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AUGUST 9, 2010 10:20AM

Revealing Photographs

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  The Loneliest Job in the World

            My father was a news photographer. When he talked about his work he would say he didn’t take photographs. He made them. There’s a difference, he’d say.

            I never asked him what he meant, but the distinction seemed important to him. I remember thinking when he said it that the word “made” sounded conspiratorial. I thought he was admitting that he somehow manipulated a scene he photographed, that he violated what seems a contract with the viewer. As Susan Sontag says in On Photography, “(t)he picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.”

            Sometimes people ask me how my father got a photograph, particularly “The Loneliest Job in the World,” a photograph of President John F. Kennedy silhouetted by a window in the Oval Office. They want to know if my father composed the photograph in his mind first, then asked the president to lean on the table. This is what my father said: he watched the president and saw that because of the president’s injured back, the president often went to the table at the window to read. My father waited, and when the president moved toward the window and the table, he positioned himself with several cameras set at different exposures. He said he had seen an image in his mind and knew that underexposing the film would create more than a picture of the president. He took several frames from slightly different angles.

            The photograph was part of a series that accompanied an article in The New York Times Magazine where my father was the chief photographer for the Washington, DC, bureau. When my father showed the president a mock-up of the magazine before it came out in the Sunday paper, the president looked at the photographs, pointed to the silhouette, and said, “that’s the picture that should have been on the cover.” Both the photographer and subject sensed its importance. They both knew the picture wasn’t of a particular man leaning on a table. It’s a picture of the president, standing in silhouette, seemingly deep in thought and carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. The picture holds within it something more than what is seen.

            When my father said he made photographs rather than took them, maybe that’s what he meant. Anyone can squeeze the button on a shutter, as he liked to say. Back in 1961 when my father made that photograph, the image moved through a lens onto a piece of paper embedded with chemicals. That’s it.

            Maybe my father was prescient. Maybe JFK was too. After the assassination, the photograph became famous. It was a symbol of the Kennedy presidency, the lost hope of a generation, Camelot. In some ways the photograph gave us solace, as if we saw in the president’s posture an acceptance of his destiny.

            Later, the picture seemed to hold within it the cumulative losses of the Kennedy family.

            Now the image has been appropriated by anyone who wants to be seen struggling alone against uncertain odds, even if they aren’t real. There was a three-second shot of Martin Sheen silhouetted against a window at the opening to the “West Wing” television show.

            I remember my father once being angry when a photograph was disqualified from a competition because the judges thought it had been manipulated. It was a picture of a NASA rocket ready for launch. The photograph was taken at night, a full moon burned iridescent. The judges thought the moon looked too perfect, too round, too much the size of a quarter which could have been placed on the photograph during developing. My father shrugged off the criticism; to him the allegation said more about the judges than it did about his photography. That wasn’t how he made pictures.

            Yet my father wasn’t above creating, or recreating, a scene. Everyone in the family was called upon at some time to act as models. My younger brother and I often went on assignment with him and were photographed walking through the National Zoo for a shot of the new bird exhibit and looking through a wall-sized window at the Smithsonian. On a cold, icy morning, my father saw two school children on hands and knees pushing their books up the steep hill in front of our house. Within an hour my brother and I were doing the same. It made the next day’s paper.

Going to School

            My oldest sister is the widow in “Widow’s Walk,” a winter snow scene at Arlington Cemetery, although she was neither a widow nor the wife of a soldier. She was a high schooler, called on by our father to walk among the white gravestones at a prescribed angle after a deep winter snow. I have a memory of sitting in the car waiting for her to walk, then walk again, until my father was satisfied he had captured on film the image he sought. I was bored. She was cold.

            The photograph was made in 1968.  “Widow’s Walk” had nothing to do with the Viet Nam War but it evoked the nation’s growing discomfort with the war and the daily death count. Today, the photograph transcends any specific reference to a time, or even a place. It speaks to all loss.

