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Bill Pierce - Leica M photog and author

 

“Our autobiography is written in our contact sheets,  and our opinion of the world in our selects”  

"Never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade."  

 

Bill Pierce is one of the most successful Leica photographers and authors ever. I initially "met" Bill in the wonderful 1973 15th edition Leica Manual (the one with the M5 on the cover). I kept reading and re-reading his four chapters, continually amazed at his knoweldge and ability, thinking "if I only knew a small part of what this guy knows... wow."  I looked foward to his monthly columns in Camera 35 and devoured them like a starving man.  Bill has worked as a photojournalist  for 25 years, keyword: WORK.  Many photogs dream of the professional photographer's  life that Bill has earned and enjoyed.  Probably Bill's most famous pic is Nixon departing the White House for the last time, victory signs still waving. 

 

Bill  has been published in many major magazines, including  Time, Life, Newsweek, U.S. News, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, New York Magazine, Stern, L'Express and Paris Match.  :His published books include  The Leica Manual,  War Torn, Survivors and Victims in the Late 20th Century, Homeless in America,  Human Rights in China,  Children of War.  Add to that numerous exhibitions at major galleries and museums.  Magazine contributions include  Popular Photography,  Camera 35, Leica Manual,  Photo District News, the Encyclopedia of Brittanica, the Digital Journalist, and now RFF.  Major awards include Leica Medal of Excellence, Overseas Press Club's Oliver Rebbot Award for Best Photojournalism from Abroad,  and the World Press Photo's Budapest Award. Perhaps an ever bigger award is Tom Abrahamsson's comment: "If you want to know Rodinal, ask Bill."

 

I met Bill in person through our mutual friend Tom Abrahamsson.  In person his insight and comments are every bit as interesting and engaging as his writing.  He is a great guy who really KNOWS photography.  I am happy to say he has generously agreed to host this forum at RFF  From time to time Bill will bring up topics, but you are also invited to ask questions.  Sit down and enjoy the ride!

 


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How a photojournalist anticipates events
Old 01-18-2008   #1
sirius
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How a photojournalist anticipates events

Hi Bill,

I really enjoyed the chapter on photojournalism in your Leica book. I found it fascinating how you talked about there often being a pause before a moment of action, for example in a politician's speech, and that this pause can be a great moment to snap a photo.

I enjoyed this photo essay by Ed Kashi. It's fascinating to see how he thinks. You can see him developing a thought and the moment the photo peaks and becomes decisive. He shoots with bursts which, I don't know if that is his regular practice, is a little different than what I thought working pj's would do---quality over quantity and all. Well, it's full of great images...

http://mediastorm.org/0011.htm
(Warning, it's set in Iraq and has some disturbing images)

What else can you tell us about how photojournalists craft their images and stories?
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Old 01-21-2008   #2
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sirius
Hi Bill,

I really enjoyed the chapter on photojournalism in your Leica book. I found it fascinating how you talked about there often being a pause before a moment of action, for example in a politician's speech, and that this pause can be a great moment to snap a photo.

I enjoyed this photo essay by Ed Kashi. It's fascinating to see how he thinks. You can see him developing a thought and the moment the photo peaks and becomes decisive. He shoots with bursts which, I don't know if that is his regular practice, is a little different than what I thought working pj's would do---quality over quantity and all. Well, it's full of great images...

http://mediastorm.org/0011.htm
(Warning, it's set in Iraq and has some disturbing images)

What else can you tell us about how photojournalists craft their images and stories?
First, apologies for the late reply. I've been on the road and computer time is much reduced.

As to the burst technique in Ed Kashi's Iraq essay, I think that is pretty much something he found he could do on the web. I would suspect that he did not shoot in prolonged bursts when the stories were only going to print. One often shoots a number of frames to get to that "one" image. But you are usually aware when you've got it. If you are a coward, like me, you take one more just in case, and you certainly keep the camera up to your eye until the action is over, "just in case." But in conventional media you are usually looking for that one frame that is better than all the others. And that effects the way you shoot.

As to other techniques... To me the most effective tool for doing a good story was to understand what was in front of you. On those long essay stories, I was never any good for the first few days. There some stories you are never going to understand fully taking place in cultures you will never fully understand. But I was never able to look through the viewfinder and say, "That's it." until I had some modest understanding of the subject.
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Old 01-21-2008   #3
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Thanks Bill,

That is exactly what Gordon Parks said in this interview I recently saw.
youtube link

I appreciate that advice. I've usually jumped in when purposely trying to get a story but it doesn't leave much time to breath and think about what really matters in the story. But, now that I look back at my favorite people portraits...I realize that the camera came out after enjoying the persons company for a while and once it really felt like the time.

