Story   Photographer   Editor   Student/Intern   Assistant   Job/Item The Online Resource for Sports Photography

 Front Page
 Member Index
 Latest Headlines
 Special Features
 'Fun Pix'
 Message Board
 Educate Yourself
 Equipment Profiles
 Classified Ads
 Monthly Clip Contest
 Annual Contest
 Current Issue
 Back Issues
 Members Area
 "The Guide"
About Us:
 About SportsShooter
 Contact Us
 Terms & Conditions

Sign in:
Members log in here with your user name and password to access the your admin page and other special features.



|| News Item: Posted 2007-11-07

Gray Matters: A kid in a candy store.
Jim Merithew talks with legendary documentary photographer Michelle Vignes.

By Jim Merithew, San Francisco Chronicle

Photo by Michelle Vignes

Photo by Michelle Vignes

Dancing at Shalimar in Oakland in 1983.
The first time I wandered around Michelle Vignes' house I was part kid in a candy store and part bull in a china shop. It is not a big place, but it packs a punch. Much like Michelle herself.

Hanging on the wall of this tiny little San Francisco house is an autographed Henri Cartier Bresson print. My jawed dropped when I first saw it. The print is not only signed, it's signed: To Michelle.

I went from bookshelf to bookshelf, picking up books I had only seen on eBay or in glass cases. The greats were all there: Marc Riboud, Leonard Freed, Robert Frank, Robert Capa and Bruce Davidson. There were also books by photographers I had never heard of.

I borrowed a piece of paper and started busily scribbling down book names and publishers. Eventually I came across a copy of Michelle's book, Oakland Blues.

I picked it up and thumbed through it. It was beautiful. It was thoughtful. It was inside.

The photographs are from my town. I couldn't believe I had never seen them before. Heck, I had never even heard of the book.

But that was a while ago. I now own no fewer than three copies of Oakland Blues.

Now I'm interviewing her for my column. I find it difficult to concentrate on what she is saying because of how she is saying it. She has the most lush, lovely accent. I mistake it for a French accent.

"I don't have a French accent," says Vignes. "I have a mixed accent. I got my accent when I worked at Magnum. Everybody had a different accent; part French, part Hungarian, part German, part whatever it is. So that's my Magnum salad."

Photo by Jim Merithew © 2004

Photo by Jim Merithew © 2004

Pulitzer Prize winner Kim Komenich, left, and Michelle Vignes in her home.
She worked at Magnum in the early days, alongside Capa and Cartier Bresson. Which explains the autographed print and the dedication with which she pursued her own photography. She came to San Francisco in the mid-60's and never left. When she chose a subject she went after it with dogged determination.

She photographed the Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island, the Black Panther Party, storefront churches in the East Bay, Bullfighting, San Francisco's Playboy Club and other subjects.

"I am unable to take pictures without a center and a subject," says Vignes. "It's funny. I needed a subject to keep going otherwise it is one picture here one picture there and there is not much meaning and I lose the interest. The story is my guide."

Michelle turned 80 this year and she has had some health setbacks, including knee and hip problems. But when she starts talking about photography you can see the fire still burning in her eyes.

She strongly believes the subject should reveal the story to the photographer, not the other way around.

As I sit thumbing through a copy of Oakland Blues again, I realize her true gift was her ability to be accepted. Here was this tiny woman with the "Magnum salad" accent, who not only found her way into the Oakland Blues juke joints, but also into the living rooms and kitchens of the rarely documented blues musicians.

Photo by
The book is full of beautiful photographs of people playing, listening to and feeling the blues; photographs that could only have been taken by someone who had become a trusted member of the community.

The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley has acquired Vignes' archive and she is working on a monograph of her work. When asked about the state of documentary photography today, however, she is less than enthusiastic. She laments the loss of the great picture magazines, like we all do. She realizes there is still great documentary work being done, but is unsure about where it is all going.

"They seem to work on the web," said Vignes. "To me it is just like spitting in the wind."

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and the author alone. They do not represent the views of his employer, co-workers, friends or family.

(Jim Merithew is a picture editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. Jim invites you to direct your questions and comments about this column and other issues involving photojournalism ethics to him through his member page:

Related Links:
Merithew's member page
Book: Oakland Blues

Contents copyright 2023, Do not republish without permission.
Copyright 2023,