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“ What’s documentary about photography?:
From directed to digital photojournalism ”

by John Mraz


Living Landscapes

Directed photographs are predominantly composed through constructing and reconstructing narrative tableaux vivants, and the numerous instances of this genre offer fascinating tales. It appears evident that Jacob Riis, perhaps the first real photojournalist, staged scenes in which “Growler Gangs” of young men in New York recreated their technique, for Riis’ camera, of rolling drunks in alleyways during the 1880s. New York was also the backdrop for the archetypical tabloid lens-man, Weegee (the professional name Arthur Fellig assumed). On at least one occasion in 1941, he evidently convinced a mother to participate in a scenario that replicated the ways in which the city’s inhabitants attempted to avoid the summer’s heat. Weegee had the woman take her scantily dressed children out on the fire escape, where they lay on top of sheets and pretended to sleep while he photographed them, as if the city were trapped in a heat wave (Rogers).

The complexities of “reconstructing” narrative photographs can be illustrated in the controversies surrounding Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer-Prize winning image of the flag raising over Iwo Jima in 1945. The photograph’s very perfection led Life’s editors to believe that it had been posed; concerned to protect the credibility they knew was their life’s blood, they initially hesitated to publish it. (Goldberg) Though not directed, the image is somewhat of a re-creation. A small flag had been raised earlier, under fire, and a Marine Corps combat photographer had shot a picture. As the first group came down Mount Suribachi, Rosenthal went up with a Marine detail carrying a larger flag and pole. When this was hoisted, Rosenthal took the photo that became perhaps the most pervasively distributed icon in history. For Martha Rosler, this constituted “a postbattle replacement by a different set of Marines of the original, small flag planted earlier under fire.” Rosler implies that there was a significant difference between the dangers faced by the two parties, and she argues that, in the interest of Marine Corps public relations, “Both groups of men -- those who had raised the original, smaller, flag during combat and those who had taken part in the second raising -- were repeatedly made to lie about the event.” It appears clear that combat did not cease on Iwo Jima with the flag raising, and three of the men involved later died on the island (Goldberg)

Robert Doisneau would often see something he wanted to document but, unable to capture it, he would later stage what he had observed (Hamilton). The perfect example is his famous image, The Kiss at l’Hotel de Ville (1950). When this image became a stock item on the walls of students’ quarters and in advertising campaigns throughout the developed world during the 1980s, he was contacted by at least 15 couples who alleged that they had been les amoureux. One couple filed suit to prove their claim, and the matter was even further complicated when the woman who had modeled for the mise-en-scène also sued for a share of the royalties. In 1994, the case was resolved in Doisneau’s favor when he proved that the model had received payment for acting in the Life photoessay of 1950, where it had been claimed that these were “unposed pictures.”

The contradictions of directed photojournalism -- which trades on the credibility of the camera as an objective and nonintervening witness but depends upon the control of the photographer over the scene -- are manifest in the most renowned narrative images produced under the Farm Security Administration. Roy Stryker, Director of the FSA, defended with almost his last breath what he considered to be “the picture” of that project, Dorothea Lange’s image of the Migrant Mother (1936): “People would say to me, that migrant woman looks posed and I’d say she does not look posed. That picture is as uninvolved with the camera as any picture I’ve ever seen. I’ll stand on that picture as long as I live” (Stryker and Wood).

Stryker’s denial notwithstanding, research by James Curtis has uncovered the degree of direction that went into creating this universal icon of suffering and dignity. In the sort of brief encounter that seems to have been typical of FSA photography, Lange took six pictures of the woman and her children in the space of ten minutes. Comparing the various images makes it clear that Lange had the woman and two children pose in different positions until she had the photo she wanted: the mother’s face is framed by her hand, reflecting her anguish, and the children look away from the camera so as not to distract. Further, in order to create a picture acceptable to the urban middle-class readers who constituted the audience for FSA imagery, Lange excluded the woman’s husband and four of her seven children.

