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Creating images that last beyond the day has been Mike’s mission in settings as diverse as National Geographic magazine, The White House, several books, various newspapers and even pdxcross.com…

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Tuesday
Feb082011

What is a newspaper photograph?

Cliff Edom looks at prints entered in the 1986 Pictures of the Year, the last year that prints were judged. Cliff founded the photojournalism program at the University of Missouri and co-founded POY. I made this picture during my first year of graduate school at Missouri. I wonder whether the types of images being entered has changed. © Mike Davis

Pictures of the Year International (POYi) began judging the newspaper categories of the prestigious competition this week. It has been my intention to write about what I’ve called newspapery photographs for a while, to explain further what that means, at least from my perspective.

Two friends and I just judged the National Press Photographers Association national monthly clip contest, which provided further impetus to write this post.

In the professional photography realm, newspaper photographers tend to fall in the middle to lower levels of quality - though there are some incredibly talented newspaper photographers. Newspaper photography is better than most newsletters or in-house organs and some web site photography. It’s usually not as good as the better magazines. Most newspaper photographers wouldn’t cut it as agency or wire service photographers and could succeed freelancing only at the less dimensional level.

That may sound like a slam on newspaper photographers. Sorry about that. Truth is, few newspapers are good at producing compelling imagery. Not all of that shortcoming is the photographers’ fault.

Chances are that newspaper photographs have these qualities or factors that play into their making and choosing. (Certainly the same qualities hold true for many images that don’t run in newspapers.)

  • The dominant element will be in or near the center of the frame. You can probably draw an oval in the center portion of most of the photographs and what is outside that oval will not be important.
  • Something active will be happening and the photograph will only be about that active, verb layer - people doing things. What is behind the action layer of the photograph will often be irrelevant to the composition and won’t add to understanding or compositional dynamic.
  • A given photograph will be made and chosen more because of the photograph’s caption than the strength of the image, the potential of the subject matter or the seeing of the photographer.
  • Light and color are often sacrificed because the photo had to be made at a time when neither quality was optimal. And typically, because the image is about an action layer, even if there is good light and color, it will be sacrificed to position the action layer head-on in the center of the frame between four and ten feet from the subject.
  • Chances are that if what was photographed is not interesting, the photograph will not be interesting.
  • There probably won’t be small elements in the photograph that are critical to the image’s success, and if there are, they’re often cropped out as distracting elements to the action layer.

With no surprise at all, these same qualities are ones that I’ve written about elsewhere here. They are aspects that keep your photography from being stellar, regardless of whether you work for a newspaper.

But at a newspaper, you are rarely in charge of deciding what you photograph, when you make the pictures, which images are chosen or how they run. So the negative aspects above can compound with each step. Chances are, people with no photogrpahy or design training or experience outside of their newspaper will make most decisions that affect what is photographed, when it's photographed and which images run and how they run.

But you are, as a newspaper photographer, in charge of what happens when you raise the camera. When you’re on assignment, you can be free to explore your potential as a photographer - especially once you meet the generally minimal needs of the paper. I say that the newspaper’s needs are minimal because the editors typically send you out to solve a problem, to satisfy a need to connect an image to a story. What kind of image isn’t so important as long as what it depicts refers to the lead of the story. (This is true in the majority of newspapers but not all of them, of course.)

While that minimal expectation can be frustrating, it can also be freeing because once you’ve met the needs of the paper, you can find interesting images in almost any situation - or not, depending on your attitude and abilities. Attitudes are easy to change - if you want to - and ability can be developed, in some but not everyone.

So give yourself a gift. See things you didn’t, go beyond what the assignment sheet says and defeat the bulleted points above. For yourself.

You can.

Reader Comments (24)

This is a great post - thanks for sharing the insight - intuitively I sort of knew this, but never was able to identify it until now.

JSturr

February 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJSturr

Thanks John. I'm glad it's helpful.

February 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterMike Davis

I've been trying to break out of this mindset for a while. Thanks for articulating it so well.

February 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEric Kayne

The thesis of the post seems to be this: the more visually sophisticated the photograph, the more effective and "better" it is. And because visually sophisticated photographs aren't very common in most newspapers, newspaper photographers are therefore inferior to magazine or agency photographers, who more commonly submit more visually sophisticated images.

If you're measuring the efficacy of photographs on their sophistication, you may be right. But if you're measuring the efficacy of photographs on if they connect emotionally with the viewer and if they convey information to the viewer, as I believe you should in journalism photography, you are incorrect.

