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In the early 1990s, photographer David Alan Harvey worked on a profile of the famous American painter Andrew Wyeth for National Geographic magazine. Wyeth passed away last month and so I’ve asked David to recount his experience on the assignment.
David Griffin: National Geographic rarely does living biographies, why do you think Wyeth was seen as an exception and worthy of coverage by NGM?
David Alan Harvey: I think Andrew Wyeth represents in an artistic way a real Americana. His painted "fantasies" are probably the dreams of many Americans. So many Americans feel tied to rural roots, whether they actually grew up on the farm or not. On top of that, his work is quite comprehensible and he was indeed a living legend.
DG: How long was the assignment?
DAH: I had very few shooting days due to the elusiveness of Wyeth himself. He loved to play cat and mouse. He tested my resolve, because he denied most photographers access to his life. I think I was on that assignment for six weeks. I mostly waited. It took all of my ability and patience and "public relations" skills to make this story work. I only shot 35 rolls of black & white film. This story was literally "one picture at a time."
DG: What was Wyeth like to work with? Was he easy to approach?
DAH: Andy was a prankster. Like a young boy. He always wanted to throw me off track, and see if I could pick up on it. For him the whole process was a game. But I liked him. I can be pretty playful myself!
DG: At one point you met Helga, his famous model. How did Andrew and she interact?
DAH: I never thought in a million years I would see Helga, much less photograph her. I only shot three frames of her with Andy. He "gave" me the picture that was in the magazine. So there was no real way for me to know how they interacted. Since he painted about a hundred nudes of her, I would imagine they interacted just fine.
DG: What was your favorite image from the coverage, and why is it so?
DAH: I liked the shot of Andy coming through the window. THAT was Andy. He was out on the roof just walking around dangerously. Again, like an errant child. When he came back through the window, I was there. One frame. Literally.
DG: Earlier you mentioned shooting this in B&W, what was the thinking behind this decision?
DAH: I convinced the editor to go with black & white for one simple reason: I knew the coverage would be mostly Wyeth paintings on the page. I felt that my saturated Kodachrome look would just be garish up against his monochromatic paintings. My suggestion to the Editor was that if we went B&W that the Wyeth paintings would jump out and our photographs would stand on their own as well without conflicting with his work. I got the go-ahead for B&W in about 15 seconds.
DG: When you approached this, was your aesthetic choices for this shoot influenced by his painting style?
DAH: I had been influenced by Andrew Wyeth long before I ever knew I would shoot a story on him. I knew my work would blend with his no matter what I was thinking.
DG: You are an artist, did you feel a connection?
DAH: Absolutely. The only reason I could put up with Andy was because I could identify with him. I think he felt the same.
DG: Do you feel Wyeth recognized, acknowledged photography as an art form? Did he have any views on this?
DAH: He did not talk about photography. But I brought him a print of mine as a gift, and when I came back a few weeks later it was hanging in his living room. He was also friends with Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was the only other photographer who ever spent any amount of time with Andy.
DG: What was the strangest moment during your time with him?
DAH: The moment when he seated me next to Helga for Thanksgiving dinner. She was in disguise. In costume. I had no idea the woman next to me was Helga. Andy loved this joke. I guess she liked talking to me, so a few days later she showed up for the picture in the studio. I guess it always pays to be nice with whomever you are sitting at dinner whether you know who they are or not!
DG: Do you know how he reacted to the publishing of the story?
DAH: I never saw Andy again after the story. I heard the family was pleased.
DG: Was your later work (or life) influenced by Wyeth?
DAH: My life is always influenced by the people I meet. Both the well known and the unknown. What I loved about Andy was that he thought about nothing else but painting. His wife Betsy ran the "business." Without Betsy, Andy would probably not have sold a single painting. I saw the blend of art and commerce with this team. No one person can do both. But, it was Andy's freestyle way of living and playing and being very serious at the same time that both influenced and reinforced my overall life philosophy.
Check out David Alan Harvey’s new online blogazine, Burn.
Last month I proffered that due to both digital capture and digital delivery of images, the playing field for great photography is being leveled. So how can a professional photographer maintain an edge?
In a word: consistency.
I honestly believe that everyone has at least one great photograph in them, and the tools available today mean that the capture and distribution of that one great image dramatically increases the chance it will be seen by a broad audience.
