Posts Tagged Henri Cartier-Bresson

Shooting the Mean Streets

School boys in the Amazon port city of Manaus leap from fishing boats into the Rio Negro below a central city market. The Rio Negro enters the Rio Solimões at Manaus to form the Brazilian Amazon. School boys in the Amazon port city of Manaus leap from fishing boats into the Rio Negro below a central city market. The Rio Negro enters the Rio Solimões at Manaus to form the Brazilian Amazon. © Kevin Moloney, 1995

School boys in the Amazon port city of Manaus leap from fishing boats into the Rio Negro below a central city market. The Rio Negro enters the Rio Solimões at Manaus to form the Brazilian Amazon. © Kevin Moloney, 1995

Henri Cartier-Bresson… Garry Winogrand… Helen Levitt… Robert Frank… André Kértész… William Klein… Jacques Henri Lartigue… Marc Riboud… Raymond Depardon… Elliot Erwitt… Joel Meyerowitz…

A school girl in Havana looks up to chat with a friend. © Kevin Moloney, 2001

A school girl in Havana looks up to chat with a friend. © Kevin Moloney, 2001

I started this list as I thought of who all the great street photographers might be. But I stopped early, realizing that in photojournalism (or any of its other pseudonyms) we all photograph life in the street.

Some of these photographers have made street photography the central aspect of their work, like Winogrand and Levitt. For others, like Frank and Klein, it is the piece of a complex work puzzle that made them most famous, or led to other opportunities.

Residents kill doves for a meal in a dusty lane in the old city of Timbuktu. © Kevin Moloney, 2008.

Residents kill doves for a meal in a dusty lane in the old city of Timbuktu. © Kevin Moloney, 2008.

It started when I was asked recently by student Danielle Alberti:

“The second you put the camera up to your eye, it seems strangers suddenly become very aware of you, and often suspicious. And because it’s in public, it’s rare that you’ll have enough time for them to relax. So we often find ourselves doing the subtle ‘lower the camera and hope autofocus works’ trick. Of course, when this trick works, I think it works well. But do you have any other street photography suggestions that might help when you want to photograph an interesting stranger without disturbing the scene (or pissing someone off)?”

This is a very common problem for young photographers (and old). We love how photographing someone pulls us into their world. But street photography can feel a bit more like an attack, or sniping. You’re often making images without explicit nor even tacit approval.

This is also the single hardest thing to which young students of photojournalism must adjust. Even those who have worked cameras for years grew up posing family or making live images of friends with whom they are comfortable. Then I come along and ask them to hunt. It’s an initially daunting task.

A bride poses for pre-nuptial photos near the Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, or Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, in Ouro Prêto, Brazil. © Kevin Moloney, 2009

A bride poses for pre-nuptial photos near the Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, or Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, in Ouro Prêto, Brazil. © Kevin Moloney, 2009.

Many sense that the world has changed and the streets are meaner to a camera than in the past of Cartier-Bresson, Levitt and Evans. I do agree that there was perhaps a sweet spot, when cameras were familiar enough and photos not easily published in a way that the subject would feel harmed. There may be some truth in the idea that today, with the Web’s ubiquity and possibility, that any image can affect or harm you.

Maybe today, a camera can steal your soul more easily than before.

But I think this is only a partial truth. On any given street, in any time, you could find the camera-suspicious alongside the camera-nonchalant. The situation hasn’t changed that much. And official restriction on images has waxed and waned throughout photography’s two centuries.

So how did the greats act on the street?

Wait, watch, shoot. Cartier-Bresson was the cat. “Like an animal and a prey,” he said in The Decisive Moment, an educational program produced by the ICP and Scholastic in the 1970s. A nervous hunter, he scanned the world in front of him to anticipate the moment where something slight or something grand would unfold.

“That’s why it develops a great anxiety, this profession. because you’re always waiting… what’s going to happen? What what what what?

In photography you’ve got to be quick quick quick quick. Like an animal and a prey, braaam like this. You grasp it and you take it and people don’t notice that you’ve taken it.

I’m extremely impulsive. Terribly. It’s really a pain in the neck for my friends and family. I’m a bunch of nerves, but I take advantage of it in photography. I never think. I act. Quick.”

Cartier-Bresson was as subtle as he was quick, carrying one small camera and typically one small lens. He often saw a setting and waited patiently for a character or moment to complete the scene, making only a frame or two. “You shouldn’t overshoot,” he said. “It’s like overeating or overdrinking. You have to eat, you have to drink, but over is too much. Because by the time you press and arm the shutter once more, and maybe the picture was in between.”

Granted, now we have cameras that can make more than ten frames per second. How could you miss?

Travelers pass a Tyrannosaurus Rex display at Pittsburgh International Airport advertising the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. © Kevin Moloney, 2007.

Travelers pass a Tyrannosaurus Rex display at Pittsburgh International Airport advertising the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. © Kevin Moloney, 2007.

You miss by becoming a massive presence on the street. The big cameras that do that can be intimidating enough. But add to that the assaulting power of a motor advance ripping at you like a machine gun, and suddenly everyone feels attacked rather than honored by the image.

Indeed we may soon find that some of the most important street images are being made with ubiquitous and inoffensive cell phones.

If Cartier-Bresson was the cat slipping elegantly and unnoticed from portico to portico on the street, Garry Winogrand was the nervous, fast-walking, bemused, gleeful, grunting American bear rumbling down the sidewalk.

His approach was as different from the French style as his images were. He waded into the stream of street traffic and deftly snatched salmon from the upstream flow.

Joel Meyerowitz described working the streets with Winogrand in Bystander: A History of Street Photography:

“Yeah. Oh yeah. You know, he set a tempo on the street so strong that it was impossible not to follow it. It was like jazz. You just had to get in the same groove. When we were out together, I wasn’t watching him — we were both watching the action around us — but I did pick up on his way of working and shooting. You could see what it was in his pictures. They were so highly charged, all you had to do was look at them and you began to assume the physical manner necessary to make pictures. They showed you right away that they were an unhesitating response.

Walking the streets with Garry gave me clues to being ready, to just making sure that I was. I had been a third baseman, so being ready came naturally. I was a quick study on that stuff, darting and twisting and the kinds of moves that were necessary to get a picture.

You know, if you hesitate, forget it. You don’t have but a fraction of a fraction of a second. So you have to learn to unleash that. It was like having a hair trigger. Sometimes walking down the street, wanting to make a picture, I would be so anticipatory, so anxious, that I would just have to fire the camera, to let fly a picture, in order to release the energy, so that I could recock it. That’s what you got from Garry. It came off him in waves — to be keyed up, eager, excited for pictures in that way.”

Winogrand was so keyed up about making photographs that he is said to have left behind 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film and 300,000 unedited images at his death in 1984.

With those numbers you might have expected him to have loved the motor drive. But he used the same little rangefinder cameras as Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and others. He was just a relentless hunter.

A boy walks below artfully painted walls in the village of Pucará, Bolivia. Ernesto "Che" Guevara was captured by the Bolivian army in 1967 in a nearby valley and executed in nearby La Higuera days later. © Kevin Moloney, 2004.

A boy walks below artfully painted walls in the village of Pucará, Bolivia. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was captured by the Bolivian army in 1967 in a nearby valley and executed in nearby La Higuera days later. © Kevin Moloney, 2004.

He also moved quickly, pushing his Tri-X film to ISO 1200 and higher so he could shoot a 1,000th of a second shutter speed at f/16 and never miss a moment from blur or focus. He did this through much wider angle lenses than Cartier-Bresson. He marched down the street, straight toward his subjects and whipped up the camera the moment he or they passed. It was like a surprise punch. He wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t look and wouldn’t engage. He simply marched on with a bemused smile.

Of course, in my classes he would also be forced to engage with subjects in ways he didn’t. I require IDs and full captions to build reporting skills and skills of engagement with subjects. The game changes when you must shoot at, then talk to, a subject.

Winogrand’s work is amazing, visceral and live. But it did not need the journalist’s caption. “I don’t have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions.”

Helen Levitt, who died only last year at 95, had an eye for busy streets. Though the famously private Levitt said little about her working methods, she did tell New York Times photo critic Sarah Boxer in various interviews, “You’re talking about the past, honey. I’ve been shooting a long time.”

