Words - Industry - Gentlemen of the Press? (1994)


Gentlemen of the Press? (1994)

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 photography!

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 their subjects.

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 magazines.

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 ingenuity.

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!

Copyright John Chillingworth