But to be a professional, you need to be able to make more than just one great image—you have to make them all the time. Any publication dedicating resources to the creation of original photography needs to be assured that the photographers on assignment will come back with the goods.
Each type of publication has specific visual needs. Newspapers use workhorse photographers who can produce good images on very tight deadlines. The news weeklies’ needs are similar but want work that is elevated aesthetically and can hold together over multiple pages. Monthly publications, such as National Geographic, hire photographers who specialize in long-form narrative or complex conceptualization.
If the Geographic was only looking for photographers that only create single images, the playing field of candidates would be very large indeed. But when we seek out a photographer they must prove (before they get an assignment) that they have a consistent vision and a masterful sense of narrative.
To get an idea of what I’m talking about, take a look at some of the masterful coverage from the January 2009 issue. Randy Olson spent years visiting some of the most brutal locations around the globe for his coverage on Gold. Micheal Melford brings a beautiful consistency to his landscape work on Russia’s Kronotsky Reserve. Joel Sartore, who has a strong passion for endangered species, used a unifying studio approach to documenting animals who are going extinct in a story titles "Last One." And Chris Morris, who is new to the pages of NGM, brings a unique eye to covering one of the most mysterious cultures on earth: The Presidency. Each of these photographers and their many colleagues are not just natural talents, they work extremely hard and are unwavering in the desire to share their photographic passion.
There is no question that the new digital photographic tools (for capture and delivery) have spurned an increase in the number of people who hope to be great photographers. But there is a space that exists between those who “want” to be great and those who actually have the talent and unwavering drive to become so. No matter how much the field of photographers expands, the very best always seem to rise to the top and emerge.
I love the image above because it is a view that I have never seen before of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. It is in one of those images where I slap my head and say “how the heck did you see that?!” In the November issue of National Geographic, Jim Richardson has produced even more stunning images on a story on light pollution. And the truth is that these amazing photographs could not have been made to such a level of quality if it were not for digital photography.
Now much has been debated about the virtues and detractions of the technical and aesthetic characteristics of digital. Jim’s photographs are a testament to the brave new world we are entering with this revolutionary change in image capture (see more of Jim's photos by clicking here).
But I’m going to skip over this area of discussion and look at a slightly more serious issue of how the sudden surge in digital capability is affecting the viability of being a professional photojournalist today.
The combination of digital capture and digital delivery (via the web) is rapidly eliminating exclusive characteristics which defined what it means to be a professional photojournalist. Simply put, today’s digital advances are leveling the playing field between enthusiast and pro.
Digital SLR cameras are smarter than film cameras: they can auto focus, auto expose, and auto stabilize images resulting in photographs technically as competent as those made by many professionals. Plus, today’s image sensors provide latitude for exposure means photos (shot in RAW format) can often be pulled back, in post-processing, from poor exposure purgatory. Many professional film photographers built their reputations on their mastery of the finicky and unforgiving rigors of transparency film. Kodachrome was a hard beast to tame, and even harder to master. Now, with digital, almost anyone can take a sharp, well exposed photograph. Being a competent technician is no longer the unique hallmark of the professional.
Another province of the professional photographer was their ability for being in the right place, at the right time. The saying goes: “f8 and be there.” But now two factors are squeezing the pro. First, the ground below the pro is disappearing because most publications are less able to support as much time in the field as they once were. F8 won’t help, if you aren’t there.
Second, a rising wave is crashing down on the pro as more and more people carry quality cameras into almost every corner of the planet. Professionals now must compete with not just their colleagues, but pretty much everyone carrying a camera cell phone.
This sudden flood of competent images would not be creating as much of an issue for the pro, if it were not for the web. The wonderful phenomena (and I do think it is a good thing overall) of the interconnected, digital photography community helps erode another defining support of the professional photographer: the once exclusive ability to be published. With the Internet, almost anyone can distribute their work (and even used by the same publications that assign professionals). The cell phone images from the London metro bombing in 2005 were an early marker on the path leading to a new world of image distribution.
Earlier this year, National Geographic sent Ken Geiger (a staff Senior Photo Editor and a damn good photographer to boot) to England to shoot images of Stonehenge (see more of Ken's photos by clicking here). The shoot was complex, required negotiations with park officials, used unique gear for shooting at night, involved travel from D.C., etc. The resulting images were wonderful and just what we needed for this important cover story. But one quick search of Flickr and I was able to turn up a number of decent images of the iconic monuments, such as this one by Lucille Pine of England. I can imagine editors at other publications, particularly ones which do not have the brand defining reputation that NGM has for great photography, might hesitate on committing the resources knowing a less costly avenue exists.