A newspaper photograph may rely on the moment pictured to be compelling. This takes a special set-of skills from the photographer: patience, the ability to read people, the ability to get people to trust you, careful observation, preparation, etc. A magazine/agency photography may rely on aesthetic elements to be compelling and communicate: light, color, composition, etc.

Who is to say which is inherently superior? Magazine/agency photographs that are high on (sometimes self-indulgent) sophistication and craft are not inherently better than those which communicate in more basic ways. They're just different. Both can be compelling for different reasons and through different techniques.

How about some respect for the different genres of photography? How about acknowledging that photographs that may appear to be basic in composition and craft can actually be really compelling and effective at connecting with and communicating to the viewer? How about acknowledging that there is a skill in being able to synthesize a story down to a single photograph that a mass-audience can understand?

To throw out photographs that violate your bullet points would be to throw out some of the most memorable and well-knows images ever. You can't tell me that "Migrant Mother" isn't compelling because it isn't layered and the subject is in the middle of the frame.

- Joe

PS- When you apologize and you don't really mean it, it comes off as condescending and insulting.

February 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Jaszewski

and the sad truth is as the industry has shrunk and the economy has soured, the first thing to go has been picture editors... from the outside that looks like a job that a page designer or a copy editor can do. Everything you say about bad pictures in newspapers has been multiplied by 10 in the last five years... and I can't wait for frame grabs!

February 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Cavaretta

This is a very important, sobering read. I am the photo editor at my college paper and I've been looking for something this concise to distribute to my staffers. I've been telling them individual points for so long, I think a majority has been lost - this helps everyone.
Thank you.

February 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

Mike, interesting analysis. Good advice to newspaper photojournalists, stop trying to please everyone and use your talents to tell the story. Not easy to do, but worth the effort.

February 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSean D. Elliot

Thank you all for the comments so far. I suspected this post would generate response. Joe J., you offer a perspective that is familiar. To clarify, by no means is all newspaper photography simplistic, nor all magazine/agency photography sophisticated. Without a doubt, Migrant Mother is one of the more compelling photographs ever made, in spite of its seeming simplicity. As I've said in other posts, photographs don't have to have tons of elements to be compelling, but they do have to be geometrically successful, which takes precise crafting of composition, light
Joe C. - I agree.
The irony in all of this is that newspapers have the potential to do the most significant work on the planet, given their staffing and resources - even though both are reduced from former states.

February 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterMike Davis

A really great article, I agree wholeheartedly! It is amazing what you can come up with when you think outside the square of what you are supposed to be photographing for work. I find it makes your daily grind a lot more pleasurable when you are constantly looking for something different. Unfortunately what we shoot for work can be very regimented but it is up to the individual to push the boundaries.

February 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenny Evans

The great, and distinguishing, part about POY and other contests is that the images that are submitted are actually seen outside of the madness of a daily/weekly/monthly. (as is evidenced by your photo at the top of this post :) It's an opportunity to look back through stories and re-witness them through fresh eyes and have a group of professionals out there, such as yourself, look closely at things that, in the heat of publishing, are often overlooked.

February 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

Really interesting post Mike. Just sent it out to the PJ listserve here at Mizzou.

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Fallon

mike, thank you so much for your honest, sobering words. i've been repeatedly thankful that you share your thoughts and wisdom with the world. i always learn something in each new post. i have it in mind to work with you in the future, and i really look forward to it. i'm pretty sure you will blow my mind.

i've only been in the newspaper world, as a freelancer, for just over a year, but i already find that i repeatedly shoot for the paper rather than myself. my editor has even reminded me, more than once, to shoot for myself/in my style (the reason he hired me, he says) and while i have tried to push myself to do that when time allows, i notice that i often still send in my "safe" "newspapery" photos as first pick. i believe my work, the paper, and the readers suffer because of that, and i think it's time i knock it off. i've also allowed myself to lose the advantage of working in person with my editor and fellow photographers at the paper (it's hard when people are hardly in the office anymore). your words here today have encouraged me so much that i already called my editor and set up a weekly meeting to go over my work from the previous week. i can't wait to see how i and my photographs change from this point on. thanks again!

