. What has allowed photojournalism to survive at all is the still image’s advantage over television—its power to fix a scene within a frame, leaving a clear, strong and lasting impression. Ron Poling, the chief of picture services at Canada Press, explains the hire of the still print: “Take, for example, the image of Jean Chrétien with his hands around the demonstrator’s neck. That was actually a TV image, but we managed to take a still from that video. What people remember is the still image, not the moving video. The power of the still image has not in any way diminished because of the electronic media.”

Over the decades, magazines have relied on the work of the photographer to provide stirring, memorable images. There is little mystery surrounding the work of the concept photographer—studio sessions are often dictated by an art director’s grocery list of desired shots. But when it comes to understanding what the photojournalist does, few see beyond the stereotypical image of the wild-eyed, fatigue-clad photographer dodging mines and mortar fire. In reality, the camera-toter can’t rely solely on heroics: journalistic instinct, storytelling ability, a fast shutter finger and a dedication to in-depth projects are essential. Photojournalism is not limited to international, war-torn panoramas—compelling, disturbing and surprising stories also hail from across the country, across the province, across the street. Yet photojournalists continue to struggle for recognition as visual reporters whose work is more than mere illustration for text. The most-decorated Canadian photojournalist, winner of numerous World Press awards of excellence, Larry Towell, is tired of feeling relegated to the bottom of the journalistic ladder. “A writer is a god and a photographer is not seen as an author,” says Towell. “The photographer goes out and does all this work to come up with a beautiful image. Often a journalist is hired who has never been to where the picture was taken to write the central part of the piece. In the end, the photographer’s name ends up under the staple.”

Apart from an editorial mentality that routinely undervalues photojournalism, the fact that survival tops the Canadian magazine wish list works against the visual reporter. Former Equinox editor Jim Cormier says the high costs (both time and money) of financing in-depth fieldwork prevent most magazines from using photojournalism regularly. “It’s tough to do sufficiently compelling and interesting journalistic photography ever single issue when you’re working with Canadian budgets,” he explains. “Equinox paid as much as $12,000 to $14,000 for a feature, which is really high compared to a lot of text-based magazines that pay $6,000, or $8,000 at most. But even when we paid that, these photographers are working on projects that can cost them as much as $40,000 to $60,000.” This leaves the photojournalist to find alternative ways to finance projects.

Canadian photojournalist Robert Semeniuk spends months at a time dedicated strictly to arranging funding for his ambitious photographic excursions. As a result, he has worked in more than 80 countries, documenting stories such as the psychological effects of war on children, the struggles in Angola and the lives of Canadian Ukraininans. “On ’Landmines: The Devil’s Own Device,” Equinox paid me to go to one country. I went to five. I got money from World Vision, from the United Nations, ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) flew me all around Afghanistan, a mining company supplied me with accommodation and transportation, and so on.”

Regardless of the time and know-how expended, there are reasons beyond photojournalists’ control why magazines overlook their work. Vancouver magazine editor Jim Sutherland explains that his magazine’s reliance on advertising restricts the space available, thus limiting the use of photojournalism to no more than a few pages annually. “To work well, most photojournalism requires double-page spreads. We have quite a high advertising ratio, which means that we get between five to 10 double-page spreads in our entire magazine,” he says. “And we have a commitment to do fashion. That also requires double-page spreads and will typically take up three of them. We’re really left with no room to play with.”

Equinox has also had difficulty packaging photojournalism. According to Jim Cormier, “There were a couple of mechanical problems in making photojournalism work dramatically. The physical paper size was shaved two or three times in the last seven or eight years in little increments, which eventually means you don’t have the kind of dramatic-feeling object in your hands.” As well, he adds, a perfect-bound magazine is limited in its design approach—photos don’t run effectively across gutters and arrangement tends to be more grid-like and static.

Layouts and budgets aside, there are deeper causes that explain why the majority of magazine stories are illustrated with highly stylized photographs. Steve Simon is a photojournalist and professor of photojournalism at Loyalist College, Canada’s only program dedicated to the craft. He attributes the rise in editorial-type photography largely to a lack of schooling on the subject: “At journalism schools like Ryerson and Carleton, photojournalism is just a passing mention, whereas in the United States you can receive a degree specializing in photojournalism. I think part of the problem is that the journalism industry is controlled by people who have come up through the system without any kind of formal education regarding photojournalism.” Simon doesn’t think editors consciously downplay the work of photojournalists, but does attribute the lack of attention to an ignorance of exactly what the craft is an the potential impact it can have.