When asked if she followed people to photograph them, the nonagenarian said, I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t remember following anybody.”

“I go where there’s a lot of activity. Children used to be outside. Now the streets are empty. People are indoors looking at television or something.

The streets were crowded with all kinds of things going on, not just children. Everything was going on in the street in the summertime. They didn’t have air-conditioning. Everybody was out on the stoops, sitting outside, on chairs.

In the garment district there are trucks, people running out on the streets and having lunch outside.”

Cuban elementary students line up in martial form after a field trip through the city. In Cuba, the land of party-run TV, nobody stays in to watch television. © Kevin Moloney, 2001.

Cuban elementary students line up in martial form after a field trip through the city. In Cuba, the land of party-run TV, nobody stays in to watch television. © Kevin Moloney, 2001.

Was she disarming? Maria Morris Hambourg, curator of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tells NPR’s Melissa Block, “She’s very quiet. She’s like a cat — very slight. She moves softly. There’s no imposition of a mood or a tone or a need. If the picture didn’t present itself she would not have ever forced it.”

But Levitt did admit to Block that she used a right-angle lens from time to time, deceiving people around her about where her camera was aimed.

Perhaps Helen Levitt simply made a natural act of photographing on the street, analyzing not the act but the result.

    A local theater troupe promotes an upcoming show at a Lafayette, Colo., street fair. © Kevin Moloney, 1999.

A local theater troupe promotes an upcoming show at a Lafayette, Colo., street fair. © Kevin Moloney, 1999.

So how do you roll, then, looking for Cartier-Bresson’s complex fleeting moments, Winogrand’s sanguine street document, Frank’s dark beat poem or Levitt’s sensitive and charmed glance?

Body language is everything. We have a choice of being quick like Cartier-Bresson, elusive like Winogrand, or disarming like Levitt.

A young girl in traditional Indian dress dances through Cuzco's Plaza de las Armas as her brother hangs onto the family dog at rear. The kids were put on display for their mother to attract alms from passers-by. © Kevin Moloney, 1996.

A young girl in traditional Indian dress dances through Cuzco’s Plaza de las Armas as her brother hangs onto the family dog at rear. The kids were put on display for their mother to attract alms from passers-by. © Kevin Moloney, 1996.

Carry yourself with sincerity no matter what method you might choose. If you appear to have the right to be there with a camera, passers-by will assume you do. If you relax, appear to be having fun and mean no harm, you might be more easily tolerated.

Let your intent for photographing appear on your face. If you are charmed by someone’s antics, smile as you photograph. If moral outrage shared with a subject drives you, carry yourself with concern and sincerity.

Never appear critical, unless you are as big as Garry, as surly as Weegee or as fleet as Henri.

When caught, engage. Walk up with a charmed smile and explain who you are and why you’re photographing.

Be ready to share. Offer images to your subjects and they will feel less like they’ve been exploited. Give them your e-mail address. Don’t ask for theirs.

Teens Ariel Farmer, 14, left, Kyla Sharp Butte, 14, center, and Will Sharp Butte, 15, hang out on the hood of a car in the parking lot of a convenience store to pass time on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in southern South Dakota, Thursday, May 24, 2007. An epidemic of teen suicides and attempts has reservation adults worried. Making these images caused a worried father — even one to whom I had introduced myself — call the tribal police. © Kevin Moloney, 2007.

Teens Ariel Farmer, 14, left, Kyla Sharp Butte, 14, center, and Will Sharp Butte, 15, hang out on the hood of a car in the parking lot of a convenience store to pass time on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in southern South Dakota, Thursday, May 24, 2007. An epidemic of teen suicides and attempts has reservation adults worried. Making these images caused a worried father — even one to whom I had introduced myself — call the tribal police. © Kevin Moloney, 2007.

Expect the protective concern of parents. Children are one of the most fun of street subjects because they live their young lives with little restraint or self- consciousness. But thanks to the creeps out there, they may fear for their child’s present and future safety when someone makes a picture.

Photograph those kids just the same, if possible without affecting the scene by asking first. But as you do, glance around for parents, and if found, make eye contact as soon as possible with a nod and a smile. As soon as you can, introduce yourself and offer a business card and copies of the pictures. Proud parents will love the images and trust more the person who is unafraid to say hello.

If there are no parents apparent, ask the children where they might be and find them. If unfound, give the child a card, because Johnny or Mary will surely talk about “that nice bearded photographer with the sunglasses who took pictures of me in the park.” You’re asking for calls to the police if they don’t know who you might be.

But there is no specific recipe for success. You will surely find fun, pleasant and trustworthy people who feel honored by your attention. And even the most bright-faced young photographer with the biggest smile will encounter people accusing her of being a freak, a creep or a terrorist.

Pigeons fly overhead as a Havana resident looks up to gauge the day's weather. © Kevin Moloney, 2001.

Pigeons fly overhead as a Havana resident looks up to gauge the day’s weather. © Kevin Moloney, 2001.

Get your street legs by photographing public events. People are not surprised by being photographed for no apparent reason at a parade, festival or event. Then take your confidence out to the everyday world.

Though you have a right to photograph on the street in the U.S. and most places, when you encounter resistance, apologize and walk away with a smile. You’ll never convince them of your rights anymore than they will convince you with their indignation.

Make those images. Explore the visions and moments of the street and leave a document of the 21st century as valuable as the one our predecessors left of the 20th.

…Michael Ackerman… William Albert Allard… David Alan Harvey… Werner Bischof… David “Chim” Seymour… Weegee… Edouard Boubat… Willy Ronis… Bruce Davidson… Jodi Cobb… Walker Evans… Josef Koudelka… Ben Shahn… Martine Francke… Roy DeCarava… Miguel Rio Branco… Leonard Freed… Antonin Kratochvil… Manuel Alvarez Bravo… Dorothea Lange… Marion Post Wolcott… Dan Weiner… Wayne Miller… Diane Arbus… Graciela Iturbide… Danny Lyon… Berenice Abbott… Martin Parr… Eugene Richards… Larry Towell… Alex Webb… Sylvia Plachy… Lee Friedlander…

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Others have written at length on this subject and their work is a valuable resource. For further reading have a look at:

Bystander: A History of Street Photography, by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz
Thames and Hudson, London, 1994

The Street Game Is to Be Distinctive Without Seeming to Work at It, by Sarah Boxer of the New York Times

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The Heyday is Now

Pastor Odair Gomes, 34, of the Deus É Amor church in Rio de Janeiro, addresses his congregation during an evening service at the church. Gomes is responsible for the State of Rio de Janeiro and oversees more than 600 churches. © Kevin Moloney, 1995

Pastor Odair Gomes, 34, of the Deus É Amor church in Rio de Janeiro, addresses his congregation during an evening service at the church. Gomes is responsible for the State of Rio de Janeiro and oversees more than 600 churches. © Kevin Moloney, 1995

This is a sermon, so feel free to mutter an occasional amen or shout a hallelujah. And like any congregation of believers, you probably already know some of the things I’m going to say. But we are here to reinvigorate our faith, so please be seated while I take the pulpit, thump the mic and clear my throat.

You are living in the best time in history to be a photojournalist.

It may not seem like it considering the ever-present industry bad news. (Yeah, I just heard you mutter, “this guy is nuts.”) Old media is in trouble. New media is thrashing around for an economic model for news. Dayrates have been stagnant for a decade. Rights are being grabbed. Amateurs with cell phones are covering breaking news. Journalism jobs are going away. And this week Eastman Kodak slid closer to bankruptcy. But Horace Greeley, a 19th-century journalist and inveterate forward thinker once wrote, “The illusion that times that were are better than those that are, has probably pervaded all ages.”

So what makes now so great?

On way to an assignment. © Kevin Moloney, 2011

On way to an assignment. © Kevin Moloney, 2011

To start, you have an enormous array of tool choices. For a recent New York Times shoot I eagerly packed in my bag a vintage-1948 press camera, a medium-format TLR and a DSLR. I used all three on the shoot, swapping sheet-film holders, cranking 120 through a Rolleiflex and twitching images through the pixel array of the little high-tech wonder alongside them.

We are now deep enough into the digital age that the quality of that equipment has reached heights we could have only imagined a few years ago. And with the recent and expected announcements of new gear from the big digital players, we are in for astounding advancements this year.

