The News in Color
March 1988
No longer the exception in photojournalism, color pictures are now showing the influence of improved technology. A recent show highlighted the range as well as some of the problems of the medium.

BY Robert Silberman
Picture Editor: Sarah S. King

“On the Line: The New Color Photojournalism," an exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and now on a two-year U.S. tour, raises far more questions than it answers. That is not entirely a bad thing: too many exhibitions ask too few questions. Still, it is possible not just to quibble, but to quarrel with nearly every decision behind "On the Line," which may be unavoidable, given the complicated subject the show addresses-the relationship between art and photojournalism.

Adam D. Weinberg, the exhibition's curator, focuses on the work of a dozen photographers under the age of 50 to demonstrate that the distinction between art photography and photojournalism just won't do any more. His proposition would seem undeniable, though there may be a few skeptical souls who still cannot get beyond the most obvious question of all, namely, "What is this stuff doing in an art museum?" But even those who believe that art and photojournalism are not mutually exclusive may find the principles used to select photographers and photographs in "On the Line" less than wholly satisfactory, and may also find it difficult to understand what the "new" in the title refers to. For Weinberg, the photographers in "On the Line" straddle the boundary between art photography and photojournalism, and are also-a second turn of the phrase-in the vanguard, on the cutting edge of their profession.

Though photojournalism is often portrayed as a glamorous way to make a living, all action, adventure and whirring motordrives, the actual lot of many serious photojournalists is not a particularly happy one because of the constrictions governing the use of their photos-a situation not likely to change for the better. Still photographs play an enormous role in our culture, but People and U.S.A. Today indicate the direction in which the print media are moving -toward superficiality and soft news- and it would be surprising if photojournalism could go against the tide. The "Day in the Life of [Los Angeles, Japan, the U.S.A., etc.]" series suggests how photojournalism can be trivialized, made into a mere shoot-and-run exercise, even when talented individuals like David Burnett and Mary Ellen Mark, both featured in "On the Line," are among the participants.

Mary Ellen Mark: Community center swim group, Miami Beach, Florida, 1979. Courtesy Archive Pictures, Inc.

Most of what is usually referred to as "photojournalism" is better described as "press photography," that is, single photos illustrating stories, not groups of photos trying to tell a story with complementary captions or even subsidiary text. Serious documentary projects-extended studies of a single subject, usually reflecting social concerns-are rare, because it is difficult to justify the necessary expenditure, and not many photographers are willing to pursue such undertakings as labors of love.

With an exhibition like "On the Line," it is naturally tempting to second-guess the curator about those photographers included-and excluded. Given its premises, the show offers a reasonably varied selection. At one extreme stand Alex Webb and Harry Gruyaert, who has even said that he doesn't do photojournalism. Their impressionistic images are farthest from conventional news photos and closest to the picturesque shots of Eliot Elisofon and Ernst Haas, both of whom pioneered with color in the 1950s, before it became common. At the other extreme is Burnett, the professionals' professional, who insists that there is something wrong when photographers "begin to think they're more important than the story they're covering."' His images of minor-league baseball provide a rewarding look at how an experienced hand goes about constructing a photo-essay, moving from the locker room, to the action on the field and the fans in the stands, to the parking lot where the players meet wives and girlfriends after the game. Still, the Burnett photos take some of the edge off the exhibition, as if a bit of Americana were needed to temper the more aggressive approach to American life, particularly in terms of subject, evident in the work of Mark, Jeff Jacobson and Michel Folco, as well as to disprove the popular notion that contemporary photojournalism is concerned primarily with the Third World and violence.

When an exhibition is organized, theoretical questions always reappear as practical issues, a matter evident in Weinberg's solution to the problem of selecting photographs from a seemingly infinite range of choices. He decided to focus on individuals who belong to agencies such as Magnum and Archive, concentrating on an elite group while ruling out the wire-service and newspaper staff photographers who make up the main body of the profession. He then enlarged his field by deciding to draw from all photographs on file, not just those that have been published. This enabled him in many cases to show multiple images instead of limiting himself to what appeared in print as single-image projects. A few photos in the exhibition are accompanied by copies of the magazines that published them, but in general the published context of the photographs and their relation to captions, headlines or other text receives scant attention.

The inclusion of Alfred Yaghobzadeh's photo People carrying wounded and dead to safety after heavy shelling by Christians, taken in West Beirut in 1984, suggests yet a third connotation of the show's title, "on the line"-a military one. It also demonstrates what it means to choose a photograph for its "esthetic" value, apart from its actual use or its conformity to photojournalistic conventions of "objectivity." This image, blurred so as to give it an expressionistic, painterly look, is pointedly displayed along with reproductions of several others taken by Yaghobzadeh of the same scene, but in focus. Newsweek published one of the sharp-focus images-and in fact, the blurred photo appears to have been a mistake. Weinberg here seems to be falling back upon the old identification of art with self-expression and formal concerns, and of journalism with "objectivity" and a preoccupation with content. Or, as it has sometimes been put, "If it's out of focus, it's art; if it's in focus, it's photojournalism." (The out-of-focus image inevitably recalls Robert Capa's famous shot of the D-Day landing, printed in Life. And that image, contrary to the popular impression that it was blurred because of the intensity of the action, in fact was the result of emulsion melted by a careless darkroom assistant.)