Steve Simon’s concern about the profession’s obscurity is shared by others. According to Toronto photography dealer Jane Corkin, owner of the Jane Corkin Gallery, Canadian magazines do now use the photographic image well because they don’t know who the Canadian photojournalists are and fail to check with the marketplace. “They want to make their own decisions. If I were canvassed by a magazine, I could give them a better name than the person they hired (the art director) to find the name,” Corkin says. “I’m on the best of that market every single day. I know who’s in, who’s out, who’s making good work today, who made better work yesterday.” Jim Cormier agrees that there is a community of photojournalists that Canadian magazines aren’t aware of. “I just don’t think the contacts and connections are there,” he explains. “I think a lot of art directors aren’t used to working with photojournalists and are totally used to working with concept photographers, portraitists and style people who have a lot of studio techniques. It may be that it’s almost like a culture clash.”

Differing approaches are typical of the designer-photojournalist relationship. Some photojournalists expect to have a say in how their work will be laid out in a magazine. But in most cases, determining the usage and placement of the photographs is not a collaborative effort. Margaret Williamson, the photo editor at Canadian Geographic, says this is how most magazines operate. “The photography that comes in on assignment is raw material. What we do with it in terms of the layout and how we play it out is what a magazine does, not what photographers do,” she says. “The same way that when a writer sends in text, our editors spend countless hours on it. It’s cut, pasted, material is sometimes added, sometimes the writer has to do a rewrite. In the case of photography, unless I was going to manipulate a photo, there’s no need to get approval. The design and layout of it is our business.”

While some photojournalists are angered by the drop-off-the-photos-and-you’re-done approach, others are more pragmatic and agree with Williamson. “I think the designer has a job to do and the photographer has a job to do. They have to respect each other.” says Vincenzo Pietropaolo, whose work has appeared in Saturday Night and Toronto Life. “Because these are so few magazines, you don’t want to get a reputation as being difficult. You can’t just leave one magazine and go to the next because there is no next one.”

The Canadian magazine market where photojournalists can sell their work is limited predominantly to Equinox (though less so since its sale last August to Malcolm Publishing) and Canadian Geographic. According to Williamson, Canadian Geographic has slowly been dedicating more space to photojournalism and has consciously moved toward using one photographer per story coupled with a strong photo-driven narrative. She points to the September 1996 article on Yonge Street’s 200th anniversary celebrations where Andrew Danson’s work was features exclusively. “It’s the kind of story that maybe five years ago, it would have been done using stock. Or I’d call up 20 photographers in Toronto and have a mishmash of whatever the subject was. I find that approach so scrapbook. It has no visual continuity.”

Beyond Equinox, Canadian Geographic and the fine art publications that occasionally feature photojournalism (Border Crossings, Canadian Art, CV Photo), some Canadian magazines have attempted to go beyond a dependence on newswire photo services, but with little success. An extreme example of cutting loose from the CP-AP Reuters reliance was the quarterly magazine. This Country Canada, first published in the summer of 1992. The magazine resembled Life—glossy, oversized and photo-driven—and vowed to feature photographs showing “the wonderfully disparate conditions of historic and contemporary Canadian life.” It was to be a celebration of Canadians and their country. But as early as its third issue, editions began coming out erratically because as the then-publisher wrote in a letter to subscribers, “We have had a difficult time attracting the type of advertising support required for a publication of this quality.” By the fall of 1995, the magazine had folded and been resurrected three different times under a variety of owners. As of mid-January 1997, the phone lines for This Country Canada were disconnected despite earlier rumours of distribution and financing deals with Air Canada and Kodak Canada.

