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Friday, April 20, 2007

The Status of Still Pictures

I guess I hadn't realized how far still photos have fallen in status and prestige in the popular imagination.

For news reportage, video has many clear advantages over still pictures. But one of its big disadvatanges is that it's difficult to get video footage of unexpected news events as they occur. That fact, coupled with the national media habit of saturation coverage and its subsequent voracious appetite for footage, means that sometimes some pretty inadequate video is heavily overused.

This situation is especially bad with regard to the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech. The two most-repeated video clips seem to be a jiggly view of a parking lot with pops of gunfire heard on the audio portion, and a clip of an obese law enforcement officer in a brown uniform running up an incline. I've seen the latter at least thirty times, and it hasn't added anything useful to my understanding of the event past viewing #1.

Into this void came the killer's own videos, which have naturally been overexposed as well, to widespread objections.

Still, it startled me when a TV news commentator said something like, "Surprisingly, some of the most powerful images of the tragedy have been still pictures."

Who is surprised by that, exactly? Not me. But then, maybe the tendency to overvalue still photographs and undervalue videography is another of my personal idiosyncrasies. I don't know.

Whether by chance or design, the shooting spree occurred at the very beginning of the publication cycle of the weekly news magazines here in the United States. I anticipate that as the new issues of the newsweeklies hit the newsstands over the next few days, we're going to be reminded again how powerful still images can be.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

28 Comments:

Blogger Player said...

Good point Mike, I've been underwhelmed by the video coverage as well. Even within the killer's multimedia package, the still pictures have impacted me the most. Can anyone forget the image of the mass murderer brandishing the killing weapons?

9:03 AM  
Blogger dasmb said...

Mike, if you want news with substance and depth, you've got to stop getting it from TV.

Of course TV newsmen don't understand photographs. I mean, you have to look at them for longer than five seconds to figure out what's going on. There's no jerky motion or poorly thought out reactions from people who have nothing to do with things!

9:08 AM  
Blogger Chris Shepherd said...

Its not surprising the TV news commentator said that. TV people seem to be under the impression that theirs is the most important media of all.

What a newspaper editor have said ?

9:17 AM  
Blogger yunfat said...

Heh, try being a still photographer at a wedding... you have a perfect shot all ready to go and some video jockey is beaming his camera light right into your lens. It has gotten so bad that I now have a clause in my contract that says I get to nix the video guy at any time. If you are a really good, in demand photog, i.e. the wedding guys in my area who command $20k+ per wedding, it's not uncommon in their contract that no video can be shot at anytime while they are shooting, or they can walk.

9:20 AM  
Blogger carpeicthus said...

They're TV people. A wee bit biased toward video, and not that bright to begin with.

9:34 AM  
Blogger carpeicthus said...

P.S. Video is a horrible way to understand the truth from the standpoint of a news consumer. I did a thesis on that that ate up my life for a year and a half. If you relied on what you SAW from Columbine, you probably didn't know very much about what actually happened -- even if you were a newscaster in an organization where the print guys kept refining the story.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Trevor Hambric said...

Mike,
Not sure what the 'obese law enforcement officer' comment adds to the discussion. Seems pointlessly cruel to me. The guy, just doing his job under very difficult circumstances, neither asked to be photographed nor invited commentary on his fitness.

9:53 AM  
Blogger rob povey said...

I used to have a video recorder for family holidays. Don't bother now. Too many shots of feet / sky and wind blowing in the mike all day, and after all that never watch them!!

Just take stills, it sparks the memories.

A good B&W still beats 10 minutes of video. You stop to look, study and think.

Regards,

Rob

9:56 AM  
Blogger matt~ said...

You might be interested in this editorial over at The Digital Journalist: www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0704/the-coming-earthquake-in-photography.html

9:58 AM  
Blogger mark said...

That explains the brightness control on my tv.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Randomrubble said...

But how can you trust stills over video when still are all faked up in Photoshop...

10:16 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Video and Still have such different strengths I don't think either will ever supplant the other.

A still image of a powerful moment is there to ponder for as long as you like, in video that moment may only last 1/30th of a second.

10:19 AM  
Blogger m. said...

It's not a surprise to me that TV newscasters don't value other media. Most of them seem to have little idea just how bad they are, too.

