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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Pecking Order

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

We like to think we are an egalitarian group, but photographers – especially photojournalists – have a tendency to judge their peers by their outward appearance.

This is understandable, I guess, since our jobs require recognizable tools (cameras), and those tools can be very expensive. With the exception, say, of David Burnett showing up to shoot a job with a toy Holga camera [see Dr. Burnett's Magic Box], we oftentimes are defined (and ranked) by the gear around our neck – not by how we use that gear or, most important, what's going on between our ears and in our eyes.

There are other ways that we mark our territory or our place in the pecking order. I do it myself with embarrassing predictability, especially if I'm covering an event and find myself in the company of other, usually younger, reporters and photographers.

Having been around the track several more times than they, I can take my pick of things to casually mention. Depending on the circumstance, the words "Nieman Fellow," "former White House correspondent," and "Pulitzer nominee" inevitably will find their way into a seemingly inconsequential conversation. Conversely, if I get to know a newsie, in print or photo, and only later find out that this person has been covered with distinction (having won a Pulitzer, for instance), I am chagrined at my own pathetic windiness and awed at my colleague's becoming modesty.

In her often funny, yet more often sober and insightful, memoir Shutterbabe, former photojournalist Deborah Copaken Kogan nails the peculiar rituals and foibles of journalists in groups: print, photo and video.

"Photographers always sniff one another out," she writes. "[M]ost photographers, like good anthropologists, will take notice of their competitors' stuff – everything from camera equipment to clothing to even small details like film envelopes – as a means of determining each other's standing in the socio-professional pecking order."

[I should inject here that there was appreciably less sniffing among my fellow print reporters during my 20 years on the New York Daily News. Not that we were any more welcoming of competition (hell, no), just that print newsies had much less "stuff" by which they could be categorized. One slovenly reporter holding a notebook, a Bic pen and a small Radio Shack tape recorder looked pretty much like the next one. Whereas today, writers have a wide choice of wondrous laptop computers on which to tap out their stories – and access to wireless modems to transmit their pearls across oceans – in my day, the word processor of choice was a pale blue Olivetti Lettera 32 portable typewriter (or occasionally an even smaller Hermes Rocket) and the transmission medium of choice was the guy from Western Union or RCA who would retype your story one take at a time on his own keyboard, transmitting your stuff over phone lines.]

"I became a photojournalist during the late eighties, the last days of the manual camera," Kogan notes, "...so having a Nikon F2, F3 or FM2 signified both a technical proficiency with manual cameras as well as a serious commitment to photojournalism. Even cooler was a black Nikon camera body with a few well-placed dents and scratches on it....

"Olympus or Minolta owners, on the other hand, were strictly second-tier – local photographers, beginners, maybe even amateurs."

If a beat-up manual Nikon was the talisman of the working newsie, "owning a Leica M-series camera put you in a whole other league." The Leica, Kogan argues, "was the Porsche of the camera world; it was small, light, exquisitely crafted, mechanically perfect and very, very expensive."

Inevitably, the Leica rangefinder was the camera every "concerned photographer" carried ("with the lens facing in toward your ribcage to protect it" lest you be tagged as a rich amateur). This camera always was loaded with black and white film, usually Tri-X, so that the shooter could make his or her own "personal" shots, while making the requisite color images with the other gear – color at the time being demanded by every magazine.

"Some of the more self-righteous photographers shot only in black and white," Kogan recalls, "but they were either unfazed by a life of poverty or, like Cartier-Bresson, they'd been born into wealth."

Other anthropological "markers" were clothing, of course – the Brits in their Barbour coats, the French in their Paraboots, the Americans in anything from Banana Republic. But the truest barometer of where a photo newsie stood in the pecking order were "the little manila film envelopes that you stuck in the back pocket of your Domke camera bag." Photo agencies like Gamma, SIPA or Sygma were cool enough, but envelopes marked "Time," "Life" or "Newsweek" meant you were a heavy hitter – usually with an expense account. Still, the coolest envelope to have, Kogan maintains, was the one from Magnum, the legendary photography cooperative. Never mind that the place was always on the verge of financial chaos, if not ruin, "Magnum was the holy grail."

[Quick aside: The Domke bag, invented by onetime Philadelphia news shooter Jim Domke, may be to camera cases what the Leica is to cameras, and Magnum to photo agencies. I've owned and worn out several – and frankly now use rolling Tarmac cases for much of my location work since I tend to lug a lot of stuff. Still, Domkes win hands down for panache. How much panache? Well, last year, when I was in Prague, Danish photojournalist Claus Bjorn Larsen took one look at the small, battered Domke on my shoulder and tried to buy it from me because of the beautiful way it was "broken in." I still have it.]

It dates Kogan's memoir to talk about film envelopes since that bespeaks a time when shooters would have to ship their exposed film to their home offices – often finding a compliant tourist or other traveler to take the film with them on the next plane out of whatever hellhole the journalist was covering. Today, of course, much work is done digitally and transmitted to newsrooms and agencies over the Internet. Even Claus Larsen, who uses Leicas and always shot bxw film in Kosovo, would soup his film on site but then scan selected negatives and transmit the images. I don't know if he even carried film envelopes.

If Kogan's book were just a wisecracking look at her time in the photo trenches, it would make a fun, if insignificant, read. What sets her book apart is her sometimes painful self-knowledge (she took risks in coverage and relationships that nearly always came back to bite her) as well as her clear-eyed perception that the news business can be as cruel, insensitive and shallow as it can be exhilarating, significant and informative.

She's dead-on in describing the rivalry between photojournalists and TV producers. The shooters are the cowboys, roaming the world at will, scraping for every paycheck. The TV types have all the money in the world, but are tied to their cumbersome equipment, corporate infrastructure and, of course, the care and feeding of the on-air talent. (Her description of Diane Sawyer, on location in Russia in '91, combing her "famous blond hair" as Moscow burns is priceless.)

Kogan saves most of her envy for the newspaper reporters. Not because they travel light (though they do) but because their idea of getting close to a story is not shoving a camera into someone's face or hurtling oneself into the line of fire, but, in fact, in standing back, "examining the big picture ... reporting and understanding the story well enough to write it."

As someone who has been lucky enough to be both a photographer and a reporter, I know what she is saying.

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.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Southern Exposure: Antarctica

Martin Dixon: Leica Biker

Dr. Burnett's Magic Box

Shooting Fireworks (Indoors)

Pre-Digital Prestidigitation

Dropped Cameras: An Anecdotal Indictment