You can't sell news without pictures
Do you recognise this photograph?
It was taken on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, at 12.15pm on February 23, 1945. Joe Rosenthal used a Speed Graphic camera set between f8 and f11 with a shutter speed of 1/400th of a second.
The picture earned him a Pulitzer prize and today, 68 years later, it is still reckoned to be the most reproduced photograph of all time. It has even been recreated in bronze as a memorial to the US Marines outside the Arlington national cemetery in Virginia.
Rosenthal was working for the Associated Press and was one of two professional photographers (the other was from Newsweek) on the little island with the Marines at this key moment of the Second World War. Within 18 hours the picture was being published in hundreds of newspapers across the world.
Do you recognise this photograph?
If you read a newspaper or look on the web and have any interest in finance, pensions, care homes, property, heating bills or social benefits, the chances are that you'll have seen it at least once.
SubScribe can't help with the photographer or the circumstances of the session, other than that at least one other picture was taken and distributed.
The picture has a certain elegance: the slim wrinkled hand, the long fingers undistorted by arthritis, the manicured, painted nails that suggest a more privileged life in the past. But it hardly captures a moment in history. Yet it has been used in papers and on websites over and over again.
Since 2009, the Sun and the BBC have each used it four times, the Guardian and Huffington Post six. I've placed it myself in The Times, as have my successors. ITV.com and the Express are really in love with it. They've used it 15 times apiece - three times in three weeks in March last year, in the case of the Express.
So what's so special about it that it has such constant and universal appeal?
You'll have seen this one - or a version of it - too. The street of estate agents' boards must be the ultimate in stock shots. House prices are of great interest to many people (almost as great and almost as many as the Express thinks) so stories about them going up, down or even stabilising eat up forests of newsprint. And they have to be illustrated. Unless you have a willing case study, it's complicated to find a specific house to photograph, so we all fall back on the boards or bunches of keys.
It gets a bit tiring after a while - and telephone codes change, estate agents merge or go out of business, so the pictures need rethinking, reworking or at the very least updating. For that you have to have a photographer. And photographers cost money. Much cheaper to stick with the agency shots and take what you're given.
Stock shots have their place. They are readily accessible and a godsend when you have a difficult subject to illustrate, but they have no place in live news stories where the reader wants an image of the event. If you use one in such circumstances it is tantamount to admitting that you missed the story, got to the scene too late - or didn't have anyone to send.
The picture above shows how the Chicago Sun-Times presented the story when people queued round the block for a freebie chickenburger. The picture below, of customers waiting outside the diner, is the rival Tribune's effort.
OK, so it's not the liveliest of pictures, though the two men in the foreground have charm. But at least it was taken on the spot and isn't a handout picture of a burger.
The reason for the difference has been well documented - the Sun-Times sacked its entire 28-strong picture department at the end of last month with the explanation that online readers wanted more videos and so big changes were necessary to facilitate that. But what about still pictures? Ah, reporters with iPhones and agencies would have that little problem covered.
The decision has been greeted with alarm and astonishment on both sides of the Atlantic. Which is apt because it is alarming and astonishing. A newspaper/website without a picture department? How can that work? How can any organisation lay off the likes of the legendary John H. White, below?
White, 68, had worked at the Sun-Times for 35 years, and also taught photojournalism at two colleges. In 1974, at a time when race issues were still explosive in many parts of America, he was commissioned by the Environment Protection Agency to document the lives of African Americans who mainly lived in the deprived areas on the south side of the city. The community that emerged from his photographs was undoubtedly struggling, but it was also one capable of exuberance and grace.
White was awarded the Pulitzer prize for feature photography in 1982 for 'consistently excellent work'. His portfolio included the picture above taken in the notorious Cabrini Green high-rise housing project, which has since been bulldozed. On accepting the award, he said: 'I don't really take pictures. I capture and share life. Moments come when pictures take themselves.'
The White trophy cabinet also houses the Chicago medal of merit, five photographer of the year awards, three headliner of the year awards. He was also the first photographer to find a place in the Chicago journalism hall of fame. A shining star without doubt, but not the only one in the constellation. The scale of what the paper has thrown away is laid out in this article from American Photo magazine.
Chicago (as seen by White, above) regards itself as America's second city. A lot happens there - it's the world of Al Capone and of Barak Obama. History has been made there time and again, and local photographers have been there to record it. Not any more.
