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.


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