But we also have the entire world of film cameras to use, with all those delicious differences in look, point of view, depth of field and other things that make various cameras see the world differently. As Kevin Kelly, author of the book What Technology Wants, recently told NPR,“I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.” Today we can still use pretty much all of the photographic technology ever invented.

Yes, you can buy color transparency films in 620 and 127 sizes (hand-cut and rolled by a few dedicated souls) and new single-use, screw-base flash bulbs (from Ireland), if you’re willing to pay the price. Online you can buy kits to make cyanotypes, argyrotypes and kallitypes. You can buy the chemicals to mix any developer formula concocted or to embrace the silvery glow of a daguerreotype. “Everything that we have made in the past,” said Kelly, “is still being made somewhere in the world today.” And it is available to us thanks to the reach of the very same Internet that has upended our old business models.

In some areas there is even expansion. More black and white films are available now than there were in 1990. With their manufacturers out from under iron curtains or no longer forced to compete for shelf space with the big three film makers, more than a dozen brands of monochrome film are readily available. Some have been made in Eastern and Central Europe for decades.

     Snapshot. 1933 camera. © Kevin Moloney, 2008Wednesday, May 14, 2008.


Snapshot. 1933 camera. © Kevin Moloney, 2008

My favorite leisure camera of the moment is a folding Kodak/Nagel Vollenda 48 from the 1930s. It takes 127 film (thank you, Croatia) and gives everything at which it is aimed the feel of the decade in which the camera was made. It took the place of a digital point-and-shoot in my pocket. I love all of that variety. Sure, about all of it can be modeled with good digital technique, but art is in the process, not just the product.

And the latest round of digital technology has brought us fantastic ISO capability that will probably reach a usable six digits before we can say “existing light in a coal mine.” We now have rich color even on the extremes of exposure and more dynamic range than I could have dreamed a decade ago. Remember all those color correction filters we used to have to carry around just to get accurate color? Now they’re a button and knob on the camera or two sliders in your raw conversion software. Soon enough we may see professional light-field cameras that allow focus correction in post-production.

In an advancement that would make filmmaker/photographers like Robert Frank, William Klein, Raymond Depardon and Tim Hetherington jealous, we now have HD video available in our camera bodies with a sensor twice the size of high-end cinema film. The once high cost of entry into documentary film production has just dropped faster than one of Herman Cain‘s shoes.

1948 camera, 1927 lens. © Kevin Moloney, 2011

1948 camera, 1927 lens. © Kevin Moloney, 2011

The learning curve has become impossibly short as we can experiment furiously and see the result immediately. The digital age also means unprecedented speed of delivery. In the decade some have called the heyday of photojournalism — the 1980s — to get an image from a revolution in Iran meant sweet-talking a diplomat or a traveler into carrying your film on a flight from Tehran to Paris or New York. It was days from event to publication. Now with a satellite phone and a tablet computer a photojournalist can publish from Libya a split second after the image is made.

Combine the incredible power of digital photography with the variety of analog and you can do anything.

But what about that business model? Indeed the methods we’ve used for a century to make a living seem to be going away. They’re not dead yet, though, and that gives us time to transition and reinvent how photojournalists live on their good work. Almost a century ago a few business-minded photographers and a few German magazine editors created the freelance model we’ve used so far. They created that out of a vacuum that we don’t face.

Pieces of the solution for an economic puzzle are popping up all the time. In my 25-year career I’ve spent haystacks of money chasing personal projects that at best have returned break-even cash. We are driven to document whether we have a patron or not, and in the past that was just one of the costs of doing business. But now thanks to the Internet-made idea of crowdfunding a good project can have hundreds of patrons who may not only cover the cost of field production but also provide a little financial breathing room. Pay close attention to Emphas.is, Kisckstarter and IndieGoGo to see where that leads. Watch how photographers, agencies and collectives  like LUCEO Images repurpose work for alternative venues and media, and then both make money and market themselves in the process. Frankly, you have it much easier than Jacob Riis did.

Keep your eyes on other media for answers as well. For example the music industry is in the grips of an economic chaos that looks remarkably like what the news media has been facing — loss of markets, lack of control over the means of distribution, ease of amateur production and distribution, and the free and open spreading of their product. Out of that, musician and entrepreneur Trent Reznor has figured out how to make piles of money from giving away most of his music. It’s the Nine-Inch Nail meets the Long Tail.

Like for Reznor, the Internet’s reach is a valuable tool for photographers to sell their work. Once forced to use agents and portfolio reps to market themselves, we now have — for better and for worse — the unfiltered channel of the Internet to find new buyers, collectors and clients. It is a crowded market out there to be sure. Everyone wields a camera, thinks they are brilliant and shares their images for free with everyone. But competition forces us to think harder, work harder and be better image makers to rise above all that noise. And this is not a new phenomenon.

When in 1888 George Eastman put the first point-and-shoot camera into the hands of the public, professional photographers across the land surely panicked about the loss of their businesses. But that and its cheap offspring, the Brownie camera, helped launch a century of stunning photography. Why should we be afraid of all the dilettantes? As photo blogger Jörg Colberg aptly put it, “Isn’t it funny that you never hear writers worry about the fact that everybody knows how to write?”

So here’s the most important fact to remember: Rather than killing the professional photographer, early 20th-century advancements allowed professionals to reinvent the art itself. In 1914 Oskar Barnack put some cine film in a new little camera he crafted in his workshop and the age of 35mm photography was born. Innovators like Kertész, Cartier-Bresson, Capa and Eisenstaedt were more than great photographers. They were revolutionaries who picked up surprising new “amateur” equipment, filled it with fast new films and revolutionized the way we see the world.

This is that moment all over again, where new and innovative technology in brilliant hands will change the paradigm. Like me you’ve daydreamed about shooting alongside the likes of those guys in the last paragraph and helping to redefine what photojournalism would be for a century. But this is your time, and you have the opportunity to upend everything just like they did.

Seize it. Foment revolution. Change the history of our art and our profession.

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This post is a reworking of a presentation I gave at the 2011 edition of APAD’s Geekfest in Denver, and an article published in the excellent January/February issue of Photo Technique magazine.

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Cognitive Dissonance and Photojournalism

Deb and Vince Atencio, of Denver, wait to enter one of seven free films offered Saturday, May 18, 2002, in honor of the grand opening of the Madstone art cinema complex in Denver. Combined with the Denver Film Society's new Starz Encore Film Center and a chain of art cinemas scattered through the city's venerable old movie houses, Denver now boasts a significant number of foreign and art film screens.

© Kevin Moloney

This is one of those terms you’ve heard before, but might not have ever gotten to fully understand. It is what it sounds like — thoughts out of tune. More particularly, it is the feeling we get when our thoughts, beliefs and morals clash with our actions. It’s that uncomfortable feeling we have after we buy something we really couldn’t afford, or do something we know we shouldn’t do.

As adaptable beings we dispatch that feeling with justifications. “I really need that new [insert toy name here] even though I ain’t got the cash, and here’s why…” Aesop had a good fable that fit this too. A fox sees some grapes hanging too high to reach. After trying to get them and failing, he struts off arguing to himself that they must not have been worth eating. It’s where the old “sour grapes” saying comes from. We are also prone to justify away the dissonance we would otherwise feel when we take a shortcut we know we should not take.

Dramatic light and color are wonderful when we find them…                  © Kevin Moloney

Dramatic light and color are wonderful when we find them… © Kevin Moloney

In journalism justifications like that pop up frequently to argue why something considered unethical should be seen as okay “under the circumstances.” You’ve heard them: “magazines are different from newspapers” or “the cover is an advertisement” to explain away a breach of journalism ethics. Our ethics should determine our actions, of course. But there seems to be an unending stream of ways journalists justify letting their actions determine their ethics. Neither market forces, ease nor style should trump ethics in the images we produce or how we use them. If we act like we are delivering truthful information, then we must follow through on that promise.

It happens among photojournalists more often than we might think. We pay a lot of attention to the egregious breaches of our ethics: major alterations, serious cases of reenactment or direction of what would appear to be a spontaneous moment. But as professionals who document reality we need to stay aware of how we might let convenience, competition, drive for a style or a wish for the approval of an editor or producer affect our work. This can come down to many of the mundane tasks we perform in our work, including — to pick only one example — things like toning an image.