What it means to be a contemporary professional photojournalist is being challenged and redefined, ironically, by the very enthusiasts who have been attracted to the revered and mesmerizing beauty of still photography.
So what is the pro to do? What qualities will lift them above this newly leveled playing field? How will they survive? This will be the topic of my next blog.
The May 2008 issue of the magazine is a special, one-topic issue covering China. An interesting—although not necessarily planned—fact is that most of the photographs were shot on film. This could turn out to be the last issue of NGM in which the majority of the photographs were not shot digitally.
Of the five main contributors: Fritz Hoffman, Lynn Johnson and Greg Girard shoot film; while Randy Olson and George Steinmetz use digital.
I had a chance to sit down with Fritz recently to talk about his thoughts on film vs. digital.
Fritz was quick to point out that it is not so much about the method of capture, but for him, more about the camera. Fritz shoots primarily with a 35mm film Leica rangefinder. “If you have ever held one...it’s a love affair” he explained. “A camera is something you become one with...I see in a way that matches the camera and its lens.”
Fritz was an early adopter of digital technology, working with a Nikon SLR six years ago (which indeed were the most primitive days of digital). But he found the cameras simply too bulky for the kind of intimate and personal photography he has mastered. He still feels today's professional SLRs are still too cumbersome.
One digital camera that Fritz does actually carry with him now is a Canon G7 point & shoot (the newest model is the G9). He tends to use it to check lighting, color balance and also as a way to make visual notes—he may shoot a Chinese sign and then later have it translated.
For a shot of Shanghai’s skyline at night, Fritz was using his G7 point & shoot to check the lighting, and then shot the scene using his Leica and film. Later, when editing the story, the digital snapshot proved to have captured detail that was beyond the range of the same scene shot on film. The photo that ran across two pages of the magazine was the only digital photo that Fritz made, and it was shot with his little G7.
When it comes to digital vs. analog cameras, Fritz cites a sentiment that I have heard from other pros: digital cameras tempt you to look at the preview, or constantly check settings. Fritz explains succinctly: “Film keeps me in the moment.”
But Fritz is thinking about moving to digital, but he wants to do it when he feels that he has found an appropriate aesthetic reason for doing so. Fritz notes that “digital images are like sugar-coated Rice Crispies, they’re too glossy. Not that there is anything wrong with that, it’s just not right for what I’m doing right now. When I go to digital, I want to do something new with it.”
“In Shanghai," he explains "there are all these glass buildings that are reflecting light back and forth. I think digital, which has this inherent brightness to it, would be ideally suited to capturing that wild light.”
And finally, Fritz observes that digital requires time to handle the images after they are shot. “With film, the image is pretty much set when you shoot it. But with digital you have to deal with all this post-processing to get the images to look like you saw them.”
Fritz adds: “I have to be out there making pictures, not sitting behind a computer.”
At National Geographic we do not require photographers to shoot one way or another—we support both approaches. Ultimately, we care more about what is being photographed, and less about how.
See more of Fritz Hoffman’s China images here.
For this column, I try to go through each month’s magazine and pick out one photo to discuss. But for the April issue of NGM I want to focus on what we refer to as “mix.”
Each issue of NGM has five or six main features and we strive to create an interesting blend of stories. There are a number of interweaving factors that go into the process of finding the sweet spot of a well-balanced magazine.
TOPIC. Over the years certain topics have garnered repeated interest from the readers of NGM. (A survey is conducted every month to gauge how each specific story faired among our subscribers.) We consider these our “core” topics. The top categories are Archeology/Paleontology, Natural History, Cultures, Landscape/Geography, Science, Exploration, and the Environment. When we look at an issue’s lineup of stories, we often look first to make sure we have offerings from among these topic areas.
But if it were just the topics, that would make this easy.
LOCATION. We also keep in mind where in the world each story takes place, so that we are not having a majority of the stories concentrated in one part of the world. In the best issues of the magazine, we try to take readers around the world.
SIZE. The length of the stories need to vary to provide a balance of in-depth stories with others that are quicker to get through. We don’t want to make reading the magazine an exhaustive experience.
