6.09.2021

Just thinking over some ideas about photography. Bringing some ideas from the golden age of magazine photojournalism to the present...

This was taken on a corporate retreat. 
A company was hosting many of their executives at 
one of the most expensive and exclusive resort hotels in North
America in order to discuss "why the company was unprofitable." 

I'm not sure why but I woke up this morning thinking about an article in Life Magazine from the 1940s-1950s. The same article was covered as an example of great photojournalism in the first edition of the Time/Life photography books (which were quite good!). It featured Gwynd Filling who was portrayed as a 
 "Career Girl" in NYC. To see a version of the article I found this at Billboard: https://www.thebillfold.com/2015/01/the-working-life-of-gwyned-filling-the-career-girl-of-1948/

This particular story resonated with me on a number of different levels but mostly, I think, I was impressed by the immersion and time commitment of the photographer. Here is an excerpt from a Chicago Tribune interview with Ms. Filling 50 years after the publication which gives me a glimpse at how different photo stories were then:

"Weeks of shooting

Photographer Leonard McCombe spent four weeks with her and shot 4,000 pictures--showing readers her 15-cent breakfast, what her job was like, where she lived, what she did on weekends and whom she dated. And considered racy at the time: a shot of her in a bathtub."

That photographer, Leonard McCombe, spent four weeks working on this one story is so wildly different than what we expect from (non-conflict) photojournalism now. Most assignments today are based around the idea of coming up with one "iconic" image of a person or celebrity which will be used as the header or lead-in for short, written articles. And the saddest thing is that these iconic images are mostly an opaque avatar for a person, generated by mixing popular photographic memes from the crowdsourced "creativity" of the web, interpreted by a photographer whose concerns are limited to getting "one great shot" which tells us nothing. I think of it as the "Annie Leibovitz Effect." 

The sad thing about the comparison between a current celebrity shot or human interest photo shot now and a fully fleshed out human interest story from over 70 years ago is that our current images tell us nothing about the subject while the deep diving approach of the late 1940s shows so much more, invites us to emotionally connect with the subject, and elicits empathy and interest. It's the difference between seeing a glorified selfie shot in limbo and sitting down for a nice, long conversation punctuated by layers and layers of images, each of which tell an interesting part of a larger story. 

Celebrity photographers today are famous for slamming through 4,000 nearly identical images in a session. Photojournalists of the past are better known for committing to going beyond the surface or reflexive images and finding the actual "human interest" and universality of their subjects. Leonard McCombe used his 4,000 exposures to dig into Gwyned's day to day life in a way that still seems authentic and visually interesting today. One finished frame of Bette Midler in a bathtub filled with milk? Not so much. 

So, why am I thinking about this at all? Why now? Part of it is no doubt nostalgia but another part is my selfish desire to go back to some semblance of the freedom photographers had in the past to make fully developed stories. To have the time to get past the almost impenetrable shields that surround subjects today. Because, sadly, with each shortening deadline, or time-limited opportunity for engagement, our ability to get anything beyond a contrived, surface reflection as a single photograph is ever diminished. 

I woke up thinking (in a small way) about the changes I'd like to see in my world of photography. I started thinking about how to make the old approach to total immersion photography in a project work in today's nervous, hurried and needlessly frantic culture. I'm afraid, other than self-funded projects, that I am at somewhat of a loss. 

The idea popped up while I was making coffee that I might be able to devise a business model of doing a deeper sort of photojournalism and historic visual documentation for large corporations. Somehow figuring out how to create a value for them by having more complete and more intimate coverage of how they work and how their cultures work with photographs not taken over the course of a day or two but by diving in deeply and daily for weeks at a time. 

I once worked for a magazine that started up here in Austin called, Texas Life. I proposed an article once about a restaurant that had existed in San Antonio since the 1930's. It was called, Earl Abels Restaurant. It was located at the intersection of Broadway and Hildebrand Rd. Here's what Wikipedia has to say by way of introduction: 

Earl Abel's is a popular restaurant in San Antonio, Texas that opened in 1933 and existed at one location at Broadway and Hildebrand from 1940 until 2006. It has been popular for its diverse menu ranging from Fried Chicken and Rainbow Trout to its selection of desserts including German chocolate cake and lemon meringue pie; its clientele included the well-to-do from nearby Alamo Heights, businessmen and politicians including Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez who got in a fist fight at the restaurant in 1986 with a fellow customer who called him a communist, as well as many U.S. Army personnel stationed at nearby Fort Sam Houston.

I pitched an article to the magazine and proposed to cover the scene at this 24 hour, seven day a week, institution for a full cycle of their daily operations. I met with the owners and got their buy-in. I went by and introduced myself to the managers of the various shifts and as many of the staff as I could. I wanted to spend  lots of time shooting and hanging out in between shots so the waiters and cooks would eventually get used to my presence, bored by the mundane-ness of actual photography, and would go about their normal business. 

The photography was all done strictly with available light and I covered everything from couples in their 80s coming by in the afternoon for a slice of black bottom icebox pie to the late night arrival of drag queens stopping by for a nightcap from the bar and some of Earl's famous fried chicken. I was there in the morning when the police officers, lawyers, entrepreneurs and early risers came in for their omelets, biscuits and coffee. And I learned about some of the restaurant worker's history with the restaurant. Including three generations of one family who all worked at there together. 

I got to decide how, aesthetically, I would handle the photography. I chose to do it all with black and white film. I shot with quiet, discreet, rangefinder cameras. I hand developed the film, made contact sheets and then made my own final prints on black and white paper in my darkroom. 

The magazine used my story and photos well. The black and white images covered a number of pages and the article was driven mostly by a combination of photographs and captions, with copy providing the skeleton for the story. I loved it. It was so different from the "one hour hits" that most editorial work at the time had devolved into. 

It didn't pay well. I can't remember what I was paid for the whole package but I'm betting it was close to minimum wage at the time. But that was the nature of working for a start-up magazine... And the opportunity I made for myself to do work I liked was well worth the trade off. 

I'd love to work with a company to create a longer form, journalistic piece that wasn't specifically one issue oriented but instead was a nuanced, intimate and honest look at evolving corporate culture. I'd like to spend the time with CEOs, engineers and phone bankers to show how the whole process works. To create a human interest article about their challenges, their successes and their failures and their humanity. But to do so with  depth and deeper understanding. 

It might be a pipe dream. On the other hand, if I don't push to find out then I'll never know what's possible. 

I do know this: Leonard McCombes was a really good photographer and Life Magazine created a framework for photojournalism that's still mostly unrivaled. Can we build a 2020's version of their process? Would there be an audience for it?

Or will we be forever tied to the banner photo at the top of 800-1200 words? Just pondering....

The images below are from Eeyore's Birthday Party, done a few years back with a Sony RX10iii. When I make photos like this some small part of my own brain is always referencing the work I saw in those Time/Life books by McCombes. That's a long reach back.....