I remember reading about HCB saying that to make portraits you had to be very patient and then very quick. Some people break the ice by shooting any kind of photo just so that then subject gets used to you working with the camera and relaxes a little.

It's strange that no one else finds this interesting. I see that only two people have looked at this thread so far? Thinking about how form and content come together to make compelling images really gets me out of bed in the morning

Many happy returns from your travels...
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Old 01-21-2008   #4
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I'm certainly interested, but it's a busy evening !! I might have a sensible comment when I get back in later (I was one of those who looked earlier).
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Old 01-21-2008   #5
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[quote=sirius]Thanks Bill,

That is exactly what Gordon Parks said in this interview I recently saw.
youtube link]

Gordon was still in the Time-Life Building when I started. It says much about Gordon that a few years later when he met my son, I went from being Bill Pierce to being Gene Pierce's father. With a half a century difference in their ages, they still used to meet at Gordon's apartment and talk with much of the conversation not being about photography.
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Old 01-21-2008   #6
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[quote=Bill Pierce]
Quote:
Originally Posted by sirius
Thanks Bill,

That is exactly what Gordon Parks said in this interview I recently saw.
youtube link]

Gordon was still in the Time-Life Building when I started. It says much about Gordon that a few years later when he met my son, I went from being Bill Pierce to being Gene Pierce's father. With a half a century difference in their ages, they still used to meet at Gordon's apartment and talk with much of the conversation not being about photography.

Bill,

I would love to have been in that room with Mr. Parks...your son chose his friends wisely...
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Old 01-25-2008   #7
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Thanks Bill, it's wonderful to hear anecdotes like that.

Today I saw this thread on RFF that has a movie of Cartier Bresson giving a tour of his contact sheets. It's great to watch. I like to see how he didn't just take one photo, for the most part, but would get a visual idea, start working on it, and it would culminate in a moment. There are a lot more photos in a series that I would have expected. I guess that would help a photograher avoid those minuscule flaws that can happen in a photo, like the blink of an eye.

http://www.rangefinderforum.com/foru...408#post733408

I'm an amateur, but I would like to start making some photo essays on things that interest me. I like that these wonderful and unexpected photos can come out of situations you place yourself in. How would you set up a story? Would you ask the subject if you could do a photoessay and then just spend time following them around until the ideas started flowing? I always wonder how involved the photographer is with his subject when he/she is doing a story. I imagine that there some sly direction, oh could you start doing this or that, there's nice light over here, etc...

Any insight to give?
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Last edited by sirius : 01-25-2008 at 10:28.
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Old 01-25-2008   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sirius
How would you set up a story? Would you ask the subject if you could do a photoessay and then just spend time following them around until the ideas started flowing?
First time around, i wouldn't do a story on a specific person. Less intimidating would be an essay on a place. Pick a tourist place where people with cameras are common. When I'm in the area, I like to stroll the Santa Monica Pier or the tourist area in Lower Manhattan on the East River. No one notices one more tourist photo nut unless you are using an M8. Then every Leicaphile will ask you how you like it.

The high level of human activity guarantees that there will be things worth shooting. You won't know what these are until they happen, but, guaranteed, they will happen.
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Old 01-25-2008   #9
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OK, I'll try that. We have some festivals and such around this small town. That's the best place to find crowds. Otherwise, to find people, I generally have to cross the street and walk right up to them, not the most conducive for candid photos...

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce
...unless you are using an M8.
Ha, I wish! though I feel plenty lucky to be shooting with my vintage german cameras. I dream about the ease of digital and sometimes mull an RD-1 over...

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce
...Then every Leicaphile will ask you how you like it.
If only Leicaphiles tended to be young ladies I'm sure sales would improve. Who would care about IR casts then?
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Old 01-25-2008   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce
FTo me the most effective tool for doing a good story was to understand what was in front of you. On those long essay stories, I was never any good for the first few days.
This is so true... I need always time to tune up into the moment...in the atmosphere...only after that I can came up with a good story. I did a story of reindeer round-up last winter. It was a one day event and I was totally and utterly lost for many hours, but in the end of the day I was very happy, I'm still very pleased with the result... I needed the time to just "feel" the event. Same goes with street photography...it always takes time to get into the mood before those photos just appear in front of your eyes. That happens usually right before you get the feeling "this is hopeless".
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Old 01-27-2008   #11
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Hello,

what I often wonder about is: What equipment do you or Ed Kashi use to produce those photo essays? So basically what camera and other stuff?