Dorothea Lange never publicly acknowledged the direction that had gone into making Migrant Mother, but Arthur Rothstein’s famous FSA photo, Fleeing a Dust Storm (1936), had a different history. In this image a father and his two sons struggle to reach home, apparently trapped in one of the innumerable blinding, suffocating dust storms that devastated the Midwest in the 1930s. The father labors against the force of the wind, and the older child keeps pace with him, looking up as if for guidance as they seek shelter. The younger child has straggled behind, arms upraised as if he were pleading not to be abandoned.

A magisterial document of life on the plains, and a powerful synecdoche for the splitting asunder of the family by the dust storm qua depression, it was also a product of direction. Rothstein evidently worked with the man and his sons to achieve the picture he envisioned, perhaps assuring their cooperation by appearing with a government bureaucrat who the local residents knew, and to whom they may well have been beholden (Curtis). The photojournalist had probably walked the family through their parts, having the older son turn toward the father in order to hide the large bill of his cap, and placing the younger child a few steps behind so that he could be cropped out easily if he forgot his instructions and looked at the camera.

In his 1943 essay, “Direction in the Picture Story,” Rothstein described how he had realized the scene, “The picture of a farmer and his sons in a dust storm was controlled in this way. The little boy was asked to drop back and hold his hand over his eyes. The father was asked to lean forward as he walked.” In this essay, the only extensive written argument by a working photojournalist explicitly advocating the strategy of staging, Rothstein openly called for active involvement in the photographic act:

The photographer [must] become not only a cameraman [sic] but a scenarist, dramatist, and director as well…. Providing the results are a faithful reproduction of what the photographer believes he sees, whatever takes place in the making of the picture is justified. In my opinion, therefore, it is logical to make things happen before the camera and, when possible to control the actions of the subject.

It is revealing that Rothstein felt that a directed photograph would be most powerful when the photographer’s intervention was not perceivable: “In conclusion, the idea of direction on the part of the photographer has its greatest value when its processes are least discernible to the spectator.” His disregard for what might be considered the traditional approach to photojournalism can be appreciated as well in his remarks on “distortion”. Rothstein believed that “It is sometimes desirable to distort or accentuate with lenses of various focal lengths,” arguing that “Deliberate distortion may actually add to its reality.” Rothstein later repented his candor, recognizing that the effectiveness of his pictures depended on their “believability,” and he claimed, in an article published some forty years after the fact, “The photograph was unposed, not staged, the action and location were not changed” (Rothstein 1978).

Credibility is the underpinning of photojournalism, and doubts that have arisen around “authenticity” are at the heart of the most controversial case surrounding a narrative tableau, that of the Death of a Republican Soldier (1936), made by Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War. In the midst of a bitter fraternal bloodbath, propaganda and commitment had priority, and today’s concerns about photographic honesty took a decidedly second place to the immediate utility of images in battling for the allegiance of Spaniards, as well as in recruiting the outside aid upon which both the Republicans and the Fascists depended to a large degree.

According to a seasoned photojournalist who covered this cataclysm, P.H.F. Tovey, it was common to stage pictures: “Faking was the order of the day, even a tumble down cottage was used as a background and bodies placed in heaps to look like casualties of war. Men carefully rehearsed in their parts would fall as though shot at the blast of a whistle.”

A glance at the newspapers of the period, and the photography produced by the foremost Spanish photojournalist of the war, Agustí Centelles, confirms the notion that many images were posed. When Capa’s picture was first published during 1936 in the French magazine, Vu, it appeared together with another photo taken some minutes before or after, of a different man falling in exactly the same spot. This “coincidence” almost immediately opened up the suspicion that Death of a Republican Soldier had in fact been a training exercise staged for Capa’s benefit, and one recent scholar, Caroline Brothers, feels that the second picture is probably the decisive bit of evidence that it was posed.

