Photojournalism }

walking in the light: a life in photography

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Beautiful and simple and true

I saw a portrait in the newspaper today, and it reminded me of an issue I have with photos taken at an angle leaving the horizon line running diagonal or nearly so. To illustrate the story that went with it, this image was a portrait of a man with the foreground an essential part of the story to be told. However, everything in the picture was at an angle, even the man was leaning backwards in the frame. This type of shooting has become quite prevalent in recent years, and I really wonder why. There is nothing about the photo that demanded this shoot-from-the-hip approach. For me (old school as I am), leave the odd angles for the photographers who are grabbing a photo the only way they can: Robert Capa on the beach at Normandy, dodging bullets and trying to capture one of the momentous events in world history, for example. Or we have all extended our cameras at arm's length over our heads trying to shoot above a crowd to capture a telling moment. There are, obviously, reasons why the world looks askew in such photographs. And I am not talking about the creativity of studio portraiture here either. I like what some photographers have done raising the bar on family and wedding portraiture. But when it comes to newspaper work, even illustrating a feature story with a portrait, I think the odd angles are as bad as a flash hot spot behind the subject's head.
To PLAN the composition in order to distort the horizon line and give the photo some sense of immediacy it does not have within it seems to transport the photographer into the picture. Unlike other documentary work, it is true a portrait often demands more of the photographer's invisible hand--getting the right light, moving around the subject, tilting of a head, moving in tight. In those cases, the photographer remains invisible. But warping the interior of the photographic rectangle is, well, put it this way: why not just let the photographer's shadow appear in the foreground of the pic like those old family portraits where the photographer dutifully puts the sun over his back whenever he shoots? In a like manner, photographers who purposefully distort their horizon line shout to the viewer, I AM HERE!
To get a good example of using natural lines in a photo, look at the POYi archives for 1995. There you will find the photos of Torsten Kjellstrand, newspaper photographer of the year, who at the time was shooting for The Herald in Jasper, Indiana. Look at the opening shot of Torsten's photo story on the farming brothers. That opening shot has straight horizontal and vertical lines--except for the two brothers who are walking along, one helping the other, bent as if leaning into the wind. In a way they are, but this is the wind of old age and hardscrabble work on a farm. To me, it is a perfect picture. It is beautiful, simple, and true. It needs the straight lines of the house and the pump and the sidewalk to contrast the bend of the human torsos. This picture opens the photo story like the opening paragraph of a great novel. It evokes emotion and gives us all the essential details that will be developed and revealed to us. Nothing is contrived. The photographer is invisible. The story unfolds.