There’s a difference between choosing a moment of perfect light and color that actually existed and fixing dull light to make it more dramatic in a photo. We like dramatic images. They attract reader interest, appeal to editors and feel satisfying to us. But isn’t the satisfaction and pride much stronger when we took the time and energy to seek out the light and color rather than pumping it up with software tools? And isn’t it simply more honest?

Our talent — the one that separates us from all the other flavors of photographer — is that we capture reality quickly and delicately and without influence. It is an incredible skill that takes great attention and effort to develop. We take pride in our ability to think and act quickly and to know the story as we are seeing it happen. We slice telling moments out of the unstoppable flow of time, and when we miss, we miss.

…but when the light is flat and color anemic, we must just watch more closely for the moment rather than inventing light that wasn't there. © Kevin Moloney

…but when the light is flat and color anemic, we must just watch more closely for the moment rather than inventing light that wasn’t there. © Kevin Moloney

Photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson said, is “…an immediate sketch, done with intuition, and you can’t correct it. If you have to correct it, it’s the next picture. Life is very fluid, and, well, sometimes the picture has disappeared and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t tell the person, ‘oh, please smile again, do that gesture again.’ Life is once, forever.”

Having made all that effort to catch the decisive moment without any before- or after-the-fact fixing, why would we let any overrated sense of market pressure discredit that work? Look again at Cartier-Bresson’s images in which the moment and geometry are so perfect that trivial stylistics like color and contrast don’t matter at all.

And if we look, flat light has its advantages, such as providing layer upon layer of detail. © Kevin Moloney

And if we look, flat light has its advantages, such as providing layer upon layer of detail. © Kevin Moloney

I am not making an excuse to shroud dull images in a cloak of ethics. Our challenge is to find the impressive image in any circumstance — no matter how colorless or flat in light — without needing to embellish it after the fact. We do that by skillfully getting to the right place at the right time to capture true storytelling images and minimizing our influence on a scene.

If any of our actions need a justification to exempt them from our core ethical standards, then those actions need to be reconsidered. It is our ethics that must determine our actions, not the converse.

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For an entertaining and disturbing look at cognitive dissonance at work in the cable TV world, have a listen to radio producer Rebecca Hertz’ piece on how process trumped ethics in the production of a reality TV show, for NPR’s Snap Judgement. In the show segment she compares the experience of the producers and participants to the Stanford Prison Experiment of the 1970s.

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The Photojournalist’s Canon: Part Two — Early 20th Century

In the last post I started on a list of the photographers who have made the greatest influence on successive generations of photojournalists. To recap, this is a start on a “canon” to which you may contribute a suggestion. I’m looking not just for a list of the “great photographers” nor the most famous or successful. I’m looking for photographers who:

  • Produced documentary work reflecting the important standards and ethics of the profession,
  • Stood the test of time by repeatedly producing notable work, and
  • Innovated in the art or profession by being first to adopt an important style or approach, break a barrier or rise above the limits of the day.

Think of who might have been the first to think of something or do something important. That’s a tougher standard that might be immediately apparent.

So here’s part two, the photographers that opened the 20th century. This is the generation of photographers who picked up the new small cameras that shot roll film and started documenting life in action. They created what we consider photojournalism out of a near vacuum:

 

    Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Grand Prix de l'AAF, 1912 © Estate of Jacques Henri Lartigue

Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Grand Prix de l’AAF, 1912 © Estate of Jacques Henri Lartigue

Jacques Henri Lartigue — Lartigue picked up a camera as a very young boy and aimed it at his adventurous family at the end of France’s Belle Epoque. His best-remembered images are of auto races, early airplanes and cousins leaping in midair. His early images are of the fascinations of a young wealthy boy of the gilded age, but they show a joyful innocence unmatched in most documentary work. They are exuberant, ecstatic and defy the limitations of the photography of a century ago, capturing peak action and decisive moments with very slow plate cameras. To any child — which is what he was when he made his best-remembered images — there are limitless possibilities and no hard rules. His work shows the possibility in working without any adult-world-imposed constraint. He lived a long life, working as an illustrator and painter, then again as a photographer after his rediscovery by John Szarkowski and the Museum of Modern Art in the 1960s.

‘The Terminal’ or ‘The Car Horses’ New York 1893 – By Alfred Stieglitz © Estate of Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz — Photojournalism is inextricably attached to the art of photography, as we make thorough use of light, form and composition in our work to change the world. No single photographer or curator did more to battle for the status in America of photography as an art or to promote its practitioners. His own work is often documentary, capturing steaming horses on cold New York mornings, and street life on the edge of night much as his European contemporaries Eugène Atget and Brassaï did in Paris. He promoted many photographers on or linked to this list, from Paul Strand and Edward Steichen to Ansel Adams who, in addition to his famous landscapes, documented the Japanese internment camps of WWII. Though his photography career crosses the 19th and 20th centuries, his influence was strongest in the years between the world wars.

Preparing for the strike on Kwajelein Photo by Edward J. Steichen aboard the U.S.S. Lexington (CV-16), November 1943

Edward Steichen — Few working lives spanned more interesting changes in photography, more genre of the art and more positions of influence than those of Edward Steichen. He began his career at the dawn of the 20th century by making an amazing array of portraits of the luminaries of the day, from J.P. Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt to Pierre August Rodin, Henri Matisse and George Bernard Shaw. His portrait style has resonated through subsequent generations from Yousuf Karsh and Philippe Halsman onward. That work moved him quickly into the world of fashion where his images helped define the styles of magazines like Vogue for a generation. Himself a WWI Signal Corps aerial photo veteran, Steichen volunteered for duty in WWII, was commissioned by the navy at the rank of commander, and formed a team of photographers to document the war in the Pacific. His team included notables Wayne Miller, Charles Kerlee, Fenno Jacobs and Horace Bristol, among others. His own images, made of combat when he was already in his 60s, are notable for their capture of war action and the strange, graphic beauty of naval aircraft carriers. On war’s end, Steichen took the position as the first-ever curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York he mounted the “Family of Man” exhibition in 1955 which gathered images from around the Cold-War-stricken world to illustrate his point that, “The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself. And that is no mean function.” The massively successful exhibition helped define what photojournalism was at midcentury and influenced most of the work that has come since. Inclusion in the exhibition launched the careers of many photojournalists around the world, and the exhibition catalog has remained in print for more than 50 years.

 

Shadows of the Eiffel Tower, Paris, 1929, by André Kertész © Estate of André Kertész/Higher Pictures

André Kertész — Cartier-Bresson once said on behalf of himself and others of his generation, “Whatever we have done, Kertész did first.” Kertész started photographing in Hungary before WWI, and through his service in the Hungarian army in that war. After developing his style — one of intricate and graphic compositions, geometric patterns and decisive moments — he moved to Paris in 1925. His work there was warmly received, but in 1936 he accepted an offer to go to New York, both to work and escape the Nazi threat building in Europe. He stayed until just before his death in 1985. He was also an early adopter of small handheld cameras allowing him to catch fleeting moments and travel lightly. Kertész’ work is artful, perfectly crafted, subtle, delicate and deeply inspiring. In perusing it you can see not only his brilliant seeing, but premonitions of all that followed.

 

Wall Street, New York, 1915. © Estate of Paul Strand

Paul Strand — Strand was not a self-described photojournalist and he is certainly better known as an art photographer. However he was instrumental in breaking the photography of the early 20th century away from the soft-focus romantic “pictorialism” of the day and showing that the power of the medium is crisp realism. He made powerful documentary portraits and photographic essays, and his art remained rooted firmly in the real world. And in anticipation of the early 21st century and visual journalists like Tim Hetherington, he was an accomplished cinematographer and film maker, documenting New York, the Spanish Civil War and the struggles of Mexican fishermen in his cinema career.

 

Aristide Briand, pointing at Erich Salomon, exclaims, “Ah, there he is, the king of the indiscreet!” Paris, Quai d’Orsay, August 1931. © Estate of Erich Salomon.