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMicah Escamilla

An excellent post and thoughtful insight for all of us who love journalism. Please note that I don’t say “photojournalism” as the camera is only a tool to good storytelling.
The monthly NPPA clip contest is somewhat reflective of what our colleagues feel is the best of the best. It’s not for lack of talent, but maybe direction.
http://oneheartonemind.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/an-engaged-photojournalist/

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGary Miller

I agree with Joe. Newspaper photographers have to work to deadline for starters. We don't get big budgets and assistants. It's gritty - think fast on your feet - type of stuff. I think this is what makes newspaper photography such a difficult genre. I have always adopted the shoot the safe shot first then do something more creative. Sometimes they will choose the more creative, it just depends who is deciding that night. So other photographers shouldn't think we are not taking those pictures, they just are not always the ones that end up in print.

I totally disagree with your opinion Mike, that we fall into the middle to lower end of the professional photography realm. I think having to create the best image you can in the very small amount of time you get to do it in requires better than average ability and talent. Lets leave the 'lower end' to the wedding photograhers.

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJodie

@Jodie: Lumping any group categorically wouldn't be right. As I said, there are amazing newspaper photographers. And there are amazing wedding photographers. What is true for most is not true of all.
As for spending little time with a subject, that's an all too typical quality for photographers, regardless of who writes their check. At the same time, more time alone does not produce better pictures. Being there at the right time is equally important.
The goal in all of this is to say that you are in charge of the pictures you make. There are scores of layers involved in the making of pictures and newspapers introduce a specific set of limitations concurrent with their possibilities.
In the end, some of the best work I've been involved with was at newspapers and some of the most talented photographers worked and continue to work for newspapers - Joe Cavaretta among them. I applaud the best of what you do and sympathize with the rest.

February 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterMike Davis

Having worked in the newspaper world for the past 25 years at small, medium and large publications, I can relate to what Mike writes.
The creative bar is set very low at newspapers.
Non-visual decision makers, poorly planned assignments. over-worked and under-appreciated photographers, a shrinking news hole and, most of all, an aversion to risk-taking leads to an expected and usually bland product.
Painting with a broad brush, most newspapers publish the same type of photos day after day, week after week and year after year.
That all being said, I love working at newspapers.
Newspapers have financed my self-generated projects. Newspapers have allowed me to see the world and explore my community. Newspapers have given me the luxury to take mental breaks doing the daily thing between creative outbursts.
I am highly self-motivated and have never allowed the occasional hater around me to dampen my enthusiasm.
Just because mediocre is good enough for the people we work for doesn't mean we only have to produce images that are just good enough.

February 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott Strazzante

Bravo @ Scott

February 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterMike Davis

"While that minimal expectation can be frustrating, it can also be freeing because once you’ve met the needs of the paper, you can find interesting images in almost any situation."

As a staffer the above statement is my modus operandi. There are restrictions and challenges to daily newspaper photography that may not be present in the wire/magazine word. Yes the newspaper photo can't be too complex visually because we print on the equivalent of a paper towel and it's gotta read. Also, we do it daily. I am half of a newspaper photo department and we publish seven days a week with high school sports taking up 4-6 of those nights. Also, we need to have our photos captioned, color corrected and ready for web by 8pm. When my assignment is at 7:30 that means I spray and pray.

I think it's also tough to produce visually complex and rewarding work that a copy editor will dismiss as "too dark," an editor will disregard and ask why there aren't 20 more photos in the gallery all while trying to avoid getting the axe because corporate profits aren't big enough. I choose to keep those photos for myself to keep myself sane and keep my gallery shows interesting.

My 2 cents. Thanks for the article.

February 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPat Jarrett

Mike,

Thank you for the kick in the creative pants. It's good to be re-challenged from time to time to make better images, and clearly there is room for improvement (for me and the industry as a whole). I'm sure every photojournalist has submitted images that could have been executed better, and probably more often than they care to admit.

Your characterization of the typical newspaper photograph as simple and literal is accurate enough. You and other commenters have mentioned many real factors contributing to the lack of depth.

I don't know, though, if it's fair to blame newspaper photographers for making "one-sentence pictures" any more than it is to blame newspaper writers for writing articles that are more "Woodward and Bernstein" than "Steinbeck."

The job of the news photojournalist, as I understand it, is to be at the scene, learn the facts and distill the most salient into a single image that summarizes the story. Content is king, and all other considerations are secondary. Some contest results suggest otherwise, but maybe in the context of news photography, maybe "better" doesn't mean "more creative," as much as "more succinct and accurate." For most readers, then, the simple, literal photograph isn't a letdown but a success. After all, newspapers (or at least the news sections) exist to report news. The story has to be about the story, not the talents of the photographer.