Money wasn’t the only barrier to The Country Canada’s success. Despite a claimed paid circulation of 200,000 (although industry insiders believe circulation was more like 9,000), the old-style photojournalism magazine struggled in anonymity. Those who valued the publication were the photojournalists whose work it featured, such as Vincenzo Pietropaolo: “It promoted our work. Instead of two or three pages, the photojournalist was given between 10 and 12 pages with no advertisements in between to interrupt the photo essay.” But according to Margaret Williamson at Canadian Geo, this was actually one of the magazine’s shortcomings. Some of the photo packages, she says, were aesthetically weak, uninteresting and extremely long. In the Summer 1996 issue, for instance, the five cross-country photo essays occupied over 60 percent of the magazine: Côte-des-Neiges in Montreal (10 pages), Race Rocks near Victoria (10 pages), hand-crafted canoes in New Brunswick (10 pages), bread baking in Toronto’s Dufferin Grove Park (12 pages) and dog training in Vancouver (10 pages). While Vancouver magazine editor Jim Sutherland thinks the photography was good, he says it was “deliberately unsexy,” and that he couldn’t imagine finding much of a market for it.

The market that does exist—Equinox and Canadian Geographic—is not big enough to sustain the country’s photojournalists, who must turn instead to lucrative European magazine titles where exposure in French, Italian and German magazines has gained Canadian photojournalists, particularly Larry Towell, international reputations. Many photojournalists are also channelling their efforts into book publishing, where they can fuse together an extended photo essay with text to cover events overlooked by the mainstream press. As well, the Canadian art community, including galleries, museums and private collectors, has developed a well-defined, supportive audience for the work of photojournalists. “When I think that I run a multimillion dollar business out of Toronto selling photographs, that’s pretty amazing,” marvels Jane Corkin. “When I started out (in 1974), I couldn’t sell a photograph for $100. Now it’s not cool not to have photos, not town them.”

The most recent venue for photojournalism—digital technology—is revered as offering the digital reporter limitless possibilities such as the Internet and CD-ROM. But in the larger scheme, the latest technology is jeopardizing any future the craft has in the print world. Admittedly, technology does have its advantage—the speed with which images can now be sent to publications is unparalleled. Robert Silvers is the digital imagist who created the cover for Life magazine’s 60th anniversary collector’s edition, which portrayed Marilyn Monroe’s face using a mosaic of Life issues. “Photojournalism is flourishing because it is so quick to beam images through computer networks. My cover was sent to Life through the Internet because it was even faster than FedEx,” says Silvers. But the benefits of immediate transmission aren’t going to safeguard what is essential to the survival of photojournalism in magazines: the age-old notion that photographs inherently portray reality.

Computer literate readers know that the digital darkroom can seamlessly and radically shift the meaning of a photograph in ways that past techniques couldn’t even approach. Photojournalist Steve Simon predicts that the new-found fluidity of the image will erode photojournalism’s truth-telling claims: “There seems to be two standards in journalism. You’d never think to change the facts of a story, but when it comes to pictures, especially in magazines, there seems to be a very lax attitude when it comes to using the new technology to move things around or change the actual photo. When people have a hard time knowing what’s real and what’s not, you have trouble in journalism.”

Incidents of abuse (Time magazine’s infamous cover on which it altered O.J. Simpson’s skin colour, for example) have brought about the need to distinguish visual fact from fiction. “If you’re altering the position of something within the frame or removing objects from a frame, the audience should be told,” says Toronto gallery owner and photojournalism dealer Stephen Bulger, who supports using an icon to educate the public. While few magazines acknowledge the digitally altered photograph. The Globe and Mail and NOW magazine credit multiple photographers or artists and label images as photo-illustration.

Regardless of how a photograph is labelled, the credibility of the image can never be entirely restored. The once-truthful photograph has lost its status as newsworthy and as a result has been relegated to the role of illustrative add-on or object d’art. Photojournalist Vincenzo Pietropaolo is not optimistic that the profession will be able to break out of this status. “If you’re a younger photographer and you look at magazines, you’re going to get influenced by these magazines. I remember when I was 20 years old, I was looking in magazines at the work of Eugene Smith and people like that.” He is saddened that today’s aspiring photographers will never know the potency of photojournalism as it once was.

A few champions continue to hold tight to the ideals that attracted them to this news-gathering pursuit. These are the veterans who remember the power and impact photojournalism can have in magazines. But even for them, staying true to this vision in becoming nearly impossible. Henry Luce’s words fade before our eyes as photojournalism quietly disappears—and photojournalists can’t do a thing about it.

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