Erich Salomon — Advances in photojournalism come on the heels of technological advancement. From images of the still and quiet death on mid-19th-century battlefields to the galloping horses of Muybridge, film speed, camera handling and lens speed have all influenced the state of the visual art. But until the 1920s, candid, handheld photography with a small camera was a challenge. Though “press cameras” and SLRs had been around for decades, the first camera that actually allowed the kind of photography we now relish was the Ermanox. It was a 645-format plate camera with a focal plane shutter that could shoot up to 1/1000 second (also not new), but it had an incredibly fast f/1.8 lens. On that format it was as difficult to engineer and had less depth of field than a 50mm f/1.0 has in the 35mm era. Complicating its use was that the focus at that narrow depth of field was done simply by guessing the distance. The master of Ermanox use was Erich Salomon, a German Jewish law school graduate who introduced himself as “Doctor.” With little prior photo experience, Salomon picked up this new little camera (one nearly universally shunned by professionals) and started talking his way into venues where no one had yet ventured with a camera — courtrooms, political meetings, the homes of the famous. He always dressed impeccably, conducted himself with the manners of a person who might be expected to be at such scenes and made pictures either overtly or by concealing the camera. Soon his images were being published by Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung — a political weekly that had pioneered visual reporting. Salomon was fluent in several languages and a talented political observer. Politicians either loved him and invited him into their worlds, or hated him and worked to make sure he was spotted at scenes. He also pioneered the technique of handing over unexposed film with supplicating apologies when caught where he should not be, and keeping the exposed films for publication. Though he had considered emigrating to the U.S. where his images were also being used by the new illustrated weeklies, he kept putting it off until in 1943 he and his family were forced into hiding. They were betrayed by a meter reader who noticed the heavy gas consumption at the house where they were staying in Holland. Salomon was killed at Auschwitz in July 1944.

 

A goalkeeper dives for the save, Budapest, 1928. © Estate of Martin Mukácsi.

Martin Munkácsi — Munkácsi is perhaps most famous for making the image that inspired Henri Cartier-Bresson to drop a paint brush and pick up a camera. The image — of a trio of boys running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika — is his most often reproduced, thanks to HC-B. But behind that image is a career as an action photographer. In Europe before WWII he was the toast of the fashion and sports photography world. Anyone who assumes sports photography is only possible with autofocus and ten frames per second needs to look at his tightly cropped, shallow-depth, razor-sharp images of goalies diving for a save or polo riders in mid-strike made in the 1920s on 4X5 and larger plates. Skiers breaking over cornice lines, dancers in flight, and models in mid leap hallmark his work. He went to challenging lengths to get his images — laying in the surf with a bellows-focused camera to photograph swimsuit fashion in the 1930s.  Like his Hungarian compatriots Andre Kertész and Robert Capa, he was drawn to the U.S. before the war, and like Kertész, he languished here among much less inventive editors and publishers.

 

     Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, 1933. © Time-LIFE, Inc.


Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, 1933. © Time-LIFE, Inc.

Alfred Eisenstaedt — Eisenstaedt’s career began in Germany in the late 1920s with the illustrated press that arose there and ran into the 1990s for LIFE magazine, for which he was one of the first staff photographers in 1936. His last photographs were of Bill Clinton and family in 1993. He used small cameras from the start, making active images in low light on the heels of Erich Salomon. A few of his images are enduringly remarkable — Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels glaring with hatred, The V-J Day kiss in Times Square, a parade of gleeful children marching behind a drum major. But by today’s standards most of his images — though technically solid and timed well — seem boilerplate. We feel we’ve seen them so many times before. But what must be remembered in looking at his vast body of work documenting most of a turbulent century, is that Eisenstaedt didn’t have Eisenstaedt to emulate. He is the template for most of what we do. His journalistic sense was impeccable. Not only did he define the genre of photojournalism in how he worked, but he defined what it looks like to be a professional photojournalist. There is some Eisie in everything we do.

 

Bullring, Valencia, 1933. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

Bullring, Valencia, 1933. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson — He said that Kertész did it first and that Munkácsi influenced him. Can we put him on this list? I will argue yes, and not because he’s my hero of heroes. HC-B’s influence on all photojournalism since the 1940s is so wide and so deep it would be remiss to consider him derivative. His innovation comes from taking Kertész’ form and grace and combining it with Munkácsi’s timing to define that decisive-moment photojournalism and street photography we so love. He produced, directed and filmed documentary films during the Spanish Civil War and again in the U.S. in the 1970s. He fused high art and incisive journalism more directly than anyone before, and cofounded one of history’s most influential cooperatives to promote it.

 

     Running for shelter during the air raids. Bilbao, Spain, 1937. © Estate of Robert Capa and Magnum Photos.


Running for shelter during the air raids. Bilbao, Spain, 1937. © Estate of Robert Capa and Magnum Photos.

Robert Capa — As seen in the last post, war photography was not new and the bon-vivant photojournalist persona was not either. But Capa amplified both to as-yet-unseen levels. Capa was a talented self-promoter, inventing a name with his collaborator Gerda Taro (also an invented name) to make his work seem more valuable to editors. He photographed and filmed conflicts from the Spanish Civil War to the Japanese invasion of China, WWII, and Indochina where he was killed in 1954. His gritty few frames of the Normandy landings on D-Day are some of the most iconic images of the biggest conflict in world history. His style and approach have influenced all war photography that has followed, from David Douglas Duncan to Larry Burrows, Don McCullin, James Nachtwey and the late Chris Hondros. His high-stakes, high-living style has become the cliched image of the gambling, loving, champagne-drinking world photojournalist, so much so that Hitchcock fictionalized him in Rear Window. And on founding Magnum with Cartier-Bresson, David “Chim” Seymour and George Rodger, he was instrumental in reclaiming rights to their images for photographers.

 

Walker Evans, ‘Truck and Sign’ (1928-30).

Walker Evans — We know Walker Evans mostly through his work for the Farm Security Administration Photography Program where he produced some of his most meaningful images. But Evans was an accomplished documentary photographer before he joined Roy Stryker’s team. More interestingly, he was fired from the FSA. Evans and his work are as straight as an arrow. He took the idea of documenting seriously, using large format cameras to meticulously correct perspective and distortion on images of simple buildings throughout Depression-era America and in Cuba. But his images are far from artless. They prove over and again that art does not need to come from gimmick or visual trickery, and that the subtlety of light, shape and content can send a powerful message about the state of a culture. SX-70 Polaroids he made in the 1960s presage even a current fascination with those films and their phone-app emulators.

 

Relief line following the Louisville Flood, 1937. © Estate of Margaret Bourke-White and Time-LIFE Inc.

Margaret Bourke-White — Bourke-White was not the first woman photographer, but she broke more glass ceilings and social barriers than any other. She was hired as a staff photographer for Fortune on the cusp of the Great Depression in 1929, was the first Western photographer allowed to photograph Soviet industry in 1930, and a staff photographer and author of the first cover of LIFE magazine in 1936. Like her contemporary, Dorothea Lange, she photographed the dire conditions of the Great Depression, and authored a book (with then-husband Erskine Caldwell), Have You Seen Their Faces. She was the first authorized woman combat correspondent of WWII. Her images of the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald are some of the principle historical evidence of Nazi atrocities. With Cartier-Bresson she photographed the partition of India and Pakistan and the violence it spawned, and made moving portraits of Mohandas K. Gandhi on the eve of his assassination. Her autobiography, Portrait of Myself, is a valuable read for any photographer.

Ingrid Bergman at Stromboli, 1949. © Estate of Gordon Parks.

Gordon Parks — Parks was a classic Renaissance man: A concert pianist, composer, photographer, writer, and filmmaker. There were black photographers before him, but none who elbowed his or her way through the discrimination of the day as effectively as him. He was born in Kansas and began his adult life as a railroad porter, but as a very young man he picked up a camera to photograph the plight of migrant workers. He progressed from that first roll to photographing fashion in St. Paul, which caught the eye of Joe Louis’ wife Marva. From there he branched to portraits of black society women in Chicago and on to documentary work about Chicago’s South Side in the Depression. An exhibition of that work caught the eye of Roy Stryker who gave him a fellowship with the FSA. His first images there struck right at the heart of how the nation’s Capitol treated its black workers. After the FSA disbanded, Parks moved to Harlem where he worked for Vogue and then LIFE where he was the first black journalist. He photographed Malcom X, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali and produced a book-length essay on an orphan in a Brazilian slum. But that was just his photography career. He was also a successful novelist and poet, and wrote and directed the 1971 “blaxploitation” hit movie Shaft, for which he also wrote the score and popular theme.

