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|| News Item: Posted 2008-06-30

Reflecting on Being a Newspaper Photographer (Or a Photographer Who Works for a Newspaper)
By Kim Komenich

Photo by Brad Mangin

Photo by Brad Mangin

Pulitzer Prize winning San Francisco Chronicle staff photographer Kim Komenich chimps in the pretty light during the first inning of Saturday night's Giants vs. A's game at the Oakland Coliseum on June 28, 2008.
©2008 Kim Komenich

The Lee Friedlander retrospective just ended here in San Francisco and in getting the opportunity to see his work as a collection of fifty years worth of projects ---some sequential, some ongoing-- I walked away with a sense of a photographer's life well-lived.

Photojournalists, especially those of us who work primarily on assignments, tend to be problem solvers and we get a lot of our satisfaction from that. Other photographers are "collectors" or "accumulators" who might have several long-term personal projects for which they are always "gathering string" while shooting the same kinds of subjects we do.

For me this has always pointed to the distinction that can be made between considering yourself a "newspaper photographer" versus a "photographer who happens to work for a newspaper."

What strikes me about Friedlander's work is that he was out there doing the commercial and editorial work necessary to raise a family, but all the while he was "gathering string" for fine art projects and books he knew would not be shown for decades. In the 80's he began publishing books culled from all the things that struck him, one frame at a time, with many projects in progress, over the decades.

Among his scores of fine art, street and personal projects is a book dedicated to TV screens ("The Little Screens"), a book dedicated to letters of the alphabet ("Letters from the People"), and of course, self-portraits.

Photographers have traditionally leveraged traveling on assignment into ways of furthering their personal projects. Eli Reed's "Black in America" and Elliott Erwitt's "Son of Bitch" are good examples. The photographers didn't "go out to shoot" the books-- they gathered string for these essays over the course of many years while doing assignments. Sometimes they extended their stay on their own dime, but the travel expenses were paid by the client. Clients don't care when you book the return flight as long as you don't bill them for any expenses that go beyond the job they contracted for.

It used to be that the still photographer had the advantage over the video journalist when it came to being ready for a moment. All we needed was our Leica on our shoulder and we were all prospective Magnum members who were ready for a day full of decisive moments. The videographer, on the other hand, had to deal with cumbersome gear, expensive media (and where to park the white van without getting electrocuted.) It stands to reason that until recently, not a lot of personal work was being shot on video.

There are great autobiographical films and videos by Danny Lyon, Robert Frank and Ross McElwee, but until now there hasn't been a lot of this work from the video journalism world.

Now that high definition video can be made with prosumer video cameras smaller than our pro stills cameras, new types of video self-portraits and personal projects are possible.

It points to the video dimension of Jay Maisel's quote about stills photography: "If you always have your camera with you, you'll never have to go out shooting."

I ran across this video the other day on YouTube. The guy just had fun with a little video camera wherever he happened to travel. The video amounts to vacation snaps with an arc. It's all set up and it's not journalism. It's not a tearjerker or a soul-searcher or a journalism contest winner. The photographer didn't "go to work", yet through a commitment to "gathering string" over the course of dozens of trips, a sweet little movie happened:

(Kim Komenich is a staff photographer at the San Francisco Chronicle and 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner. Kim is a former instructor at the University of Missouri and teaches workshops around the country. In 2001 he was a teaching fellow at the U. C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism's Center for Photography. In Fall, 2008 he will teach a Photojournalism course at Stanford Continuing Studies.)

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