As this will be my last post I would like to say thank you to Hatje Cantze and Nadine Barthe for inviting me, and to those who have taken the time to look. I would have liked to write more about the trials of newspaper picture editing, but the job as it were got in the way. So, for this final musing, I am writing about the front page photograph. Out of all the pictures in the newspaper, this must be the most important one.
We begin to discuss the front page picture in our midday editorial meeting. This is when each of the section editors – home news, foreign, business and environment runs through their top stories, the graphics editor explains what information they will be illustrating through maps etc and I make a presentation of the 20 best pictures I have seen so far that day. The key stories are roughly sketched out on the layout – the editor will usually be able to identify what might make the front page splash, what will go on page three, and which stories should open the foreign and business sections.
On a perfect day we will get a few different things out of the picture show. Hopefully, we will have decided on our Eyewitness picture, the photograph that fills the double pages of the centre spread from Monday to Friday. If there isn’t a stand out image that can fill such a huge space, then finding it will hound me for the rest of the day. The show may also reveal a number of standalone images that can run in the paper on their own merit and sometimes images can prompt a story to be written. There are times however when the nine to ten thousand images I’ve looked through in the morning yield very little in terms of photographs that are any good to print. This seems extraordinary, but believe me, most of the photography I look through is neither good enough nor relevant for the paper.
Finally, I hope to get a heads up on what our front page picture might be. There is a certain sense of security knowing more or less what might go on the front, but not all stories will be picturable. A frequent, unnerving scenario is leaving the midday meeting not knowing what will go on the front and not having an Eyewitness.
On some days we have a news piece that has been photographed, other days we have our own pieces of journalism for which we have commissioned photography, but there are also days when the stories on the front can’t be photographed, in those instances we are looking for a news worthy image that will hold the front page with just a caption. It can be a real challenge to find such an image and on these occasions we often have to do a lot of lateral thinking to come up with something. We also have to think about the tone of the picture and how it will work next to the other stories on the front.
The paper goes through many iterations as the day progresses and the stories on the front may be switched as their importance wains or are replaced by breaking news, but even if the main story stays the same we usually wait to decide on the image until late in the afternoon, so we are sure we have seen everything on offer and have chosen the best. It amazes me that sometimes the front page can be completely up in the air until the very last moment when it all miraculously falls in place. Those days leave you reeling with the feeling that you’ve only just gotten away with it, a combination of being high with exhilaration and completely shattered. The question of what makes a good front page picture is I think answered by how immediate its message is. It is all about impact and how we can make the Guardian stand out against competition on the newsstand. For my colleagues working on the website these concerns are from another era, but for me this way of thinking about how pictures function when printed and left out in the real world are what makes the job so interesting.
If you ask me the real buzz around photography in London this weekend was south of the river, at the fringe festival Peckham 24. Now in its third year this diminutive festival is well in its stride. The old factory buildings and derelict spaces housed small but thoughtfully curated exhibitions and was the perfect antidote to the heady commercialism of Photo London, held in the grandeur of Somerset House. Two stand-out shows were held in the Copeland Gallery space – My London, curated by Emma Bowkett and Concealer, curated by Tom Lovelace.
Peckham 24 also hosted talks in a room with the best windows I’ve seen in a long time.
Tucked away from the luxury apartment buildings rising up around Vauxhall station lies Beaconsfield Gallery, an artist run space in a former Victorian school. This is where Foam has for the third time presented its show of artists to look out for under the age of 35.
Over at Photo London the trick to staying focused and in good humour is to dip in and out (that is if you have the luxury of a weekend ticket). Of course I attempted to see it all in one go and left in a predictably stupefied state.
Burtynsky’s six metre wide mural of the Carrara quarries contains triggers for augmented reality film clips that play on an app when a device is held up to the image on the wall.
Further along The Strand in a disused brutalist office building is the exhibition A Shade of Pale, curated by Carrie Scott. Although the show is conceived as an exploration in photographic series that reject linear readings, my overarching impression was about the impact of colour, no doubt accentuated by the cool, concrete location.
The photography that has been most on my mind this week has come from Gaza. It has made me think about the experience of looking at disturbing imagery. As a picture editor I look through a lot of photographs each day: by the time I leave work at 7pm I have generally seen approximately 25,000. And on any given day, that feed – which features everything imaginable, and unimaginable – there will be a number of upsetting images.
We view the images that are sent to the Guardian from agencies and individual photographers as a grid of thumbnails. It is a jumble of pictorial juxtapositions. I start scrolling through them at midnight, saving anything that catches my eye. I am looking at formal qualities – composition, light, colour, dynamism – as well as subject matter – the people or events that are in the news. These are all things you learn to recognise from a five-centimetre wide rectangle.
Monday morning was fairly typical, a mixture of entertainment from the night before and pictures taken over the weekend. But slowly images from the protests in Gaza against started to stream in. Protesters were reacting to the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, on the eve of the Nakba anniversary the following day. At first there were the images we have become used to, of Palestinian men in T-shirts and jeans throwing rocks and running through clouds of black smoke from burning tyres. But then as the day progressed, there were more and more images of injured people, then bodies being carried away. Over 50 Palestinians died on Monday, the deadliest day in years. The harrowing scenes we witnessed on our screens in the office in London were taken by photographers who were right in the middle of the chaos. Despite being press and wearing flak jackets, they were putting themselves in significant danger. Only last month Palestinian photographer Yasser Murtaja was shot dead covering demonstrations.