               My father wasn’t on assignment when he made “Widow’s Walk.”  He loved photographing Washington, particularly in the snow when the city’s granite and marble buildings took on an ethereal quality. Washington, to my father, was as close to an earthly approximation of Mount Olympus as there was. Draped in fresh snow, it was as if the city sat atop pure white clouds. Every winter he tried to photograph what he felt in his heart.

widow's walk

            When my father started work as a photographer in the early 1940s, photojournalism was in its infancy. In fact, photographers’ work was seen more as craft and certainly not on the same level as the writers in the newsroom. But my father helped create a different aesthetic. Photojournalism became as important to the story as the story itself. Even today when video of an event shows up on the internet in real time, it is the photograph we look to for meaning, that we search for some hint of the truth as if we are holding in our hands the actual moment in miniature.

            Did he take photographs or make photographs? I’m still not sure what my father meant, if he was simply saying, for those who still didn’t believe, that photography was more than craft? Or was he making a joke, something for which he was very well known? Was he confirming or contradicting Sontag?

            Maybe I do understand. For my father, whether he changed the lighting, moved a piece of furniture, or stood in the shadows and waited for a scene to unfold in front of him, when he took a photograph he become a part of it and in that instant it changed from something he took to something he made.

            By the way, the morning my father made the picture of JFK at the window, the president was reading the Times.  He had gotten to the editorial page.  My father said, “he looked over and he saw me. He hadn’t been aware that I took that picture from the back, but he saw me when I moved to the side there. He glanced over at me, and he said: ‘I wonder where Mr. Krock gets all the crap he puts in this horseshit column of his.’ Apparently he was much upset about Mr. Krock’s column that day.”

 

(Quote copyright “George Tames Washington Photographer for the New York Times, 1945-1985, Oral History Interviews, Senate Historical Office, Washington, DC.  All photographs are copyright The New York Times, by George Tames)

 

This essay is copyrighted by the author, and it part of a memoir on her father.

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Fascinating and even melancholy in so many ways. Funny how the word "manipulation" for an effect has changed from posing models to technical apps. (I much prefer the old fashioned way of manipulation). I look forward to reading more of your memoir. (r)
Fascinating look inside. Thank you for this.
These photos are iconic, Stephanie. The one of JFK I've seen a hundred times. The "Widow's Walk" not as much, but the viewings I've had of it have left an indelible print in my mind. This is a most fascinating background and portrait of your father. I look forward to your memoir. Any idea when it will come out?
What an interesting story and such impressive work! Your father was gifted to say the least.
R
Matt, thanks, I'm still looking for a publisher. Some day...
dirndle skirt and Bonnie, I've struggled with defining manipulation, posing, staging. It comes up in writing, too. What's creative non-fiction anyway?
Pilgrim, Lawless, thanks.
~stephanie
Stephanie, when I worked as a newspaper reporter, we distinguished between "hard" news photos, feature photos and photo illustrations. I disagree with Bonnie that the publication is obligated to disclose how the photo was "made," but at our papers we tried to make sure the cutline info wasn't misleading. So many feature stories had the interview subject pretending to be talking on the phone in his or her office that it became a joke. We called that type photo "environmental mugshots." But if we ran a photo showing something supposedly happening that was captured by the camera, it had to be what we said it was.
I must disagree with Bonnie. I believe that all photography is essentially "staged", whether it is done as consciously as your father did, or more unconsciously through the "editing" that takes place at the viewfinder. I do agree that almost any image captured with more consciousness that a photo radar shot could be referred to as "made" rather than "taken".
It's looking good Steph. I understand exactly what you are describing when you make the distinction between your father's interpretation of take v. make. I read this to my mother today and it caught her interest immediately for this was the time of her life, and mine as well, but I was your age and had a different perspective.

@ Bonnie - Photographers employ many techniques to achieve the desired effect in the final print -- Stephanie actually addresses this when speaking of the 'quarter' moon. Photojournalism can require special lighting, angles, and anticipation of the unfolding of an event as Stephanie describes. Re-creations of a scene for commercial and photographic art is part of creating the photo. When standing before a photo in an art gallery, we would not expect to see a sign saying the artist manipulated, placed, or created the scene in the photo. I certainly have said 'do that again' to the subject of a photo. I wouldn't feel the need to publish with a disclaimer that I said so. I'm offering my perspective on your comment for a little clarification. I believe most any photographer in the era of Mr. Tames (darkroom developing) utilized re-creation of an observed event or action in order to capture the moment in a more meaningful, artistic way. Lighting was critical, motion could ruin a perfect photo op. I guess I'm taking an exception to your exception. It's just my opinion.
Thank you very much for sharing this with us. The take or make question is worth pondering. The Widows Walk photo is so compelling but there is an implication there that the photographer captured a grieving widow walking between those tombstones, to learn that it was your sister, well to me your father was manipulating our emotions, he envisioned a lonely widow walking through the snow and when one didn't appear he created one. Now, as a symbol of all grieving widows, a testament to what has been lost by so many, oh yes, he succeeds and owes no apology. How was the photo captioned? Did the caption imply that this was an image of a forlorn stranger serendipitously captures? Or are we led to believe it was an "honest image."

