What Does It Look Like?

180px-henri_huet_life_cover_110266.jpg

images that once could move a nation…..

In November, 1936, Henry Luce, founder of Time Magazine gave birth to a new publication: LIFE.

We barely remember it now, but at one time LIFE was an American icon. People waited eagerly for its arrival. It presented a window on the world. Within months of its publication, its circulation rose to more than 1 million and remained strong for decades.

With LIFE, Luce captured a technological trend and translated it into a new kind of journalism.

Small, lightweight still cameras had just percolated into the market. Invented by Leica, in conjunction with plastic roll film developed by Agfa at the same time, it changed the course of photography. Taking pictures now became infinitely easier, and soon the world was awash in images.

Most of them were terrible.

A few were great. New talents were arising.

What Luce was able to do was to seize on this new, inexpensive visual technology and create for it both a platform for distribution and a new grammar for visual storytelling.

The very first issue of LIFE contained a five page essay by photographer Alfred Eisenstaadt. This was unthinkable. But Luce had courage, and vision. He went on to create the ‘photoessay’, a way of telling stories solely with pictures. This too had never been done before, but it went on to spawn a whole raft of competitors.

As LIFE was a child of technology, so too was it a victim. By the 1960s, the arrival of television had pretty much destroyed LIFE’s appeal. By the time images arrived via the mailman, everyone had pretty much seen them already, and LIFE evaporated as it had arrived – quickly.

The low cost of video technology and the proliferation of small cameras in so many hands today bears a striking resemblance to the same event more than 70 year ago, except now it is video. Instead of a world awash in millions of bad still images, we have Youtube.

What we need now is another Henry Luce.. but this time for video.

We need someone who will cull from the great morass of coke bottles and mentos the best and the most talented of a new generation of video journalists, as Luce found a generation of photo journalists.

Then we need a new grammar – as Luce created the photo essay to reflect story telling in pictures, we need now the video essay, to reflect story telling in video. This is vastly different from pointing a video camera at a reporter and having the reporter talk to the camera – followed by a few cut aways of police tape.

Finally, we need a platform, as LIFE was a platform.

I think all the pieces are there – the talent, the grammar and the web.

What we need now is to put them together, with the courage to embrace something new.

Henry Luce had courage.

8 responses to “What Does It Look Like?

  1. Roger Penguino

    We have nearly all other tools and pieces which make great visual storytelling. Unfortunately we only have few places that transcend aggregation and become something more than just lousy tv emulation. Perhaps this talent for filtering content into something worth watching is the greatest need in this internet generation.

  2. Without diminishing Michael’s point, it’s perhaps worth noting that Life photographers were not auteurs. They would typically return from an assignment with thousands of pictures. Photo editors played a critical role in selecting and assembling the photographs into a photo essay.

    Would the photo essay have been as successful if we’d demanded that the photographer be a one-man band? Is there perhaps a lesson in this for the evolving art of videography?

    I don’t know the answer, but the Life Magazine example suggests that too rigid a view of the videographer as auteur may be premature and possibly ill-advised.

  3. I’m a self taught photojournalist – worked for several small and mid sized papers. I had the opportunity to be accepted to the Eddie Adams Workshop in 1992 – I was privileged to network with many high profile people in the profession and came away as 1 of 15 Special Merit award winners. I learned alot about editing and anyone who says they want you to edit their work is not worthy of being published. Having the ability to edit (especially in the camera) is a skill that takes time to learn, but it forms the basis of better content creation in the process, and in a faster turn around time.

    I have had other vid shooters ask me to capture and edit their work – turned them down flat – I say “If you can’t see what is a good piece of footage, then quit shooting – you need to learn the process for yourself”. Of course they walk away all pissy, but there are too many wannabes these days. You said it Michael – There will be alot of mediocre footage, but there will be some exceptional work as well.

    Rob – I have to disagree with you on your response about being a one man band and not being able to effectively edit. I’m there myself – I shot stills for close to 30 years now and have been a photo editor when I was a newspaper and magazine shooter – now I take those skills and apply them to video. One has to apply themselves, learn from other mentors and then be willing to make the mistakes.

  4. Cliff, you may have misunderstood my comment. I didn’t mean to suggest that no videographer is capable of editing his or her own material. I’m sure many of them are, and probably to do it better than another editor could.

    But does that mean that the price of poker for videography is the ability to edit as well as to find and shoot creative footage? A rigid adherence to that model might mean that the next Alfred Eisenstat or Margaret Bourke-White doesn’t get recognized, and that would be a shame.

    In another context, I commented here, “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” (Closer reading of Mao indicates I should have said “a hundred flowers.”) That’s all I’m really suggesting here, that the one-man band model may be right for many and may indeed end up winning the day for all, but it seems early in the development of the art form to lock onto it for everyone just yet.

  5. Pingback: PressPosts / User / NoBloodForOil / Submitted

  6. This made me think…I will have to look through my tapes. I interviewed Eisenstadt, and I think I kept the raw tape. I don’t suspect it was too earth shattering, but it is always fun to dig through the tapes. Mr. Eisenstadt was at a gallery. I believe it was an anniversary of V-Day (is that right?) and we talked about his Times Square photograph. I will start digging.

    That was an outstanding post – or blog – or essay. I too, believe there should/could be an outlet that culls the best video journalism.

    I have an idea.

  7. Rob – I understand your position. As Michael is helping to lead the way for content creators, I am of the mind that he is closer to the mark of the true one man band production person.

    I think it is extremely important to learn the process of editing (and to be proficient at it). Person experience story: A former Dept head of the Photo dept at a newspaper in the late 80’s chewed me out pretty good when I shot five rolls of film on a freelance assignment for the paper when it could have been done in two – he said I should have edited in the camera and come away with all I needed (he was right) – that has stuck with me ever since. I shot less and came back with more after that point (I was eventually hired by that newspaper).

    OTOH – there are some things that are more difficult to grasp (I am no whiz at all with After Effects). The concepts of motion graphics is for me like a deer staring into an oncoming cars headlights. So I guess what I’m saying is that you have to determine what are the crucial skills needed to get the job done. And I believe becoming a good editor is one of them from my POV.

    That doesn’t mean there aren’t those who good editors should be kept out – but the premise behind the Indie VJ movement is as David Dunkley Gyimah of Viewmagazine.tv has stated: “Be a Jack of all trades, Master of many.”

  8. I forget to mention – even though the VJ model is about information, each shooter has a unique vision, and that vision is best known by it’s author or creator. Who better to express one’s own vision than the original creator of that content. But the rules of editing need to be adhered to – hence, why the content creator should have the skills of being a good editor. Edit your own work, then show it to someone who has better skills. The feedback is invaluable in developing your own skills of editing.

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