TONE. We consider the overall tone of each issue so that we don’t end up with an issue that comes off as too doom and gloom, bland, or naively breezy. A good mix has a range of emotional experiences.
LOOK. And finally, but most definitely least, we consider the combined styles of photographic approach. NGM is primarily a documentary magazine and thus we lean heavily on photojournalism. But a number of our core topics, particularly the conceptual science and pre-history stories, require different approaches. These stories often provide great opportunities for interweaving visual variety into the reading experience.
The April issue of NGM is an excellent example of a successful mix taking in all of these variables.
It starts with Pascal Maitre’s classic documentary approach to a large story covering the continent-wide Sahel, then shifts gears to Rob Clark’s studio photography for Bio-mimetics (design inspired by nature), then a short cultural story by Ami Vitali on Rickshaws, a luscious set of photographs of Hawaii’s Na Pali Coast shot on large format by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, and ending on a coverage on tool using chimps by Frans Lanting.
April has excellent mix.
The photographers who shoot for National Geographic magazine often find themselves in situations which require great perseverance to make great photographs. But at other times, powerful photography can come from much easier situations.
This was the case when Magnum photographer Chris Anderson made the image of Palestinian workers lined up in the morning at a crossing point in the security wall built around Bethlehem. As Chris explains: “this was hard to miss, they lined up every morning starting around 4 AM.”
But that makes it sound far too simple. Because what Chris did was not simply record the line of people, he “worked” the situation. This is a term often used by photographers when describing how they will shoot a subject for as long as possible. The goal is to capture that one moment when all the elements come together: the light is favorable, the angle is interesting, the subjects are expressive, etc. As story tellers, photojournalists are trying to capture the essence of the situation in a way that is an honest reflection of the event.
For the wall photo, Chris moved to action as the sun began to climb and illuminate the subjects, he scampered up onto the fence so that he could shoot down on the scene. The higher angle helped to separate the crowd of people and to make it clear that this was indeed a line. And by shooting down the line, Chris employed the converging diagonal lines of the perspective to draw the eye along in the composition.
And then the scene interestingly composed, one worker walked up and scaled the fence to join his friends just a few feet in front of Chris. “It added the needed dramatic element to the photograph,” Chris explained. It was a serendipitous moment that helped to elevate a good image to one that became a dramatic and story telling. The photo went from being good to great.
One way that Chris achieves images with such a natural feel is that he often shoots with a “normal” focal length 50mm lens. Chris says “I know it so well, that I know what is in the frame even before the camera reaches my eye. … this is the way the eye sees, the perspective is the same and there is no distortion.”
The way that Chris works is a lesson for any aspiring photographers who assumes that having a large selection of lenses, from ultra-wide to super telephoto, is essential to making great photographs. It is simply not true. Superior photographs can be made with the simplest of gear. The important thing is to take time to learn the capabilities of your camera so well that you instinctively know when to capture the magical dance of elements that come together to make a great photograph.
Chris’ story on Bethlehem was just honored with an award in the annual World Press Photography competition. Click here to see more of Chris’ photographs.
I am often asked “how do you pick the photos that get published?” My answer is: “never easily.”
A photographer on a typical assignment for the Geographic may shoot around 20,000 images. From these, we may publish around a dozen. Skilled Photo Editors work closely with each photographer to sift through this eye-numbing variety of images shot for each story.
When selecting photographs, the image’s technical quality and the composition are major factors, but equally important is how well each image works together to tell a coherent story. The most successful photgraphs find a balance between art and journalism, with each image uniquely weighted one way or another, but never entirely devoid of either.
There is one thing that photographers almost universally need to make photographs: light. But for National Geographic magazine staff photographer Mark Theissen, is drawn not just to light, but to fire.
“As a photographer you are drawn to light and I like photographs that have a light source within them.” Mark explains.
In the October issue of National Geographic, for a story marking 50 years of space exploration, Mark made a frame of spacecraft reentry tiles being tested using concentrated solar rays. Mark was permitted to get close to where the focused beams hit the tiles simulating the intense heat encountered when braking through the Earth’s atmosphere.
What a difference a few years can make. Ten years ago, Brooklyn-based photographer Robert Clark started a story for the Geographic on the beautifully and eerily preserved 2,000-year-old bodies unearthed from European peat bogs.