The gray area binding these explicitly different modes of photography allowed me a great deal of liberty when it came to covering assignments given without a specific needs by the city desk. In spite of this, making critical statements about work for hire is challenging. In “The Business,” the underlying implications that help substantiate a body of art are rarely considered, so your images stand or fall solely on their visual merits.
As a photojournalist, it happened frequently that the images I felt expressed the crux of a situation were haplessly filed away or, in later years, simply deleted; John Tagg feels my pain… Often enough, these same photos won in state competitions at the end of the year (one of my bosses was once named Photographer of the Year by our state’s news photographers association, though not a single image from his 20-piece portfolio had ever been published).
But just like your local church, police department or Girl Scout troop, the function of a newspaper is to make money. So acting on the notion that some mid-level manager knows more than the photo desk, the product frequently lacks any resemblance of what one’s hopes for it might have been. As a metro-daily photo editor once said, “That’s what I find most frustrating, that we spend hours agonizing over a product that still looks better wrapped around a walleye than it does on the f*ing newsstand.”
The daily schedule of a photojournalist is an exercise in aesthetics. While working afternoons it was common for me to start the day with a political or general news assignment, move on to something for features, then to a sporting event in the evening. And any trip back to the office could be sidestepped by a pit stop for a fire, accident or an emergency mugshot. Three deadlines a night, 20,000 frames and 60 million papers a year, this was the daily gig—and for more than a decade, spread between three news agencies, I was glad to do it.
But the opportunity for in-depth reportage rarely presented itself—as one of only three participants, the project we did that was awarded a “Finalist” spot in the 2000 Pulitzers ultimately put me on location for less than 50 hours.
Each year brought another 700 assignments, and holding my mental commitment to a job for more than the third of a second it took readers to judge a photo ultimately became an issue.
My shows had been well received, awards from art competitions came often enough to be encouraging, and after five years to the day—many thanks to the other bosses who assisted in the finagling it took for me to become vested—I left The Toledo Blade to finish my academic training at Southern Illinois University.
A note on content…
Photojournalistic portfolios are often crawling with celebrities. Name recognition is a substantial rung in commercial photography, but it’s a rung on which I’ve never had a desire to stand.
If I supported the standard, I’d have images here of everyone from Charles Barclay to the Dalai Lama to Mr. “T”, Mr. Clean and Bill Cosby—who’s not so clean anymore… When I left the field I’d photographed every living, elected president but Carter, a British Prime Minister (in retrospect, I was a fool not to order room service just to say I’d taken tea with John Major!), and hung out backstage telling stories with Dana Carvey.
But to all of this I have to take the great portraitist Arnold Newman’s stance: “There’s no difference between photographing a president and photographing a local grocer; the only difference is one of access.” In that, the many images I’ve made of Jamie Farr (Klinger, from M*A*S*H), Louis Farrakhan, Mark Russell, Tigers’ manager Sparky Anderson and Grandpa Jones will remain in the archives. Celebrity portraits are rarely viewed as the work of an individual photographer, but rather as the face and personage of the intended that’s already been established by other media; I’ll take my chances with the anonymous public any day.
Besides, I’d rather be running down features with my friend Rhonda, a fashion editor, or shooting molten glass being formed into keys for visiting dignitaries, or with the museum crew as they took some holdings out for CAT Scans where, on rolling into the emergency room in an ambulance carrying a 3,000-year-old mummy, another photographer said, “This brings a whole new meaning to ‘dead on arrival’!”
More than a decade of working through the journalistic gaze has left that application permanently running on my mental desktop. But if you look beyond that, you’ll find my current work to be steeped in metaphor, referencing everything from Marxist theory to gender issues. But the work is what I create; in the end it’s what carries the message. So the undercurrents have to be picked out, deconstructed, removed from the visual shell that manifests itself as the voice in my head I will likely never be without…