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|| News Item: Posted 2012-08-02

Olympic portraits
Is it art? Or just bad?

By Al Diaz

Photo by Al Diaz (composite)

Photo by Al Diaz (composite)

Recently, the photographic portraits of U.S. Olympic athletes, by Agence France-Presse photographer Joe Klamar, ignited a firestorm of vitriol on the Internet from fellow photographers and the general public.
All photographers are artists but there is a difference between photojournalism and fine-art photography. One serves up healthy portions of reality the other fantasy and whimsy.

Back in the early 80’s when I was minoring in the visual arts program at the University of Florida I found myself failing art photography. My photos for class looked like they belonged in a daily newspaper.

Influenced by the likes of photographer Michael O’Brien of the now defunct Miami News, the impressive news images in the Miami Herald, the incredible mentoring by staffers at the Associated Press, Phil Sandlin, Kathy Willens, Doug Jennings, Hal Moore, Mark Foley and so many other AP staffers, I built a photojournalism portfolio that launched my life-long career in an incredible news town.

But in art photo, my grades did not reflect a bright future. So… I went the weird route: shot anything funky, abstract and bizarre. My grades shot up and my art photography professor, whose name escaped me three decades ago, smiled.

Recently, the photographic portraits of U.S. Olympic athletes, by Agence France-Presse photographer Joe Klamar, ignited a firestorm of vitriol on the Internet from fellow photographers and the general public.

With my experience as a staff photographer for a major daily newspaper I don’t doubt Klamar when he says he was unprepared, totally unaware how his assignment was going to play out. Klamar says he thought he was going to shoot head shots at a press conference.

Be honest, how often has that happened to you? It happens! Over the years there have been times my editors have sold me a bill of goods only to find the assignment is not quite what it has been presented to be. I believe Klamar. What we have here is a failure to communicate. Hey, we are in the communication business right?

So what did Klamar do? His suite of images of the U.S. Olympic athletes is funky, abstract and bizarre. They are so bad they are good. Brilliant really. There is no redundancy. His approach has a continuous theme while varying the poses for each subject. If you hang the photographic collection at any museum of modern art, my guess is it would get rave reviews.

Put in the same situation, many of us would approach this assignment in a totally different manner, one that reflects a collective vision of the visual arts department at our daily newspaper or wire service. Respectful of our personal history while keeping in mind how the work will be presented in the mainstream media.

If I know there is only a minute or so with each athlete, no set up time and no proper equipment I would streamline it all down and take a simple approach. Do more with less. I would recommend a classic journalistic style. Clean it up. That is what I would expect from any photojournalist, including from myself.

No shuttlecocks on an athlete’s head, moose antlers, contorted bodies or creepy lighting. That’s not to say I would not reserve any of the above in my realm of creativity. No, these are all options. Why limit yourself?

That said, the notion that Klamar took a nefarious approach in the way he photographed US Olympic athletes, as many suggest, can only be judged by those that know his true character. When I first saw Klamar’s images, mischief is the first thing that crossed my mind. A treacherous yet witty body of work reflecting US Olympians as incompetent.

One person’s trash is another one's treasure. I do believe that Klamar failed to create images that serve the general public, newspapers and magazines but as fine art the photographs may certainly have value, just not for me.

See the good, the funky, the abstract and the bizarre, here.

Al Diaz is a staff photographer at the Miami Herald. You can see samples of his work and link to his personal websites at his Sports Shooter member page:

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