Weinberg admits that the photographers represented in the exhibition do not belong to a single esthetic or "school"; besides their use of 35mm and color, there is no one characteristic that they all share. Further, being on the line between art photography and photojournalism is not unprecedented, and Weinberg acknowledges that figures such as Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith achieved "hybrid" status long ago.

Nor has the use of color by itself created a new kind of photojournalism. But Weinberg is right to argue that color's current role as the dominant medium for photojournalism does heighten the tension between esthetic and reportorial concerns by violating the traditional identification of color with beauty and of black and white with truth. Color used to be the exception in photojournalism, reserved mainly for Sunday photo supplements or for special features. It was largely taboo in art photography as well, though such well-known "serious" photographers as Edward Weston and Harry Callahan did more work in color than is commonly realized. Color was generally derided as too easy and too pretty, tainted by its association with advertising and the manufacture of glamour.

Mary Ellen Mark: Sylvia and Bernard Greenbaum, Miami Beach, 1979. Courtesy Archive Pictures, Inc.

The turn to color among photojournalists has been less a matter of choice than of necessity: in a generation, most magazines (along with television and the movies) have shifted from black and white to color. Now newspapers are also converting to color. Critics have argued that color gives editorial (i.e., non-advertising) photos a kind of candy coating that promotes consumerist values by emphasizing pleasurable surface qualities at the expense of content. According to this argument, black and white is often reserved for matter-of-fact or bad news, color for good-or at least for making bad news better. It is telling that aNewsweek cover on the homeless in contemporary America (Jan, 2, 1984) used black and white to invoke the hard times of the Great Depression as depicted by the Farm Security Administration photographers, creating an updated version of Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother.

“On the Line" presents a variety of color styles. The new color photography is in part "about" the expressive potential created by improved color technology: the brilliant chromatic range of Kodachrome, the rich saturation in the Cibachrome process used for the exhibition prints, the faster films that make it easier to shoot in less than perfect lighting conditions. (Several of the photographers in the show -especially Burnett and Folco- do innovative work in low-light situations, and some combine artificial and natural lighting.) Nevertheless, although contemporary color photography has a different "look" from older processes-achieved in part through the increased purity of color and the reduced graininess of the newer film stocks-the basic possibilities and principles applicable to color images have not changed. In most color photographs, the color is just there, as a relatively unexploited visual element; too many of the color photographs now used on newspaper front pages could just as easily-and just as well-be taken in black and white.

Photographers who do wish to exploit the potential of color can take the high-key road, emphasizing primaries. Webb, for example, loves to set off intense tropical hues against areas of deep shadow. And in Mark's studies of the elderly in Miami Beach, bright color is all-important in suggesting the vitality, and disarming sensuality, of her subjects. What might have been a series of grotesques for Diane Arbus becomes for Mark a sympathetic, if sometimes deeply ironic, view of the aged in the land of "Miami Vice."

Photographers can also take the low-key road, emphasizing subdued tones and harmonies. Among Rio Branco's images from Bahia, Brazil, is a nearly monochromatic shot of a dog, with the photographer making use of the limited color range to show how unhealthy the poor animal is and thereby to increase the sense of pathos. A painter before he turned to photography and cinematography, Branco is a master colorist who works equally well in high- and low-key registers: one of his photos, Itapoa, consists almost entirely of an expanse of intense blue sky-a blue worthy of Matisse-while images such as Pilar Church demonstrate what can be done with that supposedly dull color, brown.

Further, color can serve to establish or enhance atmosphere, as in Yan Morvan's Palestinian refugee camp close to Tripoli, a rendering of a drab landscape in which the dark sky and the mustard-colored light create an ominous mood. Color can also act as an important compositional element, focusing attention through pictorial structure, as in Morvan's photo of people working through the rubble after a car bombing in West Beirut. Filled with dust and debris, the scene is almost completely nondescript in terms of color-except for the pink clothing of an injured, or perhaps dead, baby held aloft by one of the rescuers.

