Photojournalists often rhapsodise about the good old days. Back then, so the story goes, a magazine would send you off to Sri Lanka for three months. You’d return with a series of pictures that the magazine would run as a gritty essay, making your name – and possibly even helping to change the world.
Nowadays, the average photographer (or snapper, smudger and monkey, to use the old Fleet Street derogations) is lucky to get a commission of a B-list celebrity, so limited have the preoccupations of the country’s print media become. And picture-editing on magazines and newspapers, essentially the art of choosing and commissioning pictures for publication, has lost its direction. The work of the picture editor, a task that has the potential to be as ennobled as the art gallery curator, has been downgraded.
This issue is highlighted by Bruce Bernard’s 100 Photographs, an exhibition showing at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The late Bernard, brother of legendary drinker and columnist Jeffrey, made his name as a picture editor on the Sunday Times magazine. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the supplement rewrote the rule-book of magazine photography under editor Harold Evans, and used the finest photographers of that generation, including Don McCullin.
Bernard’s show, which comprises 100 prints collated between 1996 and his death two years ago, is an eclectic choice that includes a Fox Talbot print from 1843, as well as work by key names from the canon: Diane Arbus, Man Ray and Julia Margaret Cameron. The cherry-picked nature of its contents has even earned Bernard the posthumous praise that he ‘turned picture-editing into an art form’.
Sadly, the show is a kind of historical document in itself. ‘It’s totally opposite to what’s happening now,’ says Mark Haworth-Booth, head of photography at the V&A, who finds the current emphasis in newspapers and magazines on lifestyle and celebrity ‘thoroughly depressing, lightweight and tedious’.
Haworth-Booth points to a dissolution of photographic connoisseurship in magazines. This may be partly due to the digital age, he says, which has removed the sense of specialism in the task of picture-editing. Indeed, there does seem to be less weight and permanence in published photography these days, he adds.
‘Bruce Bernard was part of the old Sunday Times,’ Haworth-Booth says. ‘The stories were often on very poignant themes. But as picture editors like Colin Jacobson [editor of photographic journal Reportage and formerly of The Independent magazine] have pointed out, there is no room for that kind of work anymore.’
Some publications are seeking to revive the values of strong photographic essays and picture-editing. There is the Benetton-funded Colors magazine, with its creative editors Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg keeping alive socially committed reportage, albeit on a platform provided, somewhat bizarrely, by a clothes retailer. And there is Jon Levy, who started the photographic magazine Eight this year, partly from a ‘romantic impulse’, but also to increase the visibility of photojournalism.
Levy hopes Eight will become a kind of ‘visual Granta’ (the literary journal that publishes essays by heavyweight writers) and emphasises that it is a magazine not a book, with the sense of contemporary engagement that would suggest. In the recent second issue, features include an Andrew Testa photo-essay about a Serbian train in Kosovo and a colour series about a floating church in Russia.
Clearly, Levy is keen to bolster the market in such work. But he doesn’t want Eight to be seen as a forum for disgruntled photographers left out in the cold. ‘The mainstream market has dropped off,’ he says. ‘But to some extent it’s the responsibility of photographers to find other ways to proceed. There are more books and websites these days. Some reportage photographers piggyback on charities and even Governments, others get grants from foundations. The mainstream press is no longer the answer.’
One way forward, suggests Haworth-Booth, is provided by Gilles Peres, known for his photographs of the Rwanda conflict. ‘[Peres] is very good at creating a coalition between publishing, magazines and exhibitions, so costs can be shared around.’
Levy agrees with Haworth-Booth that picture-editing is in danger of becoming a lost art, particularly as access to photography has gone to non-specialist staff. ‘Pictures can come in to anyone’s screen now,’ he says. ‘All too often picture-editing has been relegated to research.’
‘Art directors on the design side attract far more attention than picture desks now. I’m not putting picture editors down, but the choice of imagery is often not just down to them any more,’ Levy adds.
It helps if picture editors understand design. Deirdre O’Callaghan, whose photographic series on Arlington House is on show at the V&A, is a former picture editor at Dazed & Confused magazine and worked closely with the designer. ‘I became aware of typography and production issues,’ she says. ‘As a picture editor, it was a good thing. It certainly gives designers confidence and I felt I had a real advantage. It also enabled us to be highly specific about commissions; about how to lead a story.’
As a photographer, however, O’Callaghan finds a ‘lot of confusion’ in the magazine marketplace, and a growing tendency for art directors to be prescriptive. ‘Some phone you with a concept that they expect you to act out. I hate that, it makes me freeze. And, of course, a lot e e of their concepts are cheesy and contrived.’ This is the downside of the integrated approach, whereby photography becomes just one part of the overall design, look and feel of the product; subsumed under the banner of art direction.
This appears to be the way things are going. At The Guardian last year, the picture desk, graphics and design departments were merged into one large ‘creative’ department (DW 16 February 2001), wherein all the visual aspects of the product from typography to illustrations are produced. It’s a structure similar to a design consultancy, and the idea for it was driven by editor Alan Rusbridger.
The Guardian head of photography Roger Tooth thinks the move was misinterpreted in the photography industry as representing the downgrading of the picture desk. ‘At the time, the British Journal of Photography even wrote that it was “the end of picture-editing”,’ he says. ‘We had to rebut that.’
Nevertheless, roles in the paper were redefined, and the move led to reflection on the way p
hotographs are used. But rather than making picture-editing redundant, he says the expertise has now been revitalised by the sheer volume of material. The creative department umbrella has even stemmed the traditional rivalry between design and picture desks. ‘It means the visual people are allies,’ says Tooth. ‘That hasn’t always been the case in newspapers and magazines.’
There are, he adds, good reasons for retaining picture specialists who understand their subject matter and the way photography works on page. True, editors can easily select a picture these days, but the expertise is in choosing the right one, particularly with a surfeit of images as well as competition from other media.
‘The number of pictures has doubled since we changed our structure,’ says Tooth. ‘Before 11 September last year, around 1500 pictures came through the department every day. And on the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, some 4700 pictures came in to The Guardian.’
There have also been subtle shifts in the way pictures are used. The montage for The Guardian’s 9/11 anniversary supplement, for example, used photographs as allusive, symbolic and illustrative devices within a graphic framework, rather than the more literal page-leading approach of the past.
Tooth believes picture desks have to think ahead of the reader, as a kind of ‘image fatigue’ has impacted the way we look at printed pictures. ‘It’s possibly due to television,’ he says. ‘That’s where we get the literal image from, and that’s where we see things first. Now, news photography has to tell the story in a different way, and work closer with design to illustrate and make sense of the words.’
People read pages differently these days, adds Levy. ‘This generation is growing up more visually aware,’ he says. ‘They can accept imagery in place of words. Things have changed from the linear, narrative-type of photojournalism – photographers must be more innovative.’
That’s probably true. But there is still a sense that when classical news imagery works, it is powerful and universal, and still the best way of instantaneously presenting an idea there is. ‘Today, for example, both ourselves and The Independent used the same front page picture,’ says Tooth. ‘It just shows: there’s still a language we’re all sharing.’
100 Photographs: A Collection by Bruce Bernard, and Stepping In & Out: contemporary documentary photography can both be seen at the Canon Photography Gallery until 26 January, V&A, Cromwell Road, London SW7
Hide That Can, by Deirdre O’Callaghan, is published this month by Trolley, priced £24.95