Over 1000 images were sent in from Gaza. The images of the protests and the injured appeared alongside others of Ivanka Trump, pristine and glamorous, surrounded by suited politicians and diplomats celebrating the opening of the embassy. The contrast was shocking. So instead of our standard single image on the front of Tuesday’s paper we had two. It was not the most elegant composition, but it was a bold statement that was impossible to misread.
It is surprising how many disturbing pictures you can look at before one jumps out and chills you to the bone. For me it tends to be when a child is involved and there are moments when I need to step away from the screen. It is rare for these images to be published, but there are cases, as with the picture of Alan Kurdi, when the significance of the image is so great that it has to be shared. We are all to some extent numbed to images of suffering, especially when we have seen a lot of pictures from an ongoing tragedy or conflict, but that is when I believe there is an argument for publishing something you would rather look away from. Sometimes we need to be woken up to what is happening. Needless to say there will be a serious discussion involving lots of people about the ethical questions around publishing such an image. When it comes to photographs of conflict we feel more justified in showing death, but people will always deserve privacy and respect. A public funeral may seem like a fair event to picture, but should we be distributing a dead person’s face around the world? Shouldn’t a family mourning the loss of a child in a morgue be allowed the privacy to do so? Equally though, an image of dead children, for example, can sometimes be seen as evidence of their being used as human shields. It is almost always a case of using your gut instinct and asking yourself if an image feels like an intrusion or a necessity. And how it might be interpreted – or misinterpreted – from a political perspective.
Discussion is important in figuring out how we should tell a story, but it is also important for us as a way of dealing with the images we look at. I am almost always working with another picture editor and we talk endlessly about the images we are looking at. It is impossible not to voice a reaction to something that grabs you. It is vital that we have strong reactions to images and aren’t just completely numbed to them, because we have to be able to put ourselves into the mind of the reader, coming to that one image afresh.
I am in Switzerland for a few days visiting my brother who happens to live in Winterthur, home of the Swiss foundation of photography and Fotomuseum Winterthur. These world famous institutions, tucked away in unassuming old factory buildings outside the city centre are always worth a visit. I’ve arrived just in time to catch the Balthasar Burkhard retrospective exhibition, which spans both spaces and closes on the 21st of May. I must admit this was my first encounter with the Swiss photographer and it was full of welcome surprises.
Burkhard’s early career, displayed in the foundation building, was largely shaped by his friendship with the influential and charasmatic curator Harald Szeemann who brought him into contact with the avant garde artists of the day. He spent much of the 1960s and 70s immersed in the Swiss and international art scene where he documented the performances and exhibition openings of artists such as Paul Thek, Vito Acconci and Joseph Beuys. His fly on the wall snapshots make this legendary and vibrant period of art making feel both familiar and playful, and they reflect how close Burkhard was to the people he photographed.
While Burkhard’s documentary photographs are printed in the small scale you expect from 35mm film, his own creations are enlarged at an increasingly grand scale. This mode of display distanced him from the documentary photography he had been engrossed in and distinguished these pictures as artworks. The monumental photograph, which eventually defined his practice, began with the Amsterdam Canvases, 1969-70, a series of almost life size images printed onto canvas and made in collaboration with artist Markus Raetz.
The giant tableaus shot almost exclusively in black and white that Burkhard became known for fill the Fotomuseum across the road. There is a shared sense of an almost scientific pursuit in each of the series presented here. Whether the focus is on body parts, portraits of animals or landscapes, Burkhard explored the technical and aesthetic potential of the photographic medium.
Monday was the hottest May Day holiday on record in the UK and I did what countless others in the country were doing, gardening. I live on a narrowboat, so my garden consists of pots dotted around on the roof and foredeck. It was glorious at first, but soon became unbearably hot. Needless to say, no serious gardener would dream of potting new plants in the scorching midday sun. So, I retreated indoors and enjoyed my love for nature vicariously through The Photographer in the Garden, a wonderful anthology co-published by Aperture and the George Eastman Museum with texts by Jamie M. Allen and Sarah Anne McNear.
The book takes you on a journey from the early days of photography when the garden at Laycock Abbey beckoned Henry Fox Talbot with light and an abundance of static subjects to study, to the streets of London’s Hackney borough where contemporary artist Stephen Gill experiments with photography and nature to intoxicating effect. There is a wealth of image making, mainly from the US, that is explored through themes such as Paradise Garden and The Gardeners. What strikes me when perusing these pages is how such incredibly diverse practitioners have all been drawn to photographing plants, gardens and the people they inhabit.
There are pictorialists like Clarence H. White, who set their fairy tale scenes in dark glens, modernists like Imogen Cunningham who saw the very structure of flowers as majestic forms and documentary photographers like Martin Parr who revel in the rich colours and charm found in tourists visiting gardens, to name just a few. There are also found pictures taken by people much like myself who can’t help but capture flowers blooming or friends gathering for a picnic.
I am also struck by how the fascination with nature and our interaction with it has hardly changed since the beginning of photography. For instance, the desire to extract, dissect, document and examine plant life is carried through from the earliest botanical photograms made in cyanotype by Anna Atkins to contemporary image makers like Jo Whaley whose botanical studies are very sculptural.
I was surprised and touched to see August Sander’s everyday photographs of tomatoes growing on his roof garden and I keep turning back to Joel Sternfeld’s beautiful portrait of a blind man in his garden.
In keeping with today’s theme, I sign off with a picture taken from my own garden.