The question as to this photo’s authenticity as an index of the event depicted would appear to have been resolved recently by the research of a Spanish historian (Whelan). Mario Brotons Jordà determined by the cartridge belt of the soldier that he had been a member of the Alcoy militia; Brotons then discovered the name of the only man from that town killed on Cerro Muriano, the fifth of September, 1936: Federico Borrell García. When he showed the picture to Borrell’s brother, and compared it to family albums, the mystery seemed solved. I say “seemed” because some of the pictures evidently taken before the famous photo show Borrell and other men in “battle” scenes that appear to be posed; in one, three men are bunched together in what could only be described as a dangerously exposed position, one holding his rifle in a way that will guarantee a sharp kick to the face.

This may be because these soldiers were the “fanatical but ignorant fighters” that Capa described when recounting the story of making this photo to John Hersey, or it could be that the pictures were taken during a training exercise, as the war correspondent, O.D. Gallagher, has argued on different occasions (Knightly, Lewinski).

Whether Gallagher is right about the exercise or not, he opened up the issue of esthetic realism by recounting how Capa had told him that good action shots were a result of moving the camera slightly during the exposure, and being slightly out of focus. We will probably never know whether this was the tactic that Capa utilized, but it appears that photographers of the Spanish Civil War such as David Seymour (Chim) and the Germans, Hans Namuth and Georg Reisner, did experiment with creating movement within the frame as a way of making it appear that their photos had been taken in the midst of combat.

W. Eugene Smith was one of the most renowned photographers in the world during the 1950s, and is considered to be the master of the photoessay. He asserted that he almost never posed pictures, preferring instead to mingle quietly and let the world happen in its honest complexity, photographing as a nearly unobserved observer, or becoming an intimately accepted participant. However, for Smith, directing was evidently somewhat different than posing, for he also argued that, “The majority of photographic stories require a certain amount of setting up, rearranging and stage direction, to bring pictorial and editorial coherence to the pictures” (Smith).

One example is offered by the photoessay, “Country Doctor,” published in Life during 1948, and considered to be a watershed in the development of this genre. There is little question but that Smith steeped himself in the activities of Dr. Ceriani during the four weeks he spent with him, feeling that he had “faded into the wallpaper… [and] let the ideas come from the subject itself” (Hughes). Nonetheless, the essay’s closing shot, a powerful image of the doctor at two a.m., exhausted from operating all night and downhearted at having lost both the mother and baby during a caesarian section, appears to have been directed, for the negatives that follow this image show the physician standing in an impossibly awkward position (Willumson).

Smith’s penchant for set-ups was particularly manifest in the photographs he made in Europe during 1950. Life wanted to publish a story supportive of the conservatives, who were attempting to take power from the Labour Party. Although Smith was partisan to Labour, he rented a cement truck, which bore a sign “Under Free Enterprise British Cement is the Cheapest in the World,” as well as a bunch of cows that were placed in the middle of the land, blocking the truck’s passage. Though the story was never published, the message of the image was pretty clear: an antiquated herd mentality had stymied capitalism, which needed an open road if it was to arrive before it hardened into uselessness.

Doing the story on the British elections was a bit of a trade-off for Smith, who wanted to go to Spain and do an exposé on the poverty and fear created by the dictator, Francisco Franco. Conscious of the role played by the Guardia Civil in Franquist repression, Smith got three members of that police force to pose for him, working with them until he had them facing the sun, and their grimaces could be taken for the hard-edged arrogance he wished to portray. However, Smith’s need to direct scenes went beyond this. His assistant, Ted Castle, later recounted how they created the opening shot of the essay,

We spent damn near a whole day getting that action right, and the shot took almost three hours. I had to drag people around, motioning to them, ‘You walk here.’ ‘You walk there.’ ‘I want you to walk along with your mule.’ ‘I want you to stand.’ He’d finally say, ‘Okay,’ and I’d dash into a doorway and he’d click. Then he’s say, ‘Let’s do it over again’ (Hughes).


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