Thanks in advance.
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Old 01-28-2008   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Florian1234
Hello,

what I often wonder about is: What equipment do you or Ed Kashi use to produce those photo essays? So basically what camera and other stuff?

Thanks in advance.
For me, it's always been Leicas and Canons. I used Canon early in the "non-auto" days because it focused (remember when you had to focus) in the same direction as Leica; Nikon focused in the opposite direction. I wanted to get to the point where I didn't have to think much about the controls.

The real point was to use small cameras and not have to carry too much equipment. Sometimes a local photographer would ask to assist me when I was traveling, and they were always disappointed in how little equipment I used.
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Old 01-28-2008   #13
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The photographer I work with at my University has that giant prefessional Nikon with the biggest and best zoom lenses. He keeps threatening to take a little point and shoot to all the "grip and grin" photoshoots he has to do for parties and events. He says the quality is just fine for what they do with the photos (mostly put them on the website)!

I remember reading about David Alan Harvey being in a photographers scrumb and getting no respect from the others because all he had was one or two little Leicas. I'll see if I can find the quote...here it is, from his blog:

'i have posted somewhere before that i am often taken as an "amateur" by professionals because i do not "work or look like a professional"...when i was covering the Pope when he visited Castro in Cuba, the dozens "super pros" covering this event, with all their vests and long lenses and scarves, would not even talk to me because i appeared to be some kind of "amateur" with just one camera and no "stuff"!!'

It sure seems like photojournalists are all using digital now. Perhaps for ease of workflow. I wonder if the aesthetic is changing: that smooth grainlessness of digital seems to be everywhere in magazines.
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Old 01-28-2008   #14
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Once, in China, when our government was doing our first normalization talks, I was at one of the official banquets, with a Leica, and was asked what I did. I was laughed at by my hosts who refused my notion that I was a professional. The next day I brought a few motorized SLRs and word quickly spread that I probably was a professional.
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Old 01-28-2008   #15
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It's funny how perception is so important sometimes. I imagine that there are even times when a photo-vest is necessary. It sounds like you have had many adventures.

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Old 01-28-2008   #16
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"...I used Canon early in the "non-auto" days because it focused (remember when you had to focus) in the same direction as Leica; Nikon focused in the opposite direction. I wanted to get to the point where I didn't have to think much about the controls."

I bought my first Leica when I was working as a PJ. Unfortunately, I was using Nikons and I simply could not get used to the difference in focusing direction between the two cameras. I ended up selling the Leica outfit. Years later, I bought another Leica and, this time, I made friends with the camera. I guess it was easier because I had previously switched to Canon SLRs.
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Old 01-28-2008   #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce
I used Canon early in the "non-auto" days because it focused (remember when you had to focus) in the same direction as Leica; Nikon focused in the opposite direction.

For years I couldn't figure out what was bothering me about my Nikon SLRs...

I had come from Canon bodies for 35mm work - and eventually went back to them.

I knew *something* was off... but I couldn't really place what. That's so basic.

Thanks Bill. Mystery Solved.

Interesting insights too, about the timing of photographs, and the process of developing a story. Coming from a studio and architecture background, I have little experience with PJ and documentary process - this is fascinating.
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Old 01-29-2008   #18
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Hi Bill,

Speaking of events where there are a lot of cameras, have a look at this critical look at the photography being done for the presidential primaries. The author is also a very talented photographer as well. I like what he has to say and it is an interesting perspective on a lot of the photography that is being done now with the dominance of DSLRs and zooms.

http://2point8.whileseated.org/2008/...cks-as-a-list/

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Old 01-31-2008   #19
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sirius
Hi Bill,

Speaking of events where there are a lot of cameras, have a look at this critical look at the photography being done for the presidential primaries. The author is also a very talented photographer as well. I like what he has to say and it is an interesting perspective on a lot of the photography that is being done now with the dominance of DSLRs and zooms.

http://2point8.whileseated.org/2008/...cks-as-a-list/

cheers
The dominance of DSLRs and zooms pretty much extends to most news coverage. You can use anything you want on a long term story, but the bag with 2 bodies, 2 zooms and some other stuff can pretty much get you through most work days. Long hours, no sleep and being on the road for extended times make it a pretty good choice for campaign coverage. Just add a long lens.

As far as everybody getting in the pit and shooting the same shot...

There are usually two pits or stands, the local stand and the stand for the folks traveling with the candidate. Getting on that stand is a big deal for some folks, and they are a little reluctant to move or take risks. And their publication may not want the different shot. They may want the shot that everybody else has, but with their photographer's credit line.

No question that this lessens the quality of the coverage, but it's understandable.

