Autumn 2010

Adventures in motion pictures: the post-photographic age

Do editors’ demands for both motion and stills mean that an era of still photography is coming to an end?

In 1999, photographer Joe Weiss was driving home from a newspaper assignment at an orphanage in North Carolina, when he realised that something was missing from his pictures.

‘The things that stuck in my head were not what I had witnessed, visually, but what I had heard,’ he told journalism students at the Poynter Institute, in Florida, in 2007. ‘And so, essentially on a whim, I bought a MiniDisc recorder and decided to go back up there, and I was like, I’m gonna do multimedia. Ya know, I’m gonna record these kids.’

Never mind that his employer had only a marketing-focused website and did not put any of its stories online. Weiss used the multimedia platform Flash to create a slideshow of pictures accompanied by his audio, and posted it up there anyway. ‘When [would I] have twenty photographs published in the paper? Online, I could do whatever I wanted.’ His work (among that of others) helped put the industry on a path that would irrevocably alter the nature of professional photography.

Within five years, audio slideshows were commonplace, as bandwidth increased and publications began to explore the multimedia possibilities of the web. Their creation became much easier in 2005 when Weiss, frustrated with the complexity of Flash, released his own software tool, called Soundslides – now the industry’s leading tool for making audio slideshows.

This hybrid storytelling format combined two reporting tasks that were already taking place – shooting photography and recording interviews – to create a narrative structure all of its own, changing the photographer’s approach to a story.

‘I try to move [the narrative of a slideshow] along like you’d move video,’ says Pauline Lubens, a veteran photographer for the San Jose Mercury News, on Rob Galbraith’s Digital Photography Insights website.

‘Probably what I’m talking about is what [film-makers] would call B-roll. I call them transition pictures – the detail shot of somebody’s hand, or a shot of a shadow or a sign or a flag or a silhouette or something that’s sort of generic. Despite how long I’ve been shooting photo stories, [doing audio slideshows] has greatly improved the range of images I shoot.’ At one point, the Mercury News was producing more than 100 audio slideshows a month.

Photography awards now recognise audio slideshows as a separate category. Many publications have been experimenting with other elements on the soundtrack; in one highly praised example, ‘After the riots’, the Guardian’s website mixed French hip-hop, recorded interviews and a journalist’s report with images of troubled housing estates and the 2005 riots for a slideshow on the build-up to France’s 2007 election. The genre’s apotheosis may have been reached in 2009, with the New York Times’s stunning online series ‘One in 8 Million’, a weekly special, shot by Todd Heisler, which told 54 different stories of ordinary New Yorkers.

Over the past year, however, another storytelling medium has been gaining popularity in the world of online editorial: digital video.

In 2008, the RED digital cinema camera company launched its DSMC (Digital Stills and Motion Camera) system. This offered portable cameras that shoot in extremely high resolution and can be used with existing Nikon camera lenses. The cameras were (and still are) extremely expensive but other companies started to rent them to photographers.

A handful of early adopters experimented with shooting video instead of still images. For its May 2009 issue, Esquire’s cover image of Megan Fox was actually a still frame taken from a video shot by Greg Williams with a RED camera. The video was published online. Williams called it a ‘moto’ – a moving photo – and he has since shot others for Dunhill and the most recent James Bond film. Advertising photographer Alexx Henry also uses RED cameras to create ‘moving posters’ on video billboards and websites: what look like traditional movie posters change unexpectedly, surprising the viewer and getting their attention, as in his campaign for the Cybill Shepherd film Mrs Washington Goes to Smith (for Hallmark Living Movie Posters).

The latest high-end professional stills cameras by Canon and Nikon also include the option to shoot in high-definition video. And the rise of iPad-format publications (see pages 36-45) has increased editors’ demand for video and stills together, as they seek to create ‘enhanced’ versions of their print magazines.

Does this mean the era of stills-only photography is coming to an end?

‘The power of a well composed still photograph is unsurpassable,’ Guardian photographer John D. McHugh told an audience last year. ‘But, as the internet gathers pace, and a hungry news audience demands ever more information, while at the same time it becomes more difficult and more dangerous for journalists to travel and work on the modern battlefield, it is a logical step for some of us to blur the long-established separate roles.’ In 2008, he shot stills, video, created audio slideshows and blogged from Afghanistan for the newspaper – a one-man, multimedia reporting operation.