 

Striking Worker, Assasinated. 1934. © Estate of Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Manuel Álvarez Bravo — Like others on this list, he described himself as a photographer, not a photojournalist. And like others he was a surrealist above all in the early 20th century. But his often political work brought attention to the struggles of a nation. His portraits, art and surrealism inspired generations of photographers from Tina Modotti to Graciela Iturbide, Flor Garduño, Miguel Rio Branco and Cristina García Rodero. He was the first Latino photographer to rise to prominence, and he helped define the style of a hemisphere.

 

Homeless, Atoka County, Okla., 1938, by Dorothea Lange

Homeless, Atoka County, Okla., 1938, by Dorothea Lange

The Farm Security Administration Photography ProgramWalker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Gordon Parks, Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, John Vachon and Marion Post Wolcott. It was the dream team of documentary photography, assembled by economist Roy Stryker to photograph the plight of the American farmer during the Great Depression. The purpose was propaganda, really. But neither Stryker nor his photographers felt they needed to create advertising. The truth of the American economic situation spoke for itself, and as a result we have an incredible document of America at one of its most difficult points. Many of the photographs are the icons of that age, burned into the retinas of Americans born more than a half century after they were made. Most of the photographers went on to long photojournalism careers for LIFE, Look and other popular magazines. Mydans, who with his reporter wife spent time in a Japanese prison camp after the fall of the Philippines, made one of the iconic images of the Pacific War. Stryker carefully populated his staff to allow access to both genders and as many races as possible, to leave no group undocumented. Their work forms a template for cooperative documentary projects and expands on the social documentary started by Riis a half-century earlier. With every subsequent economic crisis, their work has been republished and emulated.

To part 3…

 

Please note, all images on this post are linked directly from the originating sites rather than downloaded and republished. Please forgive any dead links.

 

 

 

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The Importance of Being Present

A days-old portrait for the New York Times. Know your subject's story and feel it with them. © Kevin Moloney, 2010.

I was walking on a  beach in northeastern Brazil several years ago, taking a few hours break from an assignment there for the New York Times. I was in the middle of a rough patch in my personal life and the stream of thoughts and imagined conversations was rolling so fast I actually forgot where I was and what I was doing.

I stopped, looked down at the sand, and watched — straining to turn off that stream of words and just see what was below my feet. I was in an amazing place, covering a wonderful story. And I was forgetting to be there and savor it.

When I let my thoughts return, it wasn’t about what was happening in my personal life. I realized that my images — whether personal or professional — were much more successful when I had been truly emotionally and personally present in the scene I was photographing.

We work in a medium that can either engage us with a subject in an intimate way or separate us from our subjects with a big mechanical device to hide behind.

There are several ways we should come out from behind that camera to be present.

That old photojournalism dictum of “250 at f/8 and be there” always applies of course. We do our jobs by getting to the scene above all other considerations.

Cattlemen's Rodeo, Okeechobee, Fla. Awareness and lack of distraction help your attention and catching a complex moment. © Kevin Moloney

Cattlemen's Rodeo, Okeechobee, Fla. Awareness and lack of distraction help your attention and with catching a complex moment. © Kevin Moloney, 1992.

But if we are mentally present — really seeing the subject — our compositions are better. If you are struggling to understand how Richard Kalvar constructs so many complex layers of action from a single fleeting moment or how Stephen Crowley sees amusing irony around him, then try to stop that inner narrative and just watch every corner of the frame.

We should also be present with our subjects as something of a collaborator.

It’s easy in an emotional scene to hide behind the camera and burst forth with streams of motor-driven frames as the key emotional moments reveal themselves. Those pictures can even be quite impressive. But few would say that this one-sided interaction with a subject is not predatory.

Sgt. Maj. Brenda Hoster sheds a tear as she describes her boot camp drill sergeant and how that woman influenced her life. Hoster was suing the top-ranked enlisted man in the U.S. Army for sexual harassment. After talking quietly to her about her ordeal, I feel this picture was given to me rather than taken from her. © Kevin Moloney, 1997.

I once watched an intern for a local paper bound up to within inches of a crying subject who had just learned she and her family would not be receiving government aid for health problems resulting from work in a nuclear weapons plant. His pictures certainly conveyed emotion to the paper’s readers. But all the other photographers present wanted to chase him out of the room for wrecking the intimacy we had gently tried to build with the subjects.

No matter how we would like to be flies on a wall, we never are. We are the biggest presence in the room and almost always work with tacit cooperation of subjects. When we have that cooperation and intimacy, our pictures are more true, and the subjects take away with them a sense that we were there to understand them rather than just use them.

Another days-old portrait of a generous and sympathetic subject. Ease them into the situation that intrigues you. Be aware or your own preconceptions about the person and how that may alter how the reader sees them. We are ostensibly telling their story, not ours. © Kevin Moloney, 2010.

We also need to be present to understand ourselves and what we bring to that collaboration. Our mental state matters in how we see a subject, what we understand of that person, place or event, and what about it we relate to our readers.

Though true objectivity is impossible, we gain the trust of our readers by making the best, most valiant attempt to see a subject clearly. And when I leave my own baggage at home, my subjects let me deeper into their lives.

And lastly, we work in an amazing profession that takes us into the homes, offices and lives of fascinating people, to locations most only dream of visiting, and into the rarely seen inner workings of the world. Be present and enjoy it. Put down your camera and absorb where you are or who that person in front of you is.

If you seek in your images the complexity of Cartier-Bresson or Kalvar, the emotional intimacy of Krisanne Johnson or Paolo Pellegrin, the spiritual metaphor of Kathryn Cook or Michael Ackerman, or the joy and humor of Elliot Erwitt, then be there — 250 at f/8 or not.

Remember that you are here, now, and wherever or whatever that place is, you are exceptionally lucky and you may never get back there.

On the Niger River, Mali. Savor the incredible moments this profession brings you. © Kevin Moloney, 2008.

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The following is a journal entry I love, from a day at the beginning of my freelance career in which I left the camera at home, stopped to breathe-in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and just watch. I smiled at the cinematic little ballet happening in front of me, glad for a change to not be distracted by trying to photograph it:

July 14, 1995

I stood at a corner in my neighborhood of Flamengo today, leaning for a moment against one of thousands of one-meter-tall concrete obelisks that line the sidewalks here to prevent space-frustrated drivers from parking their cars in the path of the wretched pedestrians.

I watched people pass.

Around the corner a woman begged, cradling a child on a blanket while her son of perhaps four years skipped among the pedestrians asking for a “trocadinho” — a bit of change.

An ancient woman struggled across Rua Senador Vergueiro on small deformed legs. She planted the cane carefully in front of herself and pried her way across the street with it. Half-way across, the light changed against her, but she held to her lever.

Impatient horns erupted from the line of cars who waited for her to move. The other cars, view blocked, honked at a cabby who defended himself with high-fisted protests. He waved back to the impatient to signal his innocence.

A tall, chivalrous-as-only-a-gentleman-can-be, old man with polar white hair and neat yellow pants rushed out and took her arm. They walked together like they were propping each other. The moment she cleared the cabby’s path by a hair he blasted forward around her.

The chivalrous old man deposited her on the other side of the street, and took the arm of yet another elderly woman. He helped her across the street in the opposite direction and kept going with her. I thought she must be his wife until she yanked herself loose in protest and turned up another direction on the sidewalk with a huff.

The helpful gentleman raised his palms to the air, incredulous at her lack of appreciation for his great knightly aid, and followed her for a moment with his gaze before he disappeared.

The first woman he helped never looked up from her path.

Rounding the corner on the curb to step out onto the perpendicular street, she dragged herself — a small grocery sack on one arm — against the traffic again. The cars waited until they could pass her without killing her, then broke loose like greyhounds.

She changed the hand her cane was in and reached out to the fender of a parked car. Her fingers stretched out for it. The car lingered just out of her grasp.

Her stride stopped completely, and she reached forward slowly — like honey dripping from a spoon. She teetered forward on her toes, and I got ready to catch her and the 2 liter bottle of Sprite hanging in a sack on her left arm.