For those photographers doing a campaign for what seems the zillionth time, getting the necessary shot is not much of a strain and they can't wait to find that different shot. They interact in a much more relaxed way with the Secret Service and the candidate's people - and that probably gives them a certain freedom of movement, e.t.c.. I'm particularly fond of Arthur Grace's book, "Choose Me." Arthur covered the presidential campaigns for Newsweek with only a twin lens Rollei. Needless to say, it made for some very different pictures from the standard pictures of the standard set ups and photo ops, and that was what Newsweek wanted. It was this assignment that led to the book, the best I have seen on presidential campaigning.

Last edited by Bill Pierce : 01-31-2008 at 08:57.
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Old 02-11-2008   #20
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Hi Again Bill,

It sounds like a lot of the trick to covering events is figuring out where you're going to stand, and, from what you said, guarding your spot... I photographed an event last September with a professional there. Everytime I would see something unfolding and would think about where would be a good vantage point, I'd look over, and there he was!

Do you have any tips about finding vantage points? I've heard about a wedding photographer that slings a small portable ladder over his shoulder just to give him those few feet over the heads if he needed it.

cheers
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Old 02-12-2008   #21
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce
For those photographers doing a campaign for what seems the zillionth time, getting the necessary shot is not much of a strain and they can't wait to find that different shot. They interact in a much more relaxed way with the Secret Service and the candidate's people - and that probably gives them a certain freedom of movement, e.t.c.. I'm particularly fond of Arthur Grace's book, "Choose Me." Arthur covered the presidential campaigns for Newsweek with only a twin lens Rollei. Needless to say, it made for some very different pictures from the standard pictures of the standard set ups and photo ops, and that was what Newsweek wanted. It was this assignment that led to the book, the best I have seen on presidential campaigning.
Also take a look at Christopher Morris' My America, on the 2004 Bush campaign, which he covered for Time. It's a collection of definitely-off-the-menu shots, and presents a much darker take on the White House road show than you usually find in the weeklies. I think he's covering McCain's campaign this week.
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Old 02-12-2008   #22
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I think it has a lot do w/Bill's point that "the most effective tool for doing a good story was to understand what was in front of you." It doesn't matter whether you're doing PJ, weddings, or nightlife/party shots, the bottom line is that you need to know both your subject(s) (the old beat cop mantra: you have to know people, the things they do, & when they do them) & the environment(s) you're shooting in.

For example, I shoot bands & other performers often enough @ the same local clubs that I have a pretty good idea of vantage points & lighting issues. Since I'm short, I would love to be able to bring a ladder like the wedding photographer, but I'd get my ass kicked, so normally I have to work hard to get in front (or as close as possible) & shoot from down low. I'm confident that I could use the same approach if I were to shoot similar bands/performers in similar venues in NYC or elsewhere. I think the bigger problem is that any decent photographer will figure out the same choice vantage points, especially in a highly controlled environment like a political speech, & you have to figure out a way to award, divide, or share the spoils among the competing photogs.

Quote:
Originally Posted by sirius
Hi Again Bill,

It sounds like a lot of the trick to covering events is figuring out where you're going to stand, and, from what you said, guarding your spot... I photographed an event last September with a professional there. Everytime I would see something unfolding and would think about where would be a good vantage point, I'd look over, and there he was!

Do you have any tips about finding vantage points? I've heard about a wedding photographer that slings a small portable ladder over his shoulder just to give him those few feet over the heads if he needed it.

cheers
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Old 02-12-2008   #23
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sirius
Hi Again Bill,

Do you have any tips about finding vantage points? I've heard about a wedding photographer that slings a small portable ladder over his shoulder just to give him those few feet over the heads if he needed it.

cheers
Believe it or not, I'm sitting at my computer and five feet away from a small, folding stepladder that has gone everywhere with me. When I was covering the Presidential campaigns and other media events, I used to ocassionally buy a full sized stepladder at the local hardware store, shoot the press conference or whatever from it and then, as the event wound down, rent it out to other photographers to make my cost back. That way I didn't feel so bad about leaving it behind.

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Old 02-12-2008   #24
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Ha ha! Well, I better get a ladder.
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Old 02-14-2008   #25
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Someone posted this link to the Cartier-Bresson documentary, the Impassioned Eye, here on RFF. I've always been a great fan of his work for the moments he captures, the humanistic story, and the wonderful sense of form. But, I didn't realize that he had such a nose for news! It's a lovely documentary and tribute to the man. I liked seeing and hearing from all the other famous photographers and the beautiful music throughout. Anyway, it's probably some awful violation of copyright, but I went onto eBay and bought a copy a few minutes ago...so at least someone is making something...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzgLQ...eature=related

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