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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

The Eyes of History

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Michael Williamson, the two-time Pulitzer winner who has just been named Photographer of the Year by the White House News Photographers Association, knows only too well the public's schizophrenia about his craft.

In the public mind, he maintained, photographers are either artists in the Ansel Adams mold, or hacks who cover nothing but "riots and wrecks."

But in fact professional photographers, especially those who are journalists shooting news and feature stories for newspapers and magazines all over the world, have to straddle these and many other worlds if they ever hope to make an impact with their images.

"If it's on the planet earth, that pretty much narrows it down to my beat," Williamson told a press briefing at the Corcoran Museum of Art this week. There his work and that of scores of his colleagues in the WHNPA has just begun a three-week run in the museum's elegant Hemicycle gallery, entitled "The Eyes of History, 2001." Every year, the White House News Photographers Association conducts a competition to recognize the best work of its members. This year, however, is the first time that WHNPA images ever have been exhibited in a major art museum, in a show jointly organized by WHNPA and the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

Williamson, 44, a staff photographer for The Washington Post, is a bearded bear of a man who brings to his work an intensity, intelligence and gentleness that is reflected in his pictures, especially the ones on exhibit here. In fact, what makes this exhibit of work by some of the finest photojournalists in the country a must-see is the fact that so many of these images are the polar opposite of pictures of "riots and wrecks."

What strikes you about these images is their essential humanity, depicting joy and triumph, despair and defeat, often reflected only in the fraction of a second that is the photojournalist's hang time.

And, save for the pix in the Presidential, or Campaign 2000, or Insider's Washington categories, most were made nowhere near the White House.

That's one of the things people tend to misunderstand about White House News Photographers, noted outgoing president Kevin Gilbert, himself an award-winning news shooter.

"People think we are employees of the White House" or that the work of WHNPA members does not extend beyond the White House grounds.

In fact, Gilbert noted, "our beat extends from Nigeria to the Olympics; [from] famine to the Super Bowl, to presidential summits."

The organization itself was founded in 1921 by a handful of camera and motion picture photographers who covered the daily activities of the president for their respective news organizations. And if the president at the time, Warren G. Harding, is best remembered by history for the scandals that tarred his administration, there always will be a fond footnote to his memory from the shooters since Harding provided photographers not only with regular access, but also with their first press room. Today, the WHNPA is dedicated to supporting the efforts of Washington-based professional photojournalists, both still and video. It also has joined with the Corcoran to help launch the next generation of news photographers, jointly sponsoring a semi-annual photojournalism symposium aimed at students. In addition, the Corcoran recently launched a four-year undergraduate BFA degree program in photojournalism, with distinguished WHNPA members serving as faculty.

To be sure, one should never try to over-intellectualize the yeasty business of covering news, either with a pencil or a Nikon. Some of the best in our business barely made it out of college – and, in the old days, high school. But Williamson, for one, is bent on breaking the old stereotype of the news photographer as a kind of photographic idiot savant, or worse, the aging hippie living out of his car, as portrayed by the aptly named Animal in the old "Lou Grant" television series.

The successful photojournalist today, Williamson declared, is "more well-read, more well-rounded" – someone who at the very least reads the daily paper cover to cover to get a better grounding about the world he or she will be called on to cover – often at a moment's notice.

Once, he remembered, when he took time off to teach and to propound this theory to a class of would-be newsies, someone raised a hand and timorously asked, "It sounds as if you want us to know a little bit about everything...."

"Absolutely not," Williamson shot back. "I want you to know a lot about everything."

In this year's exhibition – and one hopes that this will become an annual event at the Corcoran – there are clearly some photographs that are better than others. That is the inevitable consequence of a group show. For example, not every picture of pols being pols on Capitol Hill is a winner, nor is every behind-the-scenes image of President Bush or outgoing President Clinton first rate. Having said that, the work by such well-known shooters as Diana Walker, David Hume Kennerly and David Burnett show what happens when gifted photographers tread familiar ground such as this in search of telling images.

From a technical standpoint, I was somewhat surprised to learn from Kevin Gilbert that only 30 to 40 percent of the 173 images on display were shot digitally. By the same token, every image on display, whether shot on film or on disk, was reproduced digitally on Fuji paper by the National Geographic lab. The results are gorgeous, and pleasingly uniform.

During this week's press briefing, a number of exhibiting photographers were present to talk about their work and, inevitably, to take a picture or two. Michael Williamson had a Contax G2 on his shoulder, Kevin Gilbert a Nikon D1. But the oddest camera was David Burnett's: a battered Holga – a plastic toy with a plastic lens and a rusty spring for a shutter release.

Dave didn't carry this thing just for grins. It was the camera he used during the campaign to make some of the best images in the entire WHNPA show, including the glorious image of Al Gore shown here.

More on Burnett's antic eye in future columns.

The Eyes of History, 2001, through June 18, Corcoran Museum of Art, 500 17th St. NW. Hours: 10-5 daily (closed Tuesdays); extended hours Thursdays until 9. General admission $5.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Michael Williamson - The Washington Post
Photographer of the Year Michael Williamson made this beautiful portrait of a TB patient in Kano, Nigeria, as part of an essay on a disease-infected town. Williamson himself was hospitalized for cholera as a result of this assignment.

Diana Walker - Time
Veteran Time Magazine shooter Diana Walker caught the poignance of Bill Clinton’s departure from office in this moody bxw image of the outgoing president in his limousine.

Frank Johnston - The Washington Post
A Tangier Island fisherman sorts out soft-shell crabs in this beautifully lit image by Frank Johnston.

©Karen Ballard
Freelance shooter Karen Ballard caught this bizarrely wonderful image of CNN talkmeister Larry King taking a cell phone call—and a rest—outside the Lincoln Memorial during Bush inaugural festivities.

David Burnett - Contact Press for Newsweek
Eschewing all things digital for a Newsweek photo essay, David Burnett used a plastic Holga camera to make this presciently gloomy image of Vice President Gore on the weekend before Election Day.

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