The JFK photo I do not have a problem with at all. He had observed the President in that pose and it struck him, he capitalized on it with his exposure time but it was not posed, it was an "honest" image.

Your father was a fine artist and photojournalist, what a privilege to have been his daughter Stephanie. I hope you succeed in publishing your book.
This will be a very desirable book as it will give a peek inside the process of the artist who photographed pieces of historical importance. The artistic process will be something that people can appreciate and perhaps learn from. R
What a great story, Stephanie. I love the photos. It must have been such a great time to be a photographer.
Wow! I always wondered who took that powerful image of Kennedy. Talk about your six degrees of separation.
A very interesting read on your father and his photographs. Always liked that pic of JFK.

Rated and Tink Picked(okay, and congrats on the EP and cover!! :) )
Truly fascinating. I will look forward to your memoir._r
Wow...fascinating insights into a photographer who took such iconic images...
Ablonde, as far as I know, Widow's Walk was never published in the NYT, although I could be wrong. He wrote captions for his work but, as you know, editors have the last word. He titled his photographs only when they were put in competition, particularly the White House News Photographers Association annual contest.

Matt, my father said when he first started, photographers were called head hunters because head shots were all they ever took. Photojournalism, particularly in Washington politics, changed dramatically during his time.
Really really good stuff. I am going to make sure to regularly check out your stuff.
There's a lot of storytelling talent in your family! I love the behind-the-scenes history here and the fond memories of a daughter.
Awesome photos and accompanying story, Stephanie. He didn't take them but made them. So true as you show here.
Stephanie, it surely appears that the Widow's Walk photo was the cover of the NYT Magazine, am I wrong?
yep, iconic images. cool that you showed up to open salon. its a small world. where the father of someone posting on open salon was a famous photographer.
Fascinating, well-written account of your father's methods. The iconic image of JFK is unforgettable.
That exact image, signed by your father and a gift to my partner who worked with him at the NYT, hangs over my computer in front of me as I type this. One forgets that every artist has children with their own feelings about the work and people's perceptions of it. I love knowing the backstory behind it.
Beautiful, haunting photographs.
This was a wonderful read. I like learning about the background of an image. As for the Widow's Walk, many widows have walked in that cemetery. The person in the photo, who happened to be your sister, represented all widows who have walked among the grave markers. I do not feel the title of the photo was manipulative in any way.

Thank you for sharing your memories and I wish you the best of luck with publishing them. R
What a fantastic post. That picture is one of my all time favorites, even better than John Jr. under the desk. It seems he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. I guess in reality, he did. Thank you for writing this!
I love your father's pictures.

That said, my father was a newspaper photographer (and later, photo editor) of the "animal" ilk. Remember The Lou Grant Show? He thought the portrayal of the photog, called "Animal", was authentic: rough and tumble, usually scruffy. Before my dad even the photo editor didn't have a college degree.

They decidedly took pictures. Grabbed them where they saw them. It was about realism and immediacy and a book of the pictures from their era has a very noir quality about it. Yes, they framed the pictures, they considered light and composition, but it usually had to be done fast. Once they moved to an SLR dad was the kind of photographer who used film like we now shoot digitally. Zzzzz, zzzzz, zzzzz - no motors. (Created a bad habit in his offspring who had to pay for their own film & processing.)

I think my father had an artistic impulse but the demands of the job didn't allow for much artistry. He was without pretension. He chafed when he was required to obscure the wrinkles in a photo of the publisher's wife. As a teenager, the last thing you wanted was him taking your picture. When he could control the lighting he lit for clarity, not flattery and every zit showed up so nicely you could never let anyone see the picture. The pictures of his I cherish the most are remarkable for their clarity.

