Friday, January 8, 2010

news clips: a first pop

The first photograph of mine ever published in a daily paper was of a firecracker exploding in the hand of a kid standing in a Mount Vernon parking lot. It wasn't a "great" shot, but it did "capture the moment" (see glossary) and it was taken on a slow news day, which was also the Fourth of July, two lessons in successful photojournalism which are worth noting because they amply demonstrate how and why certain images reach the public, often in lieu of much better ones.

It was 1/4 incentive and 2/4 "newsworthy", chiefly, once again because it was a certain event happening on a certain day when a certain need arose. The other 1/4 came from my motor drive (at 1/1000th of a second), which captured an image that I honestly never even actually saw happen at that moment, at least with my own two eyes.

If I'd kept a copy of it (which I never bothered to do) I'd show it off to you now, but again, I didn't, and because of that you will likely imagine that it was far better than it really was. That's one more important thing: the facts surrounding a particular photo are often less interesting than the actual image itself. Your imagination will serve to fill in the blanks (the fragments of paper bursting in all directions, the look on the kids face), applying your own standards and imagination in the process, and I will gladly take the credit. I'd be crazy not to. That's the gig. When you win, you're a whiz, and when you screw up, the readers don't even know about it. Magic. Illusion, really. But that's the nature of the gig, as I said.

Not much later, after I'd signed on with that first daily paper (the Skagit Valley Herald) back in 1984, a favorite newsroom joke was repeated to me, which was: if you got more than two photographers in a room together, the first thing they'd do is appoint an awards committee. Funny, and also not entirely inaccurate.

Now, I'm sure no stranger to photo contests, nor to the large helping of foolish pride frequently attached to pursuing them. They can be heart breakers, but also career makers. And especially for the unknown photographer, they can provide a crucial means by which their best work, and their name, can be seen outside the small town where they may feel professionally marooned. In some cases this will mean it is shared with top editors and photographers from across the entire U.S., or even around the world. The effect of that kind of exposure (pardon the expression) can be nothing short of miraculous. My own career might have stalled right where it began were it not for a handful of winning photos that caught the eye of just the right folks, at just the right time. More on that later.

There was a time (I need also mention that it is a tradition now almost wholly extinct), where most newsroom employees (which includes reporters, photographers, editors, layout folks, advertising people, the entire lot) all began their respective careers at the very bottom and worked their way up, inch by (column) inch. In that distant, semi-non-computer-stone-age era there was still such a thing as a "print-out" (news copy being physically printed out before being passed on the next editor), and subsequently, a need for some poor schmuck to shuttle paper from desk to desk to desk. Copyboy, was the vernacular of the day, but in '85 it was a job description with a short lifespan.

From that lowly post (and a 35mm camera, or ninth-grade grasp of the English language) you could conceivably work your way up to be a part-time "stringer", when you would occasionally be asked to cover a story or two, which very likely would be "breaking news" or a piss-grade local sports event. The same rule applied to any prospective photogs, except their lowest rung would be shooting "real estate" photos (in fact, houses for sale or rent), or used cars for the advertising sections.

With signature aplomb, it was little time before us "shooters" began competing for top honors, which in this case would come for having invested the very least amount of time possible required to shoot the actual picture. Note: When considering this dubious distinction, it is important to consider the extremely hybrid - and insular - environment of the average newsroom. In this particular case, the winner eventually was a photographer who not only didn't leave his car to get his shot, but simply photographed it by rolling down his drivers-side window and firing his motor drive as he (briefly) slowed the car while passing by. 1st Place!

Honors, by necessity, had to be gathered such as they were. On one car lot "assignment" I recall having to wait while a dealer coasted a vehicle out onto the lot by hand, not just because it simply lacked a battery, but also because it would not have started even if it had had one. This so that I could take an unobstructed photo of the vehicle for his weekly half-page ad, which proclaimed "Great Little Commuter - Needs a New Home!". True story, needless to mention.

On another occasion, as I scribbled down the details of a dealers weekly lineup, the sales staff (composed largely of men five to ten years older than me, mind you) took turns shooting me in the ass with paper clips, fired over their desks from across the room.

These were humbling affairs, for reporters and photogs alike, but their sting was always softened with the hopeful prospect of a shot at the real deal, which meant landing a full-time job at real newspaper (any newspaper), and the opportunity to be working on "real" news stories on a daily basis.

Starting out was always a tough gig for news folks, and one fueled far more by fantasy than the desire for overtime pay, an idealistic inclination that most any newspaper was (and still is, I'm guessing) only too happy to oblige. The "big" assignment beckoned.

As it turns out, however, when compared to sleazy car lots and real estate ads, your first so-called breaking news or sporting events often measure only a notch or two up on the scale of mediocrity, and - in grand newspaper tradition - they're frequently garnered standing in the rain, or working late on weeknights and holidays, most often with the verbal arrangement that your work time is officially "off the clock".

But, after all, what is life without the fantasy of fame or fortune? Or at the very least, a photo credit?

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