The View from Edo's Window, 2011
Yars years ago I went to a lecture given by an award-winning photojournalist. This Famous Photographer was well known for a number of powerful news photographs, including some taken during what were in those years periodic floods of the James River into the lower lying precincts of Richmond, Virginia.
The people who filled the auditorium that night oohed and aahed as the slides clicked by. We remembered the pictures and the events shown because, as in the case of the floods, they combined a dramatic portrayal of nature’s fury with human interest.
It’s a given in photojournalism that you don’t pose pictures. You avoid what the AP Style Book refers to as “mindless documentation.” But you don’t use the tricks of the photographer’s trade to change lighting, improve sight lines, removing distractions and otherwise edit scenes. People get fired for doing that kind of stuff.
At one point in the presentation, the Famous Photographer was asked about a photograph that showed a group of National Guardsmen lazing across the top of a sand bag dam holding back the flood waters from downtown. It looked almost as if they were working on their tans.
“Did it bother the Guardsmen that you caught them sunning when they should have been looking more productive?” an audience member asked.
“No,” the Famous Photographer said. “I actually posed them there. They didn’t want to be photographed that way, but I talked them into doing it.” He even grinned at the memory of having charmed the soldiers into going along with his photo idea. And then he proceeded to explain how a good half of the pictures we’d seen that night had been posed to achieve his desired dramatic effect.
I don’t know how many people in the room that night changed the way they thought about the Famous Photographer or about the integrity of the awards he’d won after hearing this admission. Did the judges know the Famous Photographer had staged his “news” shots? Did his editors? (I do know that one of his editors once published a front page, above-the-fold photo of a man dressed as a woman thinking the person shown was an authentic Southern belle.) This revelation hit me hard, which I suppose happens a lot when you put people up on pedestals and then learn that they’re mortal like everyone else.
I’m not a photojournalist, so I have no such ethical standards to worry about. The other day I was having lunch with a friend at Edo’s Squid in Richmond. Just as I started to eat my lunch (penne all’Amatriciana, very good) I happened to look at the next table over and notice the light spilling across the tabletop and refracting through water glasses left askew by earlier diners. Just as I was lifting my camera to take a picture, a waitress came by and started to clean the table. When she saw that I was taking a picture she stepped away. But the damage had been done. She left the glasses in a slightly more orderly pattern that didn’t refract the light in the same way and removed a cloth napkin that had provided a nice element of texture in the scene.
I initially cursed at myself for missing the original picture. But then I realized that like the Famous Photographer I could recreate the orginal scene. I tossed my own napkin over onto the table. But the effect wasn’t the same. I didn’t like the result, even with my attempt at styling. Instead I turned back to the table and took the picture above.
At The Next Table, 2011