Four or more people let out their breath when her fingers made contact and she pried her way past the car and onto the curb.

I turned back toward the other street.

A large delivery truck came through the intersection with a blue passenger door open slightly. It moved past me. The passenger hunched out of the door releasing his half-digested lunch to the pavement in heaving foul streams. He looked up between heaves with a pained grey face.

The light changed and two directions of traffic spread the bile in plaid patterns across the pavement.

“Um trocadinho?”

Angoon, Alaska. You may never have a chance to return to the fascinating and magical places photojournalism can take you. © Kevin Moloney, 2003.

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A Working Photojournalist’s Review of the Leica M9

Leica M9, 21mm f/2.8 Elmarit ASPH. © Kevin Moloney, 2009.

Through the generosity of the Rocky Mountain regional Leica rep, I had the chance to take Leica’s new full-frame, 18 megapixel rangefinder with me to Southeast Asia this month. It was  a great chance to really use a camera thoroughly for evaluation. They loaned it to me mostly because I have one on order, and it wouldn’t be delivered before the trip.

I don’t write a camera review blog, but several students have asked for this. And rangefinder cameras (film, digital, old, new) have a deep place in photojournalism.

This will also not be an overly technical review. If you crave test charts, densitometer readings and firmware analysis, there are some great ones on Erwin Puts’ site and dpreview.

Reviews like this can also be very contentious as many photographers carry an irrational loyalty to certain brands or camera forms. I’m a fan of them all and find advantages in everything from a view camera to TLR, rangefinder, or high-speed DSLR. I’m camera agnostic. Please do comment, but do so knowing that these are simply my impressions from three weeks of use. This is far from the final word.

Form Factor, Handling, Construction

The reasons for using a rangefinder of any brand are often discussed. I’ll mention mine. There are quite a few rangefinders available, from Leica, Zeiss-Contax, some almost new from the recently defunct Rollei, also from Epson and Cosina/Voigtländer. There are classics still quite usable from Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Kodak Retina. Many… These are much different than a live-view compact camera though. By rangefinder I mean there is an optical coupled rangefinder focus device that projects overlapping double images within the viewfinder.

You see differently through them. The whole view is sharp and in-focus, and many photographers like me find that composition becomes more complex and layered when you see at very deep depth of field. With an SLR you only see with the shallowest depth of field, which can yield a different kind of image.

Layers of action in Old Havana. Leica M6TTL, 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit. Fujichrome Provia 100. © Kevin Moloney, 2000

Rangefinders are extremely quiet and subtle cameras, intimidating subjects far less with smaller size, less shutter noise, and by covering much less of your face when you shoot.

They are quick to lift, quick to focus (yes, even manually) and that makes them very stealthy on the street.

With all but the widest lenses, the photographer can see outside the frame while looking through the viewfinder. Once upon a time sports photographers preferred rangefinders because they could see the action coming and anticipate the moment very well. This has proven itself to me over and over. For example when using a long lens — a 90mm or a 135mm — I can see so much of the world outside the frame that catching a fleeting moment becomes simple. You know it is coming before it enters the frame lines. To get the same with an SLR you need that loud, fast, subject-startling motor. Why was le maitre Henri so good at catching those decisive moments? Perhaps because he could see outside the frame of his shot. My timing is much better with a rangefinder than it is with an SLR.

A fleeting bird enters the frame suddenly. Seen outside the frame lines of a Leica M6TTL with a 90mm f/2.0 Apo-Summicron ASPH. Fujichrome Provia IV. © Kevin Moloney, 2008.

Fast motor speeds are irrelevant with these cameras. First because timing is actually easier, and second because if you’re going to spray shots at eight frames per second you might as well use a big obtrusive camera with gigantic zoom lenses.

I use SLRs too, and they have their advantages. Rangefinders just do different things for me.

Leica M8, 50mm f/1.4 Summilux, lens-mounted IR filter. © Kevin Moloney, 2009.

The M9 is certainly a Leica rangefinder. In the hand it only feels different from 50 years of M ancestors because there’s no thumb advance and the body is slightly thicker. The view through the finder is more than familiar. It feels almost exactly like my M8 and much like my M6s.

The construction of this one was fairly solid as I would expect — again, much like my M8. But I have three complaints. Starting with the M6TTL, Leica changed the way the rangefinder is calibrated. Now repairmen need a special tool. I think Leica did this so people would stop wrecking their cameras by trying to fix it themselves (a bit patronizing). But the aftereffect is that the calibration screw cannot be tightened as well even by a good repairman. The cameras are easier to knock out of alignment.

This one was no exception. It is a demo model that had been handled before I picked it up, and sure enough the focus calibration was slightly off. I couldn’t safely use long lenses wide open and be sure of a sharp image. For that I used my better-adjusted M8. On this slightly off M9 the wide angles were razor sharp wide open, but they are more forgiving than a 90mm f/2.0 for example

My other complaint with this one is that the twist latch on the camera’s bottom plate — where you put battery and SD card, and where you once loaded film — was a bit loose. The cover fit perfectly, but the latch handle sagged a bit.

The third complaint is that though my M8 will (albeit begrudgingly) use a high-capacity SD card, the M9 will not yet. I assume that will be corrected in firmware. But with these big files a 2GB card fills fast.

Image Quality

Here’s the important part. The shape of the camera, after all, is more than 50 years old.

Leica M9, 21mm f/2.8 Elmarit ASPH. ISO 160. © Kevin Moloney, 2009.

Resolution

Leica’s first digital rangefinder was the 10-megapixel M8. The M9 has now 18 megapixels. They did this simply with a 30-percent physical increase in size from the M8’s sensor. The pixels themselves are the same size and the same distance apart from each other on the chip.

Though in the digital age the first 8 megapixels were life or death, I have to say these last 8 megapixels make for a much smaller difference. You can see a bit more detail in the images from an M9 than those from the M8. But shooting the M8 raw makes images that can be very nicely interpolated to 25 megapixels and have an image only marginally inferior to one from a 25-megapixel camera.

Print both as large-format magazine doubletrucks and you will not see a difference. You won’t in 16X20 prints either. How much resolution do you need and what is it worth in terms of investment in camera and data storage?

Leica M9, ISO 160, full frame. © Kevin Moloney, 2009.

100% view of the above frame.

The great resolution is achieved in Leica’s cameras by using a much weaker anti-aliasing filter, which does a variety of geeky things including eliminating the moire that happens when photographing visual patterns like window screens.

Though you get a moire slightly more often (it’s not often a big deal) you do get much sharper images. And that sharp Kodak sensor paired with so-sharp-you-can-cut-yourself-on-the-pictures Leica lenses, you can enlarge much more. Pixels be damned.

Resolution is not only about pixel count, and the M8 started in a good place there. But then they made the M9 with 18 megapixels.

Leica M9, 28mm f/2.0 Sumicron ASPH, ISO 640. © Kevin Moloney, 2009.

Color quality

On both cameras the color quality and depth are excellent. It is slightly better on the M9 than the M8. There’s a very rich natural contrast range and good saturation. But the depth is there too, giving a raw shooter the ability to soften contrast, dodge, burn, correct shadows and highlights with as little damage as one finds in new high-end Japanese SLRs.

The M8 was good, though, and still is. I have no complaints about its color depth, though my three-years-newer SLR is a bit deeper. The M9 has caught that fine Japanese machine for color.

The M8 suffered at the beginning from too much infrared sensitivity. This was due to a thinner IR filter on the sensor — a necessary compromise to make the thing fit in such a small body. Leica caught hell for this, probably because with Leica most people expect the camera to start out perfect. And why not at these prices? Leica fixed that with lens-mounted filters, and they gave each M8 buyer two. Problem (almost) solved.

Though wearing a gray suit, the combination of artificial lights and synthetic fabric made Alberto Gonzales' suit turn purple from an excess of infrared light. Leica M8, 90mm f/2.0 Apo-Summicron ASPH, ISO 640. © Kevin Moloney, 2007.

To get the full benefit of that fix also required having the lens mount changed to sport a set of black and white stripes that tell the camera which lens you are using. The cost was $75 per lens (cheap for anything Leica) but took some time. It was particularly necessary with the wide lenses that would suffer a cyan-colored vignette from the filter. Problem exchanged.

