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Developing First Impressions
Developing First Impressions
 

BY TERESA SMITH

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Quick, think Vietnam War. What's the first thing that flashes to your mind? A naked little girl crying as she runs down the dirt road of her napalmed village? A distraught young American woman kneeling over the body of a dead protester? A South Vietnamese soldier calmly shooting a captured Vietcong in the head? The gleaming black surface of the Vietnam Memorial, reflecting the somber faces of all who come to gaze?

Chances are that what you thought of was not something that could easily be expressed in words, not a book you read or a discussion from history class or an argument with your father, but one of the striking images handed down to us from the annals of photojournalism. Whatever complex thoughts or feelings you have about the subject, they will be forever influenced by that image. Thoughts and arguments take time to develop, and they may change. The image came first. The image will never change.

"A still photograph done by a perceptive photographer can capture a moment that completely summarizes an event in a split second," says Michael Carlebach, professor of photography in the School of Communication. "Those pictures tend to replace all other memories of the event."

We have all become the librarians of contemporary photographs, storing images in our subconscious and recalling them at the sound of a certain word or phrase. These images influence not only us, the consumers of news, but can change the decisions of the powerful, make or break politicians, princes, and tycoons. They put newsmakers at the mercy of the news.

Think of the picture of Bill Clinton hugging Monica Lewinsky, or Fidel Castro embracing the Pope. Princess Diana with Mother Teresa. Prince Charles with Camilla Parker-Bowles. A career destroyed, world policy changed, a reputation sanctified or demonized.

That's the power of photojournalism. It's a power Carlebach knows well. In his 20 years at the University, he has influenced a generation of students by showing them the work of news photographers who have documented everything from wars and riots to flappers and picnics. His interest in the subject has led him to research the history of photojournalism in a way no scholar has done before.

In his books The Origins of Photojournalism in America and American Photojournalism Comes of Age, he gathered hundreds of old photographs to trace the history of the profession from the mid-1800s, when photography was considered a sensational ornament, up to the 1930s, when people finally began to take it seriously and preserve it as a form of social documentation.

The first book, The Origins of Photojournalism in America, published in 1992, covers the earliest years, when photographs were time-consuming and expensive. The heavy equipment and lengthy exposure time ruled out coverage of fast-moving events and spontaneous portraits. Yet, photographs of engravings or artists' renderings of them were used more extensively in the 19th century than most people realize.

In his second book, American Photojournalism Comes of Age, published this year, Carlebach pieces together the second part of the photojournalism history puzzle. It wasn't easy. One image in the book, a photograph of staff photographers at the New York World in 1909, explains why. In the photo, the unidentified photographers in their three-piece suits pore over cameras and news reports. Behind them is a bookcase holding thousands of negatives. A clock in the photo records the exact time: 11:30. But we will never know what became of all of the tantalizing negatives. No one thought to preserve them or the names of the men who took them.

"All those photos lost," Carlebach says. "The mystery men who changed the way New Yorkers saw their city, their pictures are all gone. They weren't considered important enough to preserve."

Such was the case wherever Carlebach turned. In the absence of newspaper archives, he obtained help from the Library of Congress and historical societies around the country to carry out his research. His book contains nearly 150 pictures and thorough analysis, yet he knows the big picture will never be complete.Quote

What does emerge, despite the missing pictures, is photojournalism's changing role and increasing controversy as its influence began to spread. In the early years of the 20th century, many people thought that photographs "degraded" newspapers. At least, that's what they said. Publishers like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, both social liberals, began to run stories and pictures of catastrophe and disaster.

In reaction, prominent citizens cried, "Yellow journalism! Catering to base sensational interests!" But there was more to it than that.

Michael Carlebach PhotoA 1915 photo shows a diver recovering bodies after a steamer capsized in the Chicago River and hundreds of people drowned. Sensationalism? Perhaps. But as people fascinated by this and other photographs learned the details of the disaster, a more complex story emerged. The boat was old and clearly too small for the number of people on it. The story implied by the photographs was that the company that rented the boat for its workers' excursion should have known better, and thus was responsible for the accident.

According to Carlebach, photographs like these, and the "muckraking journalism" that followed, offended many conservative publishers who had a cozy relationship with business leaders and other power brokers. But the power of images was too strong to stop, and soon all newspapers were not only using photographs, but devoting increasing amounts of space to them.

Simpler reproduction processes facilitated production in the pressroom, and handheld cameras freed photographers to capture fleeting events and unwary people, adding to public interest. Readers came to expect photographs, and the stories they accompanied became less staid, less philosophical and abstract, and more focused on the immediate, compelling reality of American social problems and the need for social change. By the time of the Great Depression in 1929, photojournalism had achieved both widespread attention and respectability. Hired by the Farm Security Administration, photographers such as Dorothea Lange created social documents that have endured as works of art.

It could be said that those were the good old days-for photojournalism if not for the country. Carlebach is not happy with the state of photojournalism, or journalism, today. "In some ways, we're back to the way things were before Pulitzer," he says in this age of marketing surveys, focus groups, and cautious publishers. "Many papers are reluctant to tackle difficult and intractable social issues. The market for social documentary photography is very limited today."

But the news business, like the news itself, has a way of changing, and Carlebach believes the cycle may swing to the left once again.

or a man whose entire career attests to the primacy of image, Carlebach has a rather odd background. As an undergraduate at Colgate University, he studied French literature and political science. His master's degree, from Florida State University, and his Ph.D., from Brown, are in American Studies.

"But I always liked pictures," he says. In college he began driving out into the countryside to shoot the landscape. After graduating, he studied with Ken Heyman, a well-known photographer in New York who took pictures for Life and published books of photographs. It was his only formal training. He left New York in 1970 and came to Miami to be a photographer at The Miami Herald. He joined the University of Miami in 1975 as an adjunct professor before earning his advanced degrees.

With his relaxed demeanor and casual clothes, Carlebach, 53, looks more arty than professorial. But he speaks in carefully thought-out sentences spiced with off-the-cuff references to dates and events obscure to anyone outside his field. Though he can and does teach the technical aspects of photography as well as photojournalism, he says what's important is to "get people to see well, to make pictures that describe what they see with some insight, to think critically with a camera."

His method works. Many of his students have gone on to be successful photojournalists.

"I was aimless in college. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living. I didn't know that photography was a living," says Pat Farrell (B.A. '81), an award-winning photographer at The Miami Herald. Then he took a photojournalism class with Carlebach. "Carlebach was very good at showing people's work and explaining it, as well as his own work. That's how you're influenced, by looking at others' work. He had a wonderful way of opening that up to you. From that photojournalism class, I knew that's what I wanted to do."

Carlebach is "just what a faculty member ought to be," says School of Communication Dean Edward Pfister, who cites Carlebach's awards at the University for both teaching and scholarship. "He's dedicated to students. He's a highly regarded photographer. He has it all. And we're glad he's here to share it with us."

 
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Teresa Smith is a freelance writer living in Miami. Historical photographs courtesy of Michael Carlebach and AP/Wide World Photos; portrait photography by Pyramid Photographics.
 
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