February 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Ginn

Mike:

Much of what you say is true. Now retired, I worked at a few significant newspapers for more than 35 years.

Much of my time was spent as a section editor or news editor. Among my responsibilities was photo editing and page designing. I wasn't given much training in college (although I did have a photo legend -- Will Counts -- as one of my instructors). Most of what I learned was on the job when I got out of school.

I worked for two of the best sports sections in the nation and the nightly drill was the same. Figure out a hole for the dominant section-front photo and hope that what came in between 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. worked. If time permitted, I'd quickly redesign the front for an outstanding photo that simply had to get in. In the early days of color, deadlines for color production were ridiculously early -- but we did have "color." I don't know if you were aware of the color separations from the wire services.

Sometimes I was directed to use smaller photos so we could run more type on the section front and, hopefully, jump fewer stories. Those pages were horrible. And please recognize that I was not only selecting and cropping photos on a tight deadline, I was also news editing and designing pages. I really depended on the photographers to simply come up with some great stuff. And their talents varied widely.

But, like Scott said, I wouldn't have traded my newspaper experience for anything else. I loved it -- I remember the smell of the old composing rooms and hot type. I think we did the best we could.

One other thing: I had a great relationship with our photographers.

February 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Sutton

"In the professional photography realm, newspaper photographers tend to fall in the middle to lower levels of quality..."

Bullshit. Absolute bullshit. Absolute fucking bullshit. Oh, and not true, too.

Please grab a few wedding photographers, an Olin Mills dude or two and try to put out a paper. Please. I think your appraisal of the "professional photography realm" and where newspaper photographers rank is way off, if not because of your feelings about the work of photojournalists, then because of your apparent fondness for or lack of realization of all the other sorts of photo hacks out there. In the grand scheme of things, I would put newspaper photographers near the top of the talent pool in any given city.

Also, I don't quite see how your argument about the negative effects of non-visual folks screwing things up relates to your judgment of the photographers themselves, as if others make them a lesser photographer. When you judge any photographer in a general way, you must include their published and non-published work. To not do so is to judge the publication instead.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Dye

Mike,

I think you are absolutely wrong. It’s not the photographer’s skill level as much as it is the times in which they are living.

Producing a quality visual package takes time that a working newspaper photographer does not have in many circumstances.

The skill is there, but it can be hard to explore creativity when you have twenty minutes to shoot one assignment before moving on to the next, or when the photographer has to shoot video for the web, or when management is pushing quantity over quality.

Today the art of visual story telling is out the door along with photo editors at many small and medium circulation newspapers, and those are the places where most wire service photographers get their start.

The question that should be asked: Why aren’t there more photo editors, and who now advocates for visual story telling?

Hal Smith,

February 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHal Smith

I think Mike makes a number of good points in this post. At the most fundamental level his assessment of newspaper photographers as a whole is most likely correct, a fact reinforced by nature of the POYi winners in the newspaper categories. It seems like they shoot and work as much like magazine photographers as possible. I think the point of Mike's that people may be missing is that you are not forced to shoot like a "newspaper" photographer just because that happens to be where you work.

The one shortcoming I see in this article is a lack of acknowledgment of the poor nature of the photo leadership at many small and medium sized papers. I suppose in a effort to preserve themselves and their staffs, photo editors and directors have allowed their departments to become little more than service bureaus within the newsroom rather than effective advocates for their photographers being important and independent journalists within the newsroom. Unfortunately, this makes the photo desk far more exposed to lay offs etc in the long term because as the quality of output is lowered it makes it easier for accountants and publishers to justify using reporters with point and shoots to replace the photo staff.

February 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

The changes I have seen in the 19 years since my retirement as a newspaper photographer of 35 years at a major paper have been in the display of unconventional photographs, negative space which enhances a shot is not cropped out, etc. , all because some picture savvy photo editors are looking for impact, attention grabbing images.

Yet the disappointing aspect to me is the comments those images garner, "Did you see that great picture in the paper?"

Not a word about the subject. To me, and many may not agree, is that when a viewer sees the picture with all it's sophistication before/instead the subject depicted, that photo is a failure as communication, at best it is something to enter in a contest or hang on the wall.

As a newspaper photographer one needs to inform the reader first and foremost what was happening, that's where the journalism part comes in. If the time allows and you want to take some pretty pictures to enter in a contest or keep in your locker, fine.

....Ott

February 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOtt

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