Friday, July 23, 2010

R.I.P. A great legacy

When the roots of an oak whither, the body of the tree can’t sustain its leafage and the leaves become redundant. It’s the way the tree's life evolves unless the cause is found and rectified.

In my particular interest, this is what’s happening to Press photography. It’s that terrible word, Redundancy. The root decline of newspaper sales is bringing about vicious staff cuts and with it the loss of specialised skills, honed by decades of on-the-street experience. New blood can’t replace it, freelance paparazzi don’t have it, reporters with cameras will never achieve it.

So what is it that’s lost?

It’s the knowledge once gleaned by an apprentice snapper working beside a grumpy old news editor on a local news agency/newspaper who works that apprentice all hours God gives for tuppence. Driven to make a flower show into a photographic marvel, naming everybody in it correctly. Or knocking a door in tragic circumstances to collect a picture of the bereaved, without adding to the angst. Befriending the zoo, the local theatre, or the ballet school on a quiet day for an offbeat picture. Or suppressing your fear and climbing with the steeplejack up the church spire during restoration. It’s the diversity of experiences rubbing against your untrained creative skills. It’s learning what to take pictures of. It’s creating something relevant.

It’s being a freelance, thinking on your feet, watching the news, anticipating events forced by the need to eat and pay the rent. Then producing a portfolio of well considered pictures so much better than those of others around you that your work forces its way into the national newspapers. Then that old news editor grudgingly buys you a pint.

And finally, one memorable day, spreading your wings, being invited onto the staff of one of the great titles or news organisations, achieving a life’s ambition. Once there you are tested again. You cover another diverse diary of daily assignments that stretch your life skills to their limits, whilst allowing you to display your matured creative talents.

If you got to the top of that oak tree you joined an elite, leaving thousands in your wake.

Not so today.

The grim reaper accountants are wailing to the newspaper barons, Newsprint is doomed! Get out fast! Save what’s left of your fortunes! And that’s what they’re doing. And so the prophecy is self-fulfilling. Almost daily photographers are being cut on the nationals and the local papers. The cry is: As we’re all doomed don’t improve the content, cut the staff instead.

What nonsense. An editorial hall of proper newspapermen has more imagination, drive, verve, piracy, guts and gladiatorial entrepreneurship than an empire of bean counters. Their wails simply reflect these quill based assassins’ own bland, anaemic outlook. Their holy grail is the punter-in-the-street with a cellphone camera. It’s cheap coverage, who cares about the content? That way is the death knell of quality picture coverage.

The papers will end up looking awful and amateurish. If the paper’s owners know this, they don’t seem to care.

But there is a legacy of hundreds of picture journalists past and present who do – and behind them the shades of thousands more who dedicated their lives to great picture coverage in our national newspapers. That’s why Fleet Street was remembered as the best in the world.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Are the Snaparazzi cramping the paparazzi's style?

The Paparazzi bar in Bratislava

When top German paparazzo, Hans Paul, said of his celebrity pictures trade, “there’s hardly any money to be made anymore,” you have to take him seriously. Hans once made $120,000 from a single, pregnant Julia Roberts picture.

The pap snaps industry, said Hans, is under serious threat from the new kids on the streets, known as the Snaparazzi or MOPS – industry jargon for Members of the Public with phone cameras. Others report that apparently, non-photographers are turning pro in their droves: and they include ex-gang members, waiters, garage mechanics, bus conductors, the desperate unemployed and even the homeless, in order to make a buck. There are even children paparazzi. It’s now a new street sport. In the modern Oliver Twist, Fagin will run a team of kid paps.

Now there’s an iPhone app for .59p called CelebAround which buzzes in your pocket should you be within 500 metres of a celebrity. Presumably you then drop the wife and shopping to dementedly pursue the hapless C list starlet around Tescos.

Hans’ point is, of course, that all these citizen snappers are accepting peanuts from the tabloid Picture Editors for their ‘exclusives,’ because they don’t know the street value of their snaps. A picture sold for fifty quid by Mavis from accounts, who came across a soap star in a clinch with a married footballer on her lunch break, would fetch many thousands in the hands of a savvy pap.

The top Pap Masters like Darryn Lyons, the legendary boss of Mr Paparazzi, he counts his earnings in millions, is aware of this, and offers online to sell-on your phone celeb pictures at top prices. Many others do it, too, but the brilliant Darryn is the pack leader.

The national newspaper Picture Editors, of course, hate it. Pressured forever by their bean counters to cut costs, nothing pleases them more than when a fresh faced punter rings who, “just wants to see his picture in the paper. Pay me what you like.” That’s donuts all round!

What an extraordinary outcome for the trade I worked in all my life and, to a small degree, I am responsible for it. I’ll explain why.

The broadsheet Daily Express of the sixties and seventies sold 5 million in its pomp. Still rich from the post war need for entertainment it was said it had ‘a barrel of gold in the front hall for the staff to dip into on assignments.’ With no commercial television worth speaking of and the BBC still hidebound there was no opposition, except other papers.

What it had was a ferocious and, some say, corrupt Union system. They wanted to dip their beaks in the barrel, too and many fights ensued. I was its Picture Editor in the late sixties, early seventies. I had 50 cameramen in London, many more abroad and could call upon 37 in Manchester and 43 in Glasgow. All on big salaries with backup staff. So no need, you see, to buy in domestic pictures. We were self sufficient – but at huge cost.

(I once bought out an entire Boeing 707 at Heathrow just to fly a cameraman to rendezvous with the Queen Elizabeth. The liner was half way across the Atlantic and under threat of a hijacking.)

Enter the digital eighties. Moving still pictures got easier. Scan them and transmit without loss. Wonderful. Entrepreneur Eddie Shah launched the first colour edition paper, called, Today – and I picture edited it. Murdoch’s Sun had taken on the Unions at Wapping, leaving us alone. Staff photographer numbers were down to twenty, and four in Manchester. Now Agency snappers made up the difference. The paper still came out – but my digital picture systems made it easier for freelances to offer their work, helping to fill the paper. Editors then clamoured for Diana pictures and celebrities. Beady-eyed Management smelled a trend.

Who needs staff photographers? Why can’t we fill it with paparazzi and Diana pics.

Come the nineties, the Daily Mirror moved East and I joined as its Picture Editor to oversee the picture move. London was now gridlocked. No cameramen could get from East to West quickly so I set it up as a transmission paper. No darkrooms, just a trusty laptop, a car and a digital Nikon. When the IRA bombed Docklands and closed our offices, we got the pictures into the paper from a kitchen in south London.

Every innovation I introduced, from the first electronic picture desk to electronic video grabbing in the eighties, culminating in free-to-air picture submission and contracted electronic picture library access in the nineties, was done to speed up the editorial process. Get the paper out quicker and with better picture quality.

But the trend became obvious. Less staff were needed to produce national papers. Now papers are printed by tiny staffs, with bigger buy-in budgets. All Snaparazzi are welcome. The Nationals, with web news sites cutting into their sales, now have skeleton picture staffs. The once grand Express has two photographers, the Mirror two, but all have an open door policy for any offered pictures from anywhere.

And behind them all are an army of ghosts, made redundant by progress.

That is the price of change in a relentless world.