The Pulitzer prize-winning photographer David Leeson describes himself as a ‘filmmaker / photojournalist’ and has been using frame grabs from his videos for newspaper assignments since 2006.

And in one of the most lauded examples, photographer Tim Hetherington (see opening spread and pages 24-25) co-directed (with Sebastian Junger) the documentary Restrepo, which won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Festival this year.

Hetherington has been shooting video since 1999, when it was considered a separate field from photography. ‘The budgets and institutions were not devised back then for those two to collide,’ he says. ‘Now, more often than not, the budgets are amalgamated.’ The difference between still and moving images is something that Hetherington has thought about a great deal.

‘A still image is something that you can have a creative engagement with, you can draw upon the visual library that you have in your mind and reflect on what you see. A moving image, however, will drag you by the scruff of the neck through the story. We are living in an age where media platforms are allowing us as photographers to move into other areas of image-making,’ Hetherington says.

‘There’s a lot of nostalgia about photography, but we have to be realistic about what’s going on. I’m not going to say that the still image won’t exist, but the romance of photography, the image with the black frame around it, the cradling of the Leica – in the current business landscape of image-making, that is nostalgia. Which you can also sell, but in the day-to-day grind of the image machine, we are in a post-photographic age.’

That said, the shift from stills to video is far from straightforward. Shooting high-quality video requires distinct skills from those of professional photography: the lighting equipment is different, the demands of recording sound live are complex, and the constant need to refocus makes tracking moving objects tricky. And that’s without even getting into post-processing and editing.

Director and photographer Lauren Greenfield works across all media, with whatever technology is appropriate. ‘I use everything,’ she said in conversation with Eye editor John L. Walters, ‘but I would never use the RED camera on a documentary, or pull frames from it for an editorial shoot.’ Greenfield stresses the importance of thorough research and collaboration – with her editor and her crew – in making documentaries. ‘As documentary photographers,’ she said, ‘we’re casting every minute.’ (See pages 26-27.)

Vincent Laforet was a photographer for more than a decade before deciding, after trying some of the high-end, professional stills-and-video cameras, to switch to being a film-maker. It was not a simple process. ‘The time it takes to pre-produce, shoot, and edit video is easily two to four times more time-consuming than a still photography shoot,’ he said recently on the APhotoEditor blog. ‘The gear is also significantly more expensive. And right now I don’t know that publications are ready to help defray any of those costs – in fact, it seems that they want photographers to shoot both stills and video, for the same price. That’s not going to be sustainable for anyone.’

Laforet’s best-known work highlights one of the interesting side-effects that has come from having ex-photographers shoot video. In his (rather clichéd) short film Reverie, shot for Canon to show off its hybrid stills-video 5DMarkII camera, the framing, the depth of field, the refocusing, the low levels of natural light and the quality of the image make some sequences appear more like a series of moving, beautifully framed still images, than scenes in the traditional film sense. You can take the stills out of the commission, but you can’t take the photographer’s eye from the director.

Another interesting aspect of this technology is that video is often shot using what looks like a stills camera. The result can be a beautifully framed image, with the subjects trying to stay as still as possible while they think that a photograph is being taken.

The Guardian’s Dan Chung made a beautiful short film, Canon EOS5DmkII, One night in Beijing, featuring many such ‘long photographs’. Philip Bloom’s Sofia’s People also contains several stunning examples of the poignancy that can emerge from people staring into the lens, waiting for the click of the shutter, their smiles slowly wilting.

Such combined photographic /cinematographic aesthetics are spreading across other industries as well. Photographer Matthew Donaldson (see pages 21-23), for example, recently shot a ‘video lookbook’ for London-based Folk Clothing featuring models standing very still – it feels more like a moving catalogue than a simple video. ‘Lily Donaldson’s Flying Hair’, the slow-motion video of his model daughter shaking out her hair (for Nowness.com), has a similar, unerring sensation of both stillness and movement at its heart, as does ‘Nacho Figueras: A Caballo’ his Nowness portrait of polo player and model Nacho Figueras on horseback.

Fashion photographer and now videographer Mike Kobal feels that even the job of ‘stills-only photographer’ will soon be anachronistic. ‘The roles are merging,’ he says. ‘In the next generation, still shots are what will be pulled from video.’ The demand for video can only increase, and with it will come a greater depth in visual acuity as a result of combining the art of photography with that of the moving image.

First published in Eye no. 77 vol. 20.

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue. You can also browse visual samples of recent issues at Eye before You Buy.


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