Color aside, as a report on the state of contemporary photojournalism, the images in "On the Line" reveal several important tendencies. Most obvious are the political concerns in the Latin American photographs of Susan Meiselas and Jean-Marie Simon, or, back home, in Jacobson's loaded image of a black washroom attendant brushing lint off a white man's shoulder at a 1985 inaugural ball. The pictorial styles of Gilles Peress, Jacobson and Meiselas represent an advanced stage in the development of small-format photography running from Cartier-Bresson through Robert Frank to Garry Winogrand. Cropping has become progressively more radical, the relationships between center and periphery, foreground and background, increasingly complicated. This "decentering" can lead to a more complex sense of the decisive moment; the photographer no longer necessarily seeks a melodramatic climax, as was true in Joe Rosenthal's flag-raising on Iwo Jima, a grand tableau in the manner of history painting. Often the images reveal something far more elliptical: in a Peress photo of a religious pageant in Guatemala, for example, a pair of legs swings abruptly from the top of the frame, dangling above the heads of the spectators.

This sort of challenge to traditional pictorial formulas is accompanied by an increased fascination with the incongruous, the seemingly unreal. Thus war appears as a flamboyant costume drama in Meiselas's well-known picture of Sandinistas in a street fight, grouped against a wall as if posed for a fashion setup. In Jacobson's zany photo of a Halloween party, a fellow in Superman attire sits calmly next to a woman (playing Lauren Bacall?); another man, dressed as a sports referee, can be glimpsed a few rows behind. This is life as Surrealist theater, as is the case when Webb focuses his attention on a Mexican slaughterhouse worker holding a mammoth pig's head so that he appears transformed, like Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream; or when Peress shows Passion Play participants in biblical costumes, vaulting over a fire-and exposing their basketball shoes.

The tension between naturalism and theatricality reaches its climax in Folco's series "Houston, Texas, Capital of Crime." A few images are so bloody that they cause an emotional recoil, as if the photos could not be presenting anything real but must be part of a TV show. When Folco shot these pictures, he was in fact accompanying a film crew (though only one of the photos was staged), and at times he took advantage of their bright lights. Photographers such as Jacobson, following Arbus and Winogrand, use strobes to accomplish the same ends: heighten the artificiality of a situation; expose the presence of the photographer; juice up an image. In the work of Meiselas (Guard Patrol) and Simon (Civil Patrollers and Army), in contrast, the lack of fill-flash makes soldiers in the bright tropical light become faceless-and therefore all the more threatening.

Weinberg argues that the best of the new color photojournalism is a form of personal expression, akin to the so-called New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and other writers, who use fictional modes to serve non-fictional purposes. In too much recent photojournalism generally, the quest for a distinctive signature style leads only to an empty stylishness-less art than artsiness. The photographers in "On the Line" are not entirely free of this straining for effect. But contemporary photojournalists do face a dilemma because, though opportunities may be expanding slightly for the distribution of their work in the art world, the market for serious photojournalism in the mass media is increasingly constricted. With Look gone, Life alive in name only, and the recent demise of the American edition of Geo, there are few magazines willing to publish photo-essays, and those that do for the most part are not terribly adventurous. The result is that photographers are more frequently turning to books as the best means of presenting work. Publishing a book, though an expensive proposition, offers a photographer maximum control over his or her work, as well as prestige. Even so, books and gallery exhibitions remain only marginal activities in the world of contemporary photojournalism.

For Weinberg, the new color photojournalism provides a valuable counter to much current art photography, which he criticizes as a coterie affair too often caught between a trivial formalism and an overly serious fascination with postmodernist theory. Be that as it may, much of the work featured in 'On the Line" offers hope in what is a generally unpromising situation.

Several of the photographers in the exhibition have published books of their color work: Mary Ellen Mark, Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1981; Susan Meiselas, Nicaragua: June 1978-July 1979, edited with Carl Rosenberg, New York, Pantheon Books, 1981; Rio Branco, Dulce Sudor Amargo: Rio Branco ["Sweet Bitter Sweat"], text by Jean-Pierre Nouhaud, Mexico City, Fondo de Cultura Econômica, 1985; Harry Gruyaert, Lumières Blanches: Photographies, Paris, Centre National de la Photographie, 1986; Alex Webb, Hot-Light/Half-Made Worlds: Photographs from the Tropics, New York, Thames and Hudson, 1986; Jean-Marie Simon, Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny, New York, W.W. Norton, 1988.

"On the Line: The New Color Photojournalism" opened at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis [Mar. 23-June 1, '86/. It subsequently traveled to the Portland [Maine] Museum of Art, the Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill; the Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, Kans.; and the Laguna Gloria Art Museum, Austin. The show continued its tour at the Carnegie-Mellon University Art Gallery, Pittsburgh, and the Aspen Art Museum. It closes at the Toledo [Ohio] Museum of Art [Apr. 2-May 29, '88]. The catalogue, published by the Walker Art Center (1986), includes a foreword by Gloria Emerson and an essay by Adam D. Weinberg.

Author: Robert Silbermnan teaches art history at the University of Minnesota.