The only TV news I've watched voluntarily in years is the Daily Show. While the Daily Show is a satire of TV news shows, it's more reliable than most broadcast news media. Which does indeed worry me.

10:29 AM  
Blogger paul said...

There is a continuous argument in photography circles about the importance of equipment in creating substantive images (and don't we know it!). Like most people I buy into the classic advice given to all beginning "serious" photographers: your camera doesn't matter nearly as much as your vision.

BUT...since the invention of portable video gear and the abandoning of film for TV news, it's pretty obvious that there has been a real decline in the quality of work done for that medium.

The other thing that portable video (and the universal availability of movies 24/7) has done is cause average people to "unlearn" the visual sense taught to them over a 60 year period by photojournalism. It's amazing to me how much anger is focused on still photographers who make tiny adjustments to images, usually to do nothing more than increase clarity, while virtually everyone is willing to complete turn themselves over to the montage effect created by anyone working in film or video. The positive way of looking at this is to say that despite the prevalence of moving pictures, people hang on to the idea that a still photograph represents "truth." The cynic's angle is that people are essentially dupes who don't even understand the how film and TV work, yet are so easily bored that they pretty much accept anything fed to them in that form.

I think even thoughtful practitioners have a heck of a lot left to learn about McLuhan's famous statement that "The Medium is the Message."

Try feeding THAT into your film vs. digital arguments!

11:16 AM  
Blogger Terry said...

Check out this month's digitaljournalist dot org. Especially the editorial entitled "The Coming Earthquake in Photography" by Dirck Halstead.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Paul Leidl said...

My own bias for the merits of still photography aside, I don’t believe still photographs are undervalued. Actually, I presume the photograph to be of worth- and remembered- partially because of relative accessibility.

To view a still picture one can pick up a magazine or newspaper whenever one is inclined. With news/video footage one is dependent upon how often the incident is broadcast. (Less so these days with so many people having Internet access)

I wonder how many people have seen the grim film of the shooting of a Viet cong suspect during the Viet Nam war compared to the number of people that are familiar with Eddie Adams famous photograph of the same killing.

The moving pictures have dropped into the void. (And the film footage was extremely graphic)

Adam's still photograph has become iconic.

11:26 AM  
Blogger justin lenz said...

"in 10 years photojournalists will only be carrying video cameras."

by Dirck Halstead

i kind of believe it too

12:31 PM  
Blogger David said...

TV media, with its time-filling file tape is often idiotic. My wife and I sometimes watch the 11 p.m. news for its entertainment value and always laugh when they do a story on obesity and show footage of the stomachs and buttocks of pedestrians on the street with their heads cropped out of the frame.

That said, motion pictures can be powerful in ways that still photographs can't. I had a great uncle who was a professional photographer, and he shot some 16mm film, and his son recently compiled some of his films and transferred them to DVD. The image of my grandfather who died when I was three years old, rolling around on the floor with the children of my parents' generation was completely different from the stern image I had of him from still photographs and my father's stories about him. Hearing my father's accent on tape from when he was a teenager was something I could never have imagined from photographs. Though I had seen pictures and heard stories about large family gatherings where all the cousins came to my grandparents' house, it was a revelation to see them all around the piano with my great-grandparents singing "Ain't She Sweet."

I'm not giving up still photography, but that experience did inspire me to start experimenting with Super-8.

David A. Goldfarb

1:16 PM  
Blogger Leon said...

Good to know that still photography remains relevant, informative, and powerful. I was starting to feel a bit pessimistic after reading articles such as this one published recently.
http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0704/the-coming-earthquake-in-photography.html

1:17 PM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

Not a surprising remark at all. Television is an entertainment medium that relies on moving images to mesmerize viewers. Still images' value remains secure but it's never been prized on television.

Watch the moving image, you're getting sleepy, very sleepy...you really need to buy a new car...THIS car...while year-end special pricing is available...you're sleepy.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Trevor,
"Obese" is not a perjorative, although it is sometimes mistaken for one. It's a value-neutral technical term. The WHO (World Health Organization) defines as obese anyone who has a BMI (body mass index) of 30 to 39.9. Based on appearances, the officer in question might actually qualify as "severely" or "morbidly" obese, with a BMI of 40 or above, but I'm reasonably certain that "obese" is an accurate, and thus fair, description.

--Mike

3:27 PM  
Blogger Blork said...