He was always on assignment. He always had his camera. They all did and once one of his photogs caught my brother doing something he wasn't supposed to be doing somewhere he wasn't supposed to be. Dad blew the picture up and - busted.

I remember thinking how fortunate your father was to be in the right place to catch the woman walking through the cemetery. Different perspective.
nerd cred: I think we could swap lots of stories of growing up with a photographer. I always considered the politicians of the '60s and '70s my family since there were more pictures of them on the walls of our house than of all of us.
:)
~stephanie
Absolutely fascinating. Thank you for sharing this story. I'm so glad it made the cover!
This is an awesome expose about your father and I understand exactly what he meant by the comment I make photographs. I tried my had at B&W photography for years and it's a rare craftsman that can do the work like your father and others such as Ansell Adams, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Matthew Brady and many color photographers such as Art Wolfe.

These guys, like your father, were/are not only intuitive they know their subjects and react to the moods of the subjects. Ansell Adams often sat for days watching his next photo take place, understanding when the light was going to hit El Capitan at just the right moment, in the right weather, watching the moon rise for several nights over Hernandez New Mexico until the moon was just right and the clouds worked with the landscape, etc. A good photographer doesn't click and run, "he makes his photographs" with keen observation and lots of patience.

This was wonderful, thank you Stephanie. The photo of President Kennedy brings back some bitter-sweet memories of what should have been. There's been no other since like him.

Curious. Have you picked up on the art from your dad at all? You must be proud of him.
Amazing piece, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Though Sontag's work was not an easy read--I got it soon after it was published in 1977, it was certainly prescient when you bring the then unknown internet into comparison with her thoughts that photography tended to equalize events for the viewer, even jade the viewer into passive voyeurism. The internet seems to envelop many into a passive, though loud, cynicism as well, an interesting foreshadowing. Dividing photography into camps as a metaphor for a larger societal paradigm, I feel she was correct in saying that the person wishing to record cannot intervene and the one who intervenes cannot faithfully record. I think though that that leaves out Art as a means of communicating truth. A tremendous intellect, vital and seminal in how we even now view photography in art or journalism, it is still an amazing work to me, though I tend to shy away from polemics that are absolute. Having done both photojournalism where I had to remove my personality, and art in landscape photography, for example, I prefer the art and allowing the artist to provide the platform for both the viewer and maker/taker a more spiritual connection.
Wow...your father chronicled a generation...
Thanks for sharing...
Magnificent, compelling post, Stephanie. Thank you for it.
Two words about photography in that day and age: no Photoshop. What you saw was pretty much what you got.

As a darkroom veteran myself, I know how difficult it can be to get an image right. Your father was definitely a master of his craft, and make no mistake, it was a craft. (It still is, even if a lot of newly-minted photographers don't regard it as such because the tools themselves are now computer-based.)
Such an interesting background story. When instant photography was all the rage, one artist suggested smearing the image as it was being developed to create an impressionistic style painting. I tried this one and made a mess.
Excellent! thanks so much for sharing a fascinating subject about a man clearly with his own visions.
Knowing some of the background behind these famous photos make them even more interesting. Thank you.
a wonderful tour of your father's art. rated!
I have always wondered about photography, and how photographers say "make" pictures. I see it as an art form, but am dismayed by the many fashion photographers who seem to live truly just snapping a bunch of pictures and become famous for it. There are exceptions.
Being offered a glimpse into your fathers craft doesn't make me doubt his art or the art of photography. It confirms that images have layers of meaning, and in the visual world, these images resonate most in context. Although, I think your father made images that would be profound in or out of context.

Can't wait to read more. Thank you.
Wonderful read. Thanks for sharing this.
Thanks for sharing this. It was a fascinating look inside a world alien to mine.
Just read this over at Big Salon but wanted to comment here. This is a fascinating and wonderful piece. You "make" sentences the way your father made pictures. Great writing.
Nelle, wow, thanks. That's a really nice thing to say. No one in the family picked up my dad's talent with the camera. My sister is a visual artist. Interestingly, my father never read anything I wrote.
stephanie
Always wondered who took that picture! You and I have much in common.
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