Getting the picture on photojournalism

Eddie Adams also appreciated what happened outside a photo's frame


September 26, 2004|By Christopher Assaf | Christopher Assaf,SUN STAFF

It was the best photojournalism experience of my life and I have Eddie Adams to thank for it.

Famous for his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1968 photograph of a South Vietnamese official's street execution of a Viet Cong prisoner, Adams had a long and decorated photography career. He was highly respected within the industry for his talent, work ethic and dedication to perfection. Last Sunday, at age 71, he died of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).

In 1988, at his Jeffersonville farm in the picturesque mountains of New York, Adams founded The Eddie Adams Workshop, nicknamed "Barnstorm" for the building he converted into a lecture hall and offices. With sponsorship from Kodak, Nikon and others, he was able to offer groups of 100 students a unique learning experience tuition-free. In 1993, I was selected to attend Barnstorm VI. It was four days that opened my eyes and changed my life.

Barnstorm, in essence, was a forum for the exchange of ideas and philosophy among a variety of photography neophytes and veterans. Those in attendance - college students or professional with less than three years' experience - represented a wide range of styles and nationalities. The same was true of the lecturers and team leaders, who were chosen from among the elite and passionate in the industry.

For four exhausting days, we came together in kinetic chaos, sharing experiences and ideas in a surreal scene. From early morning into the night we were lectured, living and learning photography, and were soon dazed by the lack of sleep and overload of visual and mental information.

The opening speaker was old-timer Louie Liotta of the New York Post, a former assistant to famed crime photographer Weegee. With tilted fedora hat and glasses bigger than headlights, he raged and screamed, poking his bony finger in the air as an exclamation point.

"You gotta get the picture!" he screeched. We rolled in the aisles laughing at his antics, energy and foul language. He told the story behind a picture of a girl crying and holding a leash without a dog. "She lost her dog and they sent me over. But she wasn't doing anything. So when her mother turned away I slapped her on the behind and snapped the shutter. You gotta get the picture!"

His unabashed breach of journalistic ethics left some agape, me included. But looking back, I realize that by having us listen to such stories, Adams meant to broaden our knowledge of what people do and don't do in the business. It was for each of us to make our own decisions. No judgments would be pronounced; it was all fodder for discussion.

Fortunately, there were several more inspiring lecturers. One was another Pulitzer winner, Joe Rosenthal, who discussed the events surrounding his legendary photograph of Marines raising a flag on Iwo Jima. He let unfold the events of that day, countering the often-heard claims that he had faked the most memorable image of World War II. His was the polar opposite of the Liotta technique, yet he got the picture.

The ever-hip Gordon Parks, the definition of a Renaissance man, blew my mind with his eloquence and cool. Who knew someone could be so brilliant and so vibrant at age 82?

He showed "American Gothic, 1942," with charwoman Ella Watson holding broom and mop in front of an American flag at the Lincoln Memorial. It was a picture he had to make, he said, to battle what he hated: racism.

Later we got Joyce Tenneson's striking studio portraiture. Light to the eye yet eerie to the mind, it dazzled me for its ability to evoke an emotional response without the definitive moment that photojournalists obsess about. They appeared as fragile as a feather but weighted with impact.

Adams himself, one of the last to speak, exuded the demeanor I've come to expect from a photojournalist. He was confident with understated style (except for an ever-present hat). He spoke of the image that had been identified with him for 25 years. And of the other man in the photo, the executioner, Nguyen Ngoc Loan.

He explained how he later befriended the man, and impressed upon us that, though the camera shows truth, it does not tell all. A horrific image such as that one does not give all the information; it shows just a brief moment. His career, Adams felt, had been built on one frame, a sliver of second, that had ruined the career of another. That disturbed him, and he'd grown to hate the image.

This insight helped me to realize later that photography is about more than images and technique. It involves the personal feeling and passion that each individual brings to the work, expresses, and gives others to take away.

As Barnstorm came to a close, people were taking photos and exchanging information. A group gathered around Adams, and he posed for photographs and signed their workshop IDs. Not being a sentimentalist, I didn't feel the need for such snapshots. And though he signed the back of my ID, I didn't think much of it at the time.

Today, I treasure that memento, and am still grateful for the opportunity Eddie Adams gave me. Louie Liotta, though, would not be pleased that I didn't get the picture.

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