Judging the entries for
this year's Agfa Press Awards, John Chillingworth, whose pedigree as a
photographic journalist reaches back to his time on the staff of the now
legendary Picture Post, found an interesting challenge. Spot the press
With the sophistication of hardware, beautifully balanced colour film and
photographers enough, with the driving force to take pictures that pose
questions to stab the conscience of the nation, identifying good press
pictures it should have been easy.
Early experience on Picture Post magazine and later as a freelance in Fleet
Street has, I hope, given me a reasonable insight into the ways of the
media, so when judging the colourful pile of entries, the winners of Agfa's
Press Awards floated to the top with unquestionable buoyancy, but that is
where the easy part ended. I sought in vain amongst the good, clean
well-exposed images for press pictures that had more than good intentions.
In those bland offerings I recognised the dead hand of editorial policy and
a whiff of the perennial angst of journalists, who covet the space that good
press pictures take in daily and weekly newspapers throughout the country.
Let me pop the question. "Have you by chance perceived, when a newspaper
journalist directs the invective of his craft at professional photography,
the torrent of verbiage often results in a display of ignorance?"
Doing their best to dignify the process 'The Independent', publishing a
piece entitled 'Beware of the camera, it comes to get you' in which, sadly,
the journalist concerned failed to get to the heart of the matter, as he
took photographers to task for intrusion on the one hand, and on the other
complaining of the professional psychology employed by some experts to relax
There have been few 'golden days' for press photographers in the past and
today's photographers for the Press, it seems, are no better regarded by
editors. Worse, there no longer appears to be a closely knit camaraderie of
'The Street', nor are there a bunch of Weegee clones, gloriously independent
and dedicated to investigative journalism with a camera. The public image of
Press photographers the 'paparazzi', the 'rat-pack'; creatures of their
editors' own making, but whilst the term 'gentlemen of the press' may have
become a sick joke, invasion of privacy is their not stock in trade.
It is his, or her professional response to the insatiable demand for sleaze
by editors hell-bent on permanent circulation wars with their rivals, often,
but not exclusively at the tabloid end of the media spectrum.
It would be really satisfying to think that true pressmen will always have
the example of the great pioneers to emulate and hopefully exceed. The
reality appears to be dead and buried because photographic journalism, once
considered to be an icon of imaginative editorial policy, has not existed,
except by chance, since the violent demise of the 1950's weekly picture
There have been towering exceptions amongst Fleet Street editors, like Harry
Evans, who was not only picture literate, he also made photography an
integral part of the news/feature profile of The Sunday Times in its now
forgotten days of integrity. More recently, some editorial bluster dismissed
photography as a news vehicle altogether, as editors attempt to relegate it
to the role of 'decoration' on the editorial page, when it is not 'exposing'
something, or someone.
If Fleet Street history is anything to go by, that kind of hegemony is part
of the cycle of monumental editorial, or more accurately publishing
incompetence. Towards the end of the comparatively brief heady days of
social conscience journalism, so bravely spearheaded for a while by Picture
Post, we experienced the same strident commercial reaction to the success of
photography as a primary communicator to a thinking public.
It was then, largely in response to the demands of advertisers and,
therefore, the publishers' profits, puppet editors trivialised its use on
the editorial pages, as they tried to stem the thirst of the public for good
photography. By doing so, they rapidly masked the principle of narrative
image making; driving the readers 'hot-foot' into the fast emerging age of
television, from which their loyalty has seldom strayed since. That act of
folly alone was enough to drive picture magazines to the slaughterhouse!
Potentially, the skills of today's UK based photographers hustling for
credit lines in national newspapers and magazines, should be unequalled.
Indeed, amongst them are veritable giants, like Ken Lennox of Today, Mike
Maloney of The People and The Daily Mirror's Gavin Kent. It would seem
natural, then, to ask why since the Arcadian days of pre-World War II
'camera operators' and the sparkling photographer-journalist teamwork of the
Picture Post era, press photographers has recently had a bad press.
On reading their sniping critics, it seems possible that there may be some
paranoid fear amongst editors, journalists and the occupiers of
picture-desks that photographers might re-discover the dark secret of
journalism with a camera, catch the imagination of the current crop of media
owners and by doing so drive the wheel of history full circle!
But that cannot possibly be true - can it? If it were, they might be forced
to accept the long proven premise that a fistful of good pictures on the
printed page can be more powerful and articulate than a mountain of words,
to the news-hungry public.
When editorial policy demands that press photographers plunge head-first
into the 'paparazzi' sub-culture, like good professionals, they do it well,
but to their surprise find themselves convenient whipping boys (and girls)
for sanctimonious journalists and politicians who delight in waving the
banner of decency and discipline when invasion of privacy by the 'rat-pack'
creates a public outcry. The fact is that the creators of the invasive horde
are invariably the very people who complain about their cunning and
But, in my experience, talented press photographers will always overcome the
prejudice of their journalistic colleagues by their sheer professionalism,
so if we let the clutter of Fleet Street's chequered history quietly drift
away, by some miracle of fate, public demand might just ensure that press
photographers will be respected again, as 'gentlemen of the press'.
Looking at the Press world from the opposite end of the telescope, perhaps
the Editor of 'Hello' who, when attending a symposium on photographic
journalism some time ago, catagorically assured the mourners on the
platform, myself included, that "photo-journalism is safe in my hands",
could be right after all. However, I have the lingering suspicion that it
died before she was born!