There’s an old riddle that asks, “Where does an 800 lb. gorilla sit?” The answer is, of course, “anywhere it wants to.” Ostensibly, this article is about photographing the NAMM show in Anaheim, California. But it’s also about photography’s own 800 lb. gorilla — the modern state of photojournalism.
I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life designing, documenting, and using high-tech musical instruments and recording gear. Like lemmings, those of us involved with this profession embark, each January, on an annual pilgrimage to the NAMM show in Anaheim, California. For all intents and purposes, NAMM is an industry trade show — matching folks who develop and manufacture musical products with those who buy them. To the man on the street, NAMM — like any industry trade show — is about as significant as your brother’s second wife’s cousin’s first husband’s sister-in-law.
But there’s something a little ‘different’ about NAMM, starting with its name. NAMM is an acronym for the “International Music Products Association.” If you think that’s absurd, you’re in for a treat. NAMM is a daft and enormous human interest story. It’s a cornucopia of stars, wannabes, has-beens, and never-wases. It’s a sea of burned out salesmen and bubble-bottomed booth babes. It’s fashion faux-pas-a-go-go — a dense and delicious parade of hairspray, costumes, cheese, hype, and hyperbole. It’s a cultural clash in which french horn aficionados, software nerds, and guitar shredders all converge and breathe the same air for a 4-day period. It’s the bars, the parties, and the frantic midnight design tweaks. It’s the endless walking, talking, and negotiating. NAMM is its own civilization. It’s an event that, I believe, would pique the interest of the general public were they to actually learn of its existence.
NAMM is not without press coverage. But like most industry shows, it attracts only industry press. In this case, that means publications and web sites that cater to the musical products industry. To the industry press, NAMM’s circus atmosphere is simply something to be endured. Deftly dodging mohawks and miniskirts, reporters flitter from booth to booth to bring their readers news of the latest supergadgets. Absent from the proceedings are the “real” press. I find this omission curious, because NAMM possesses enough attributes to garner a modicum of general appeal. After all, doesn’t everyone like celebrities? And who doesn’t enjoy the odd cultural train wreck? So, unlike the last 25 years in which I attended NAMM to gear-gawk, this year I turned my eye and camera away from the gizmos and contraptions, and toward the attendees themselves.
Fundamentally, photographing trade shows is quite similar to my favorite photographic discipline — street photography. However, from a technical standpoint, there are a few key differences. First, there’s the light… or lack thereof. Trade shows are dimly lit, and the color spectrum is bizarre (at best) and punishing (at worst). The thick crowds can hamper a photographer’s mobility and positioning, and the miles of aisles make it essential that your equipment is as portable as possible.
I chose a fairly simple and flexible kit: Around my neck was a Leica M8 with a 28mm f/2 Summicron lens. Slung across my shoulder and dangling, upside-down on a BlackRapid R-Strap, was a Canon 5DmkII with an 85mm f/1.8 lens. The Leica’s mission was to shoot ambience, fleeting moments, and anything necessitating a “wider” field of view. The Canon’s mission was to shoot closeups and anything I felt would benefit from its lower ISO noise. The Leica, as always, was my “run and gun,” go-to camera. I kept it set at ISO 1250, 1/125s, and f/2.8. In an ideal world, I would prefer to have used ISO 640, but I couldn’t risk the motion blur that would result if I dropped the shutter speed a stop. Nor could I gamble on f/2 and its narrower depth-of-field. I was zone-focussing so I could respond to NAMM’s frequently ephemeral moments — a technique that rarely enables one to achieve critical focus. Hence, I needed the extended depth-of-field to mask the inevitable “focus errors” guaranteed by this approach. Whenever I had more than a couple of seconds to frame and capture a photo, I’d sling the 5DmkII up to my eye. Under these lighting conditions, I knew the 5DmkII would give me a higher-fidelity photo, while the Leica would insure I’d capture those momentary opportunities that would elude the SLR.
The combination worked well and allowed me to be quick, mobile, and agile. The 5DmkII, which I don’t normally subject to crowds, nestled comfortably into the small of my back, and its 85mm lens (which I chose mostly for its lightness and diminutive dimensions) did not protrude from my body. Nor did it, in any way, create an impediment for my mobility in the crowds.