With long lenses (50mm and up) that vignette is not noticeable if there at all, so the lens mount change was not as necessary. I skipped it on lenses from 35mm and longer. But then the camera creates image thumbnails that look a bit green and a bit weak on some image browsers like Photo Mechanic that just use them straight from the camera’s file. The images themselves are lovely, but the thumbs can be uninspiring.

By fixing this IR problem in the M9 you gain a couple things. You don’t need the filters anymore and you don’t need the lens mount coding if you can’t afford it.

That 6-bit lens mount code does still have function. It helps the camera correct aberrations and vignettes, and records the focal length in metadata. But who cares? You can fix the very rare lens problem in many raw converters, and only absolute camera geeks care about that level of metadata detail.

The M9 does suffer from one color issue. With extreme wide angle lenses you may see a magenta shift on the sides fading over 1/4 of the frame. It’s annoying. It’s a tricky thing to fix in editing either raw or in Photoshop.

Leica M9, Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5. Note the red/magenta shift on the left side of the frame caused by light striking the pixels at an extreme angle. © Kevin Moloney, 2009.

This is caused by the extreme angle at which the light rays hit the sensor when coming from a super-wide. I see it when I use my inexpensive little Voigtländer 15mm lens. This may be something corrected by the firmware in the M9 when using a Leica branded and coded lens, like their 16mm.

If you like extreme wides, you might think twice, or cash out for the Leica lenses. I use that lens rarely in full-frame shooting. I got it so the cropped-sensor M8 would have a 21mm perspective. It worked very well for that. I doubt I’d use it on an M9 except in emergency.

Noise

Low noise is not the realm of the Leica M8 nor M9. If you want the best quality at insanely high ISOs, have a look at the Japanese models.

But the M9 is a one-stop improvement over the M8, now making shooting at up to 1600 fairly pleasant. Pair that with a series of lenses that are one to four stops faster than a Japanese zoom and you’re fine.

This camera uses a CCD sensor designed for optimum sharpness. They also apply far less firmware noise correction than the high-end DSLRs do. So though they are noisier, the images are sharper. And if I need to fix noise, I’d rather have full computer control myself than leaving it irrecoverably to the camera.

Many have praised the noise of the M8 (and now the M9) as looking more like film grain than other cameras. I love film grain for what it is. But it’s crazy to think of paying $7,000 for film grain. I’d rather have noiseless images at every ISO and add it later if I’m feeling nostalgic.

Leica’s “film grain” noise is not an advantage to praise. But correcting that noise is very easy to do thanks to the sharpness of the images. The M8 or M9 shot raw and processed delicately through Noise Ninja or another software solution yields images as noiseless as a high-end DSLR even at extreme ISO.

I have not posted high-ISO images here because doing so at such a small size is fairly meaningless. But here is a link to a raw file at ISO 1250, the highest rating I tried. Play at your leisure. The camera will go to 2500, but I hadn’t planned a detailed review and rarely shoot there on my own. Other reviewers have nice examples.

Leica M9, 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH, 1/40 sec. at f/1.4, ISO 640. © Kevin Moloney, 2009

Should you get one?

Here’s the deal. The camera body is $7,000 ($5,200 for students). That’s a chunk of change. It’s a couple trips overseas to shoot a story or two. It’s some big Japanese glass. It could pay for lots of things. New lenses start at about $1,300 and shoot to $10,000 each. Used they are half that, but half that is still a lot. I have taken more than 20 years to put together my kit from mostly used gear.

There are great cheaper lenses available from Voigtländer, Zeiss, and Rollei if you can find them. The cameras use almost every Leica lens made since 1955.

But the price is something to think seriously about.

If you have no Leica and want a digital one, I’d say the M9 is your machine. You’ll get happy use from it for years. Get new lenses and you’ll benefit from all that the Leica firmware can provide.

It might be $1,500 better than the M8.2, assuming you could still find an M8.2 new.

It is not $3,000 better than the original M8 if you can find one of those new.

It certainly is not $5,000 better than a used M8 camera.

The older M8 is still a great machine and the differences in practice are very small between it and the M9.

If you’re poor and you REALLY REALLY want full frame, get an M6 or earlier body. The price difference between a used M6 ($1,000) and an M9 would buy an awful lot of Kodak’s amazing new Ektar 100 film, with processing, or many other great films. Buy a Voigtländer camera with their good lenses and save even more.

And if you’d just like to try a rangefinder camera for fun, haunt ebay, flea markets and pawn shops for a 1960s-vintage Canonette, Olympus Pen F or XA, or a Russian or Chinese Leica knockoff.

When you’re sure you are a rangefinder shooter, then the M9 is worth every penny.

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The Three Types of Photojournalist

I’ve long felt there are three types of photojournalist out there. Which are you? Or two? Or three?

The Photographer’s Photographer

One of my personal favorites. Ever. But what does it say about the event? © Kevin Moloney, 1998.

One of my personal favorites. Ever. But what does it say about the event? © Kevin Moloney, 1998.

The Photographer’s Photographer is one who makes pictures for the approval of other photographers. We strive to best each other, impress each other, intrigue each other and feel like modern Cartier-Bressons.

The pictures that result from this effort are amazing in our eyes. They are complex, layered, full of “deeper meaning” or social criticism, and great light. They may even rack up industry awards.

But these images can also be baffling to our readers.

Through my career I have probably more prone to being this photographer than the other two types. I want to excite myself with my work, and my all-time favorite personal images are puzzles of serendipity, or light, or composition that may well just look like a mess to my neighbors. I often imagine non-photo friends wondering “why the heck is that on his wall? I don’t get it.”

The Editor’s Photographer

The trendy gimmicks of the day -- shaken flash and tilted horizon -- made this editor happy for how the image fit the look of the magazine. © Kevin Moloney, 2000.

The trendy gimmicks of the day -- shaken flash and tilted horizon -- made this editor happy for how the image fit the look of the magazine. © Kevin Moloney, 2000.

We live in an image-glutted world. Our modern job description goes beyond the old “just the facts ma’am” idea of reporting the news to also catching reader attention among the unfathomable number of images that cross their device screens, daily papers and HD screens each day. We all strive to make interesting pictures.

If our readers are glutted with images, think of our editors. They get all the same their readers do, plus the feeds of wires, agencies and pesky freelancers. They are buried in them and have a mandate to make their publication stand out on the rack or screen.

Often the most successful photographers in this business are the ones who know exactly what trend, what style, what look, what content is wanted by those editors.

These shooters make money, and we (as above) self-obsessed Bresson aficionados hate them for “selling out.”

I want to be this shooter as well. My freelance career survives because I try (not always succeeding, but I try) to make sure my editor’s needs are met. I need to make a living and I want to not be a bitter old hack when I retire.

But who should we really be serving?

The Reader’s Photographer

Intimacy and compassion for the subjects helps readers connect with this image in a way we too often ignore. © Paul F. Moloney

Intimacy and compassion for the subjects helps readers connect with this image in a way we too often ignore. © Paul F. Moloney

This post is an homage to this rare kind of photojournalist. The one who thinks only of the readers and what details and moments they need to understand and feel the story. No gimmicks. Nothing that can’t be read in three seconds of attention to the page or screen.

This kind of photographer’s images jump off the page or screen not just because of complex layers, cool trendy techniques, or moody toning. They jump out at the average person for their honesty, understanding, and ability to tell a story.

If you really want to understand what your readers want or appreciate in a photo, look at what non-photographers choose from among their own pictures or yours. It grants deep insight into what in a photo is valuable to your reader.

I know one photographer who is purely a reader’s photographer. Find his work here. And I don’t just say that because I’m related to him. He really does only care about what his readers think, and they love his images. He speaks directly to them — not around them, over their heads, or to only a select few of them.

How would you describe your purpose as a photojournalist? If you use that time-honored definition of “visual reporter,” or “visual story teller,” then aspire in this direction.

We have elements of all three of these photographers in us, and balance can add immense value to our work. I want to stay intrigued with my own work so I don’t burn out. I want to be proud of it. I also want to complete the job well, earn a living and get more calls from those editors. But if I am really a photojournalist then the readers should be the highest of my concerns.

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