Friday, June 7, 2013

Quality vs. you name it

A lot of thoughts have been going through my head this past week since the Chicago Sun Times dismissed its entire photography staff. As a photographer, this has hit close to home as you can imagine. The major daily you'll recall, decided rather than maintaining a staff of photographers, it will rely on wire services, free lance photographers, and reporters armed with smart phone cameras to take up the slack. Presumably they will also solicit photographs from the general public as well, who would be more than thrilled to see their photographs published and would happily do it for free. The paper also states that they will place more emphasis on video and "multi-media" over the still image as that's what their readers want, or so they say.

At the moment I'm listening to a radio interview with one of the laid off Sun Times photojournalists who says this experiment is doomed to failure because no business succeeds when it takes quality away from its product.

I'm not quite so sure.

I can't think of any product that is of a higher quality today than its counterpart from the past, but many that are vastly inferior. Take photography for example. When I was a young photographer in school back in the seventies, black and white photographic papers had a thick paper base with an emulsion loaded with silver, the active ingredient in most photo sensitive materials. Then the price of silver skyrocketed and by necessity, papers were made with less of the precious metal and quality suffered. Going along with that, to keep the price down, what used to pass as single weight paper back in the day, now is marketed as double weight. All this kept the price of paper from going through the roof, and people simply accepted poorer image quality on a flimsier base.

This is true with virtually every product we buy. Most of us give up or simply overlook quality in favor of keeping the price down.

Quality also suffers in favor of convenience. Think of music. Again, when I was in college, virtually everyone had an analog multi-component stereo system in their home capable of reproducing sound at a very high fidelity. The digital compact disc came along in the eighties and revolutionized the recording industry. The two sided, extremely fragile long playing disk (the LP), was replaced by a virtually indestructible disk that you just popped into a machine without worrying about it until it was finished playing. You could even insert multiple CDs into a device that could play tracks at random so you wouldn't have to listen to the same order of songs over and over again. CDs were a fraction the size of LPs and they could be played on portable devices. Never mind that the sound coming from those machines paled in comparison to the old fashioned stereo system, and digital recording by its nature lacks the depth of analog recording; the general public loved the convenience and for the most part, didn't care about or even notice the decline in the quality of sound. The size of the CD meant you could store far more of them than your old LPs. Lost was the "canvas" for the artists who designed classic album covers, and the platform for the occasional album notes that people of my era grew accustomed to.

Today, CDs themselves are nearly obsolete, they have given way to music downloaded onto a computer. There are iPods about the size of my thumb, capable of holding thousands of songs available through little more than a click of a button.  Streaming audio and video services are available on the web that enable you to access virtually any song or video imaginable on demand. Instant access has become the driving force of modern technology, and new breakthroughs in that direction occur virtually overnight, as witnessed by those incessant commercials where fourteen year olds gripe about how good their younger siblings have it as far as access to media goes. To make it possible to store all that music on such small devices, and to transfer information at an acceptable rate, the digital files are compressed, meaning less information and you guessed it, lower sound and image quality.

Instant access has governed the way we get our news. The development of the internet and social media has led to an explosion of information gathering conduits, and people are just as if not more likely to get thier news from Facebook, Twitter, or blogs as they are from traditional news sources. As we saw during the police crackdowns of protesters in Istanbul last week, the upside to this trend is that we learn of events around the world that may have fallen under the radar back in the day when news gathering was limited to a select number of services. On the other hand, the non-stop reporting of the Boston Marathon bombings for example, and the rush to report something, anything about the story, led to the reporting of dozens of stories, little more than rumors, that were either misleading or outright wrong. Professional journalists were once expected to get the story right before letting it go public, but now in competition with amateurs who are not held to such scrutiny, the modus operandi in the news business is publish first, ask questions later. The more wild cat reporters we have covering the news, the more errors we can expect in news coverage.

Strangely enough, this may not be altogether a bad thing.Years ago, most folks got their news from a handful of respected sages who delivered it up to them on a silver platter. Hardly anyone questioned what Walter Cronkite or his peers told us. My father, definitely a man of his generation, believed if something was printed in a newspaper, it had to be true. Today most of us understand that any knucklehead (like me) can have his own blog and write anything without the restraint of professional standards or scrutiny. The result is that the public, at least those with any sense at all, have to question everything, and not take anything they hear or read as the gospel truth, as people like my father once did.

The same is true with photography. Because the medium by its nature is so faithful at depicting the "real world", people mistakingly believed that a photograph could not lie. Despite the fact that photographs have been manipulated since the earliest days of the medium, it wasn't until the invention of digital photo editing software such as PhotoShop, and their facile method of manipulation, that the public at large began to question the veracity of the photographic image.

The one thing that technology cannot change, is the effort and talent it takes to tell a story with a still photograph. I can't tell you how many times I've cringed at the question: "Can such and such a camera take good pictures?" "Yes..." I tell them, "if there's a good photographer behind it." It's ridiculous to assume that because today's cameras are so easy to use, everyone can be a good photographer. As pointed out countless times in print and over the air this past week, so many memories of the important events of our times are imprinted in our brains by iconic photographs. The tragedy at the Boston Marathon was brought up many times as an example. We all saw over and over again the smart phone photos and videos of the bomb blasts and ensuing chaos. We saw the images made by surveillance cameras at the scene that showed the perpetrators. But the images most of us will take with us from the event, are the ones that touch our heart, the ones that brought real meaning to the tragedy. They are the still photographs made by photojournalists that documented the selfless reaction of the first responders and some members of the general public who in the face of great danger, cared for the dying and the wounded. As the former Sun Times photographer mentioned above pointed out: "where a normal person might run away from danger, a photojournalist runs toward it."

The trend away from publications that feature photojournalism has gone on for quite some time. Look and Life Magazines both played a major role in my understanding of the world when I was growing up. Look folded in 1971 and Life, as a weekly publication, did the same the following year. The print edition of Newsweek Magazine, gave up the ghost last year. Newspapers have been closing up shop at an alarming rate. In a way it's a minor miracle that the Chicago Sun Times still exists at all.

In the comments section of one of the internet articles I read about the Sun Times letting go its staff photographers, someone wrote: "I'm so mad I wish I had a subscription so I could cancel it", to which someone else replied: "That's exactly the problem, you and thousands of others DON'T have a subscription." Let the truth be told, neither do I.

In the end, we're all to blame for the demise of the newspaper and the news magazine. Which leads me to ask and answer a few questions:

So what's to become of the Sun Times without its staff of photographers?

Without a doubt, the quality of its photography will suffer, especially if they expect reporters who are busy enough with their own jobs, skills they've developed over the years, to tackle the extra responsibility of an entirely different job for which they have no experience.

Will the paper be able to pull it off?

Well they'll certainly save a good deal of money which will enable them to hang around for a little while longer.

But won't their readers, the few they have left, be put off by the changes?

As much as I hate to say it, after this blows over, in all honesty I don't think most of them will even notice much of a difference.

That's why I've been so depressed this week.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You've got me spinning, Jim. I'm thinking maybe we should snatch a little gravesite somewheres and mark it, "The Unknown Photojournalist."