The photograph, like film, tape and the printed word, is a chronicler of history. It shows not only how things exist today, but also how they existed yesterday.
All too often, photographers tend to overlook the informational aspect of photography. Yet, as any good news photographer know, a photo can tell far more than even he may realize at the time he snaps the shutter.
One of my favorite photographs shows a young boy on a box making repairs on his corner newsstand. A 240-mm telephoto lens would have seized the expression on the boy's face, zeroed in on his intensity . . . and missed the story.
The 50-mm normal lens actually used for the shot showed the boy, the weather-beaten and wet news stand following a Chicago spring squall, and something more; change.
A sign on the door of the stand says "A fresh look at the draft . . . Chicago Today." Another pinned to the rack announces simply "Chicago Today American."
A sign over the box next to the stand pitches the Chicago Sun-Times for a dime - 30 cents on Sunday.
The photo was taken not so long ago, in 1971, but those days are gone. The newsboy is grown up and toiling at other jobs. Chicago Today - like the Daily News in its wake - is history. And never again will the Sun-Times, or any large metropolitan daily, sell for 30 cents on Sunday.
The photograph is a piece of Americana: it will grow more valuable with each passing day, it reminds us of where we were just a few years ago and where we are today - and it tells us where we're likely to be tomorrow.
Photographing a newsstand is just one of many ways of chronicling the present for the future. Anything that changes is worth a serious look - and a frame or two of film. Cars, architectural style, clothing, billboards - all have their place in photographs if the photographs are done well.
Don't think, however, that the shot of the newsstand would have been equally effective had the boy not been present. No more so than a photo of a 1925 Ford. But place a dapper young man with pin-striped suit behind the wheel of the Ford and pose a flashy flapper with spit curls on the running board and you've something of genuine interest and historical value.
At the time, that Roaring Twenties photograph may have been no more than a family snapshot. Over the years it has become something much more: a small slice of life, a one-way mirror through which we can peer back into time and get to know a little better how people looked, what they valued, and even perhaps how they thought.
Had the 35-mm single-lens reflex camera, with its wide range of exotic zoom and telephoto lenses, been around in the 1920s, I would half expect the photographer to have zoomed in for a closeup of the man or woman, completely ignoring their clothes and the car they cherished so dearly. And one more chapter in the continuing chronicle of man would have been lost.
Remember that the next time you're walking around, looking for that certain photograph, wishing you had the necessary equipment to take that prize-winning shot. All it takes is a lens, some film and enough light to make an exposure. And the good sense to know that photograph begins with the photographer.