It's worth thinking about how video and stills each appeal to a different part of the mind. Video grabs your attention more easily because it's moving. But it is often a shallow level of attention, easily forgotten. But a compelling still image can stay with you for a long time. You can stare at it and stare at it and it doesn't go away the way video does (notwithstanding "replay").

Video shows us a sequence of time, while still photos show us a slice of time. As we're watching video it is constantly changing, and as such, we pay attention to the events in an immediate sense, miss a lot of details, and only later -- when the video is finished -- start to interpret what we saw.

But with a still image, you have only that one slice of time. It may be more powerful because it allows you to stare at the static image and reflect upon it, and its moment, without being distracted by changing events. Whereas the video provokes an almost visceral reaction, the still provokes in a more cognitive way. It stirs up memories and associations. It provokes sympathy, anger, empathy, etc., because we have more time to focus on the slice of time and are not distracted by the unfolding of events.

That's not to say still pictures are NECESSARILY more intense or provokative than video. Just that there are different mental processes underway when we look at each, and still images have the *potential* to hold our attention longer, because we are "paused" on a moment, instead of watching moments come and go.

4:00 PM  
Blogger erlik said...

Mike, BMI is not exactly... how to say it... the best way to see whether you're overweight.

I'm 205cm (6' 8") and have around 105 kilos (230-ish). BMI calculator says I'm bordering on being overweight. Rubbish. No round cheeks, no beer gut, no such thing...

To get back on topic, news commentators are not journalists. They are talking heads. Often quite empty.

And apropos photographers carrying video cameras, check Red One, a video camera capable of taking 60 12 MP pictures in a second. But ridiculously expensive when you count all the lenses in. Camera plus six lenses, $43K.

5:47 PM  
Blogger BlankPhotog said...

Who the hell can stand to watch TV anymore? Who can stand the media circus that tells no truths, offers no insights, bastardizes information into right and left, and allows everyone, universally, not just to get away with it but to profit from it?

Give me a photograph any day. Well, ok, a diptych.

6:37 PM  
Blogger Mike F said...

"But how can you trust stills over video when still are all faked up in Photoshop..."

Interesting view given how easy it is to fake up video, and how little people care when its done.

John Pilger , for example, when interviewing then Prime Minister Bob Hawke (here in Oz) re-shot his questions, thus completely altering the context of the "answers". The Broadcasting Tribunal dismissed the resulting complaint as this is said to be "standard journalistic practice".

I've known people who won't be interviewed for TV unless they have their own people running video as well, to highlight any attempt at constructive editing. Many news crews refuse to work under that condition.

Yet stills are considered dodgy??

...Mike

10:12 PM  
Blogger Dierk Haasis said...

ujfek
The big difference between stills and moving pictures in regard to documentation is that stills are more analytical.

There's several aspects adding up to that, the most pertinent is contemplation - even if you photograph away at high speed you or an editor will go through the photos and choose one or two representing your/his view of an event. This does not happen with, usually accidental, video coverage. A photo has more thinking gone into it than any video [particularly if the video is the usual amateur cell phone webcam module one].

Also, we are so accustomed to motion picture techniques like editing to be used to enhence our emotional reaction that we rarely trust edited video footage. We do, OTOH, trust stills [as long as they do not look faked]. Thjis is the reason any minor photoshopping generates big discussions.

Curiously YouTube and home video TV shows with their [false] gonzo approach to documentation - a mix of Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer and Andy Warhol's sarcastic dictum about 15 minutes of fame - took away from the value of video. It is now seen largely as entertainment, not as news. Photography was on the decline for years and has just recently sprung back into life. Since ever less people read newspapers and news magazines, and even less go to galleries, the perceived value of a photo as news and valuable increases.

1:46 AM  
Blogger Sybarite said...

Listen to (not watch) the BBC Mike, (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4) no video and some presenters with personalities. Of course it does rather have a bias towards the UK.

3:37 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I think the power of still photography is rhetorical, in the best and the worst sense. Let me give you an analogy. If George W. Bush had mentioned the 'axis of evil', and then gone on to give us a potted description of Germany, Italy and Japan during WWII and explained why they resemble today's 'axis', it would have had some effect, though probably far from the one intended. But by dropping the pregnant phrase 'axis of evil' alone, all by itself, a single image and a tightly packed story all in one, ready to explode in the mind, he had a much greater effect.

7:05 AM  

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