In today’s world, shooting a story is the easy half of the equation. Selling a story is something entirely different. Selling requires you to shake hands with that 800 lb. gorilla. And, frankly, I haven’t found this particular primate to be overly affable. Of course, photojournalists have been bemoaning the ‘inevitable’ demise of the profession since the 1960’s but, in reality, the vocation hasn’t so much declined as changed.
Television, for example, did not eliminate photojournalism. Instead, it gave us a new form of photojournalism based around moving pictures, rather than stills. Television did not entirely replace print. Newspapers and newsmagazines remained valid and profitable sources of information, and these print sources relied heavily on “iconic images” — photographs that would summarize a story and invoke emotion and reaction in ways that words never could. Television, recognizing the need to succinctly encapsulate an entire story in the same way as an iconic image, developed its own version — the “sound bite.”
Things remained relatively stable until the early days of the world wide web, when some dim bulb of a businessman decided that newspapers and newsmagazines should offer all their online content for free. Fast forward fifteen years, and we have only a smattering of newspapers remaining. Those that remain have all fired their photography departments — choosing, instead, to invite readers to email their cellphone photos to the newspaper. The result? A photographic literalness that is as obvious as it is boring.
I come from the “iconic image” school. It’s not an actual school, but a way of seeing things and thinking about the world. On a personal level, I am touched more by powerful photographs than by words, video, or sound. I remember history by its iconic images. When I look for photographs in my own life, I look for metaphors, symbols, and allegory. For me, a story isn’t so much about the actual event; it’s about how that event affects someone or something. I find, with each passing year, a dwindling number of people who feel as I do; who understand that photography does not need to be literal and is, in fact, more powerful through metaphor. The 800 lb. gorilla does not appreciate photography nor its ability to tell a story. The 800 lb. gorilla does not seek subtlety, context, or meaning.
Photojournalism is changing… but into what? No one knows exactly. As “news” websites continue to fill their pages with blatantly obvious and freely obtained cellphone photos, is there still a paying market for photography? If there is such a market, where is it developing, and in what format? While pacing the carpeted blue aisles of the 2010 NAMM show, these questions rattled around my head. Who, today, would actually pay for photos from NAMM? Assuming such a publication even exists, what sort of images do they want? Is the iconic image dead? Should I shoot quantity rather than quality? What do I need to do in order to sell these photos?
First, I stifled my own aesthetic urges and capitulated to the deafening demand for color. Second, I succumbed to my theory that modern readers quickly grow bored with a few ruminative images and, instead, prefer the constant stimulation of many. Third, I bowed to my belief that these same mythical and modern readers aren’t even readers at all, but “watchers.” This meant I would need to present my text and images in a colourful, quick-cut, video-like format, rather than a traditional text and photo spread. The result appears on the linked page, below:
ULTRAsomething Report: NAMM 2010 – Culture, Chaos and Cacophony
Am I cynical? Maybe… probably… OK, definitely. I don’t necessarily fear for an end to photojournalism, but I do fear for an end to poignancy — an end to what Cornell Capa called “concerned photography.” I, and others like me, will bend and mold and persevere. I have audio and music skills, writing skills, photography skills, and video editing skills. In short, I have all the “tools” to be a journalist in the coming iPad-driven “convergence” age of media. If media outlets one day become profitable and willing to pay for content, I can provide it. But I worry that the iconic, thoughtful, and solitary image will be pushed aside and lost amongst the hoopla, noise, and frenzy of all that motion, sound, and graphics. Will photojournalism still be about the story, or will it become media for media’s sake?
My fear is tempered by optimism. Magnum Photos is attempting to show us that the iconic images shot by their (and the world’s) greatest photographers can still pack a wallop in the modern world; that multimedia can actually enhance, rather than detract from, the images. To test their theory, I viewed Magnum Photos’ multimedia presentation of Josef Koudelka’s photographs of the 1968 invasion of Prague. I believe Josef Koudelka is one of the greatest photographers to have ever walked the earth. Magnum’s presentation of this story shows us that great images can transcend their print origins and, if treated with respect and understanding, thrive in this digital age of convergence.
Oh, and that silly little multimedia NAMM story that I crafted specifically for a modern audience? Turns out there was no need to worry. There are actually plenty of content-hungry websites that are more than happy to publish it… for free. Welcome to photojournalism in the year 2010.