Of course there are always agency photographers - Joe Rosenthal who took the Iwo Jima picture was one - but if you rely on them you are never going to have an exclusive on your own patch. And when you have a powerful rival like the doorstep like the Tribune, that's a risky position to put yourself in.
In the era of point-and-press megapixel cameras, we all think we're photographers; we share our efforts on Facebook and some of them are not bad. But we haven't been trained to choose the right angle, the right exposure, to judge the right moment as professionals have. Nor have the Sun-Times reporters.
It's bringing the DIY mentality into the professional arena.How hard is it to wield a paintbrush to brighten up the spare room? Not hard, but someone who has served an apprenticeship in painting and decorating will do the job far more effectively - and economically - than the home handyman. Once again, newspaper managements are devaluing the talents of their staff, discarding trained experts because they think they can get someone else to do it more cheaply. It's a flawed strategy.
The Chicago purge is an extreme example of economies being enforced all over the place. One national newspaper picture editor told me three or four years ago that the picture budget - including cartoons, drawings etc - for an entire department was £11 per day. Yes £11. Ok, this was on top of the subscriptions to the big agencies, but buy one mugshot from Alamy and he'd have blown two weeks' cash. The result, I was told, was that he had researchers on the phone all day begging company PRs for pictures. That's why we pay specialists? To beg to PRs?
The alternative, if there is an objection to paying agency fees, is the PR handout. These are already rather too much in evidence in so-called serious papers, particularly if they feature a comely woman. Here's Liz Hurley doing X or Pippa Middleton doing Y. Some papers have gone so far down this road that they can't even pick up on widely available agency photographs of true merit.
Last Sunday the Moon was as close to Earth as it's going to be this year. Quite a sight. The Guardian treated readers to a splendid centre spread, the Independent also pushed the boat out. But you had to struggle to find even a single photograph in the other papers and some were so tiny and hidden in corners that they were barely distinguishable from the adverts. Pictures of Gwyneth Paltrow in her underwear (above in Friday's Telegraph) preparing for a film or Glastonbury preparing for the crowds were, of course, so much more important.
If we've come to the point that we can't recognise special natural phenomena because we're so bound up with our 'up with the kids' news agendas, what hope is there for the spot news picture? And who's going to take it?
Let's go back to Chicago and Obama, reminding ourselves that this is the city in which he built his power base and is therefore the city that holds the key to elements of his personality, for example the White Sox fan pictured above. The home town papers need to be on the case take the opportunity to archive off-duty and off-beat moments that may have little significance now, but prove important or illuminating in decades to come.
Here's an example from the Thirties.
John Dillinger was a bank robber who, largely on account of escaping twice from jail, became America's first Public Enemy Number One and eventually met his end at the Biograph Theatre near Lincoln Park in Chicago in July 1934.
A few months earlier, while being flown from St Louis to Chicago, Dillinger was approached by an enterprising young photographer seeking to make his name. The Chicago journalist Kevin Davis tells the story
|Taj Mahal, 1992: Diana, Princess of Wales makes a point about her marriage|
in front of the great monument to love. Tim Graham/Getty Images
For those with any kind of interest in newspaper photography, presentation and the importance of pictures, to my mind the bible is still Harry Evans's Pictures on a Page from 1978. It may sound antedeluvian, but there are a few managements and editors who could benefit from giving it a read.
*SubScribe is happy to give full credit for all pictures used on this website, since there is no intention to breach copyright. If your photograph appears and you wish to amend the credit, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
What do you think was the greatest news picture of all time? The greatest photographer? The best front page? The worst stock shot? Please share your opinions in the comments below or by clicking the address email@example.com
Thanks to CatbeL8 for four suggestions: the eruption of Mt St Helens in 1980, the Boeing 767 flying into South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11,and these two examples of anticipation, instinct and quick thinking.
The photograph was taken by Stan Stearns of United Press International. He had frequently covered Jacqueline Kennedy and so knew her habits.
Stearns therefore had his lens trained on Mrs Kennedy as the funeral cortege approached. He saw her bend and whisper to her son and suddenly the boy raised his right arm. 'The hand went up. Click - one exposure. That was it. That was the picture,' Stearns told the New York Times.
Stearns died, aged 76, in March last year.
CatbeL8 also recommended Matthew Brady's photography from the American Civil War. There are many graphic images from the battlefields and the trenches. This one, from Gettysburg in 1863, is the sharpest and least gruesome I found, while still showing the abject misery of war.