Firing of Chicago Sun-Times Photographers Evokes a Torrent of Responses … Including Mine

The announcement on Thursday, May 30 from the Chicago Sun-Times that they fired/laid off all full-time photographers immediately evoked a torrent of responses from media outlets all over the country. I cannot help but wonder what the late Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert would say about this – I think I hear him grumbling from movie heaven. Among those fired was John H. White, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who blazed a trail for black photographers in the 1970s. I had the honor of meeting him at a Prevent Blindness America charity luncheon at Neiman Marcus in 2002, where he shot a few photos for the Sun-Times. For me, this announcement evoked a torrent of personal memories that started with an appreciation of documentary photography at the tender age of 11 – nurtured by a passionate interest in history and appreciation of visually powerful moments in time. When I was 12, my dad taught me how to develop black and white photos in a makeshift darkroom in our basement. I was immediately taken with the magic of pictures developing before my eyes in the chemical trays lined up on the rickety plywood shelving my dad had rigged up.

Times Square by Betsy van Die, 1978

I am blessed with a photographic memory, and this has actually come in handy many times both pragmatically and artistically. On an aesthetic level, I can close my eyes and picture several memorable documentary photographs that left indelible impressions on my childhood psyche. Among these are Vietnam War photographs from Life magazine, and a book entitled Portal to America: the Lower East Side 1870-1925, circa 1967. It is from this book that I honed my drawing skills at the age of 9-11, copying photos of poor immigrants taken by the great documentary photographers Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis. And it is the searing photo of the tragic Triangle Fire (in this book) that made me realize at this rather young age that photographs can be more powerful than words. A few years later, I discovered the wonderful photographs documenting the Great Depression taken by Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein, among others. The one single photo with a Chicago connection that stands out for me has to be an angry young man flipping off the world outside the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention, by Chicago Sun-Times photographer Perry Riddle. During my freshman year at RISD, a male friend bought me a copy of The Family of Man, which really blew my mind.  

Reaching Out by Larry Burrows, Life Magazine, 1966

Youth Power by Perry Riddle, 1968

By the time I was in high school, I would spend hours down in the darkroom developing artistic photographs, and soon became a photographer for the Niles West newspaper, the West Word. I’m not certain why, but I was assigned the sports beat almost exclusively. Highlights of this “career” included taking pictures of Bart Connor – the talented, down-to-earth kid who went on to Olympic glory/gold and later married Nadia Comaneci. I was extremely self-conscious in high school and introverted, but when I had that camera around my neck with the 400mm lens, I suddenly had some cache with football players and other athletes, who under normal circumstances would not give me a second glance. I made a little side business of this by taking photos of the girls’ gymnastics team and Orchesis group and selling the photos. It helped that the sweetest, most wonderful physical education teacher of all time helped promote my talents – girls’ gymnastic coach Judi Sloan.

When I was a junior in high school, this hobby turned into my first real job at Bronson Coles Photography Studio, where I started as a photo retoucher using old-fashioned dyes with a tiny brush. Sometimes I got the chance to take copy photos with an enormous antique wooden camera or passport pictures with an instant camera. I also helped put together the wedding and Bar Mitzvah albums. I graduated from high school early and in one of those serendipity moments, the full-time darkroom technician left to start his own studio, so I was promoted to his position. I learned how to develop and print color film, but also spent a good deal of time printing black and white “before and after” plastic surgery photos and retouching photos. I worked at the studio full time until I went off to RISD and then every summer during college, which was terrific.

I didn’t even think about pursuing photography as a major at RISD – I yearned to learn other mediums at this point in my life. Two of my favorite photographers had taught at RISD, although by the time I was there, they were both retired. The influence of Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan was still very present at RISD and in Providence, and I once had the honor of serving lunch to Mr. Callahan and his wife Eleanor at the Providence Art Club.

New York City continued to be my muse and during my RISD years I embarked on several documentary photo excursions, trying to retrace the steps of the photographers who documented the Lower East Side so compellingly, in that terrific aforementioned book. The other area that I was drawn to was Times Square, as I wrote in several other blogs. Those seedy XXX-rated shops, peep shows, pimps, panhandlers, and hookers repulsed and entranced me. I walked Broadway, Nikon in hand, summoning the spirits of Arbus and Weegee. I mounted these documentary photos and exhibited them in two shows when I lived in the Netherlands in the early 1980s.

Times Square Howard Johnsons by Betsy van Die, 1978

The closest I ever got to making a living from shooting photographs was when I shot a wedding of a dear family friend and the Bar Mitzvah of my cousin Adam, whose little sister Alex Borstein went on to fame and fortune as a comedienne, first as Ms. Swan, her famous and lovable character on MADtv, and more recently as the voice of Lois Griffin on Family Guy. A few years later I dabbled briefly in photographing art for artists, back when slides were still required for portfolios and juried exhibit submissions.

Instagram and all the other clever gimmicks that have accompanied our ever-evolving age of digital technology are a lot of fun. Digital photo retouching is a breeze compared to using dyes, although I find the highly retouched photos of models and celebrities a regrettable travesty. Art exhibits featuring cell phone photography are cool – paying homage in a sense – to past exhibits featuring pinhole, Brownie, and Polaroid art photography. I have participated in a few and enjoyed doing so. But the fact remains that even the best Smart phones have limitations when it comes to photography. The Chicago Sun-Times stated that their reporters must undergo mandatory training on iPhone photography basics. The “idea that freelancers and reporters could replace a photo staff with iPhones is idiotic at worst, and hopelessly uninformed at best,” Chicago Tribune photographer Alex Garcia wrote. I agree with this sentiment and feel this is the same mentality that I have encountered from companies who don’t want to pay for the professional writing, PR, and communications talents of somebody with 20 years of expertise and a proven track record. It is a sad commentary on our world and the need for instantaneous, cheap solutions.

Photography has changed a great deal over the last 20 years, in part due to technology and the digital age. But one thing that remains the same is that talented, skilled photographers have an eye for composition and an intuitive ability to get to the heart of the matter visually, setting them apart from average Joes shooting snapshots. The same can be said about journalism – talented journalists have a way with words, a knack for getting to the heart of the story, are champions of accurate reporting, and sticklers for doing research that goes into writing stellar pieces. In this day and age, everybody thinks they can write – the plethora of blogs has spawned thousands of writers of varying skills and talents, forever changing the media landscape. Many traditional outlets have fired copy editors – it is common to find typos and layout errors in the most venerable newspapers, and lesser newspapers are fraught with them. Some papers have eliminated print versions, and too many subscribe to the misguided belief that the digital space is more forgiving and poor writing and typos are acceptable! I am longing for the days when quality was appreciated and rewarded – waxing nostalgic for Life and Look magazines, The Family of Man, those FSA photographers, and that magical basement darkroom.

2 Comments:

  1. Betsy, found your blog and it is amazing… not even 1/4 of the way thru yet.. I’ll get there..

    How or will I be able to see the rest of your NYC photos from the 70s/80s??

    Hope you had a great holiday..

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