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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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Photoshopped,,,
Old 06-20-2016   #1
Bill Pierce
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Photoshopped,,,

Last week much of the photographic web world was busy discussing the fact that a number of Steve McCurray’s pictures had been Photoshopped, cleaned up, people removed, e.t.c.. Was this appropriate for those pictures taken on assignment for National Geographic? Was it a violation of “photojournalistic standards.” Here’s something I wrote to Mike Johnston which he posted on his Online Photographer site.


"In the early and mid 'eighties, when we were all young, a bunch of us were covering the war in Lebanon. Don McCullin was the best among us, but it was a pretty solid group with Dirck Halstead, Robin Moyer, Gene Richards, Bill Foley and a bunch of others who have gone on to do fairly well as old photographers who don’t get shot at any more. Our publications wanted to see war. National Geographic had Steve McCurry shooting the religious leaders. Steve probably had just as much a chance of being somewhere in Beirut that got bombed as we had. We were shooting what our publications thought was important. Steve was shooting what his publication thought was important. Our pictures could never be as moving and life changing as the what we were photographing. Steve’s pictures might have been more dramatic than what he was photographing."

"All of us are shaped by what we did when we were young. The news publications gave some of us amazing educations that went far beyond what we learned in school. I don’t think Steve got the same education. He was unique. Geo sent him into dangerous situations that their other photographers never entered. But, somehow and not surprisingly, what they published always seemed more distanced from the events than what appeared in the news publications. Steve is currently getting criticized for using his computer to clean up his images and make them a little 'prettier.' I think the criticism is valid. But I also think Steve is a good guy who was told early in the game to make his pictures pretty."

I do think the criticism is obviously valid but was amazed at how no one included National Geographic in the web criticisms I read. And then Robert Dannin wrote something that made a lot of sense. He sent it on to A.D. Coleman. (I think we limit Coleman when we peg him as a photo editor, although he was certainly that for a variety of publications.) Check it out at Allan’s site.

http://www.nearbycafe.com/artandphot...steve-mccurry/
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Old 06-20-2016   #2
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Thanks for posting that link, it's one of the better commentary on the topic...

I read that link the other day... I appreciate that there are/might be other viewpoints out there.

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Old 06-22-2016   #3
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Working myself as a press photographer the rule was always what could be done in a darkroom ie dodging and burning, cropping and levels etc the dangerous area is when you start to change the content. Of course newspapers do that all the time but that's up to them.
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Old 06-22-2016   #4
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I guess I am kind of glad I do not know how to use Photoshop. My PP amounts to pushing or pulling exposure a bit and rarely cropping. Pretty much what we did during real darkroom days. I hope I am not a bad boy.
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Old 06-22-2016   #5
sevres_babylone
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Alas, there were issues long before photoshop: the setting up of photographs that were passed off as spontaneous documentary shots. I recommend the commentary by K****ij Nagar at http://www.writingthroughlight.com/n...steve-mccurry/

There, there is a discussion of shots being set up in India, with one example being a scene in a train station in India. I guess I feel like the writer's father:

“In a casual conversation with my father on the issue, he said the following “ I am very pained by this. This is almost unbelievable. I remember going out during the monsoon seasons with my Asahi Pentax in hand, just to see if I could get a picture like McCurry’s. It really pains to even think about this.”

In general, I believe that the amount of photoshopping or alteration that can be done depends on the context: is it photojournalism or is it "illustration" or "art." I am not unsympathetic to the situation where someone didn't notice the tree sticking out of the person's head and photoshops it out and says that the final image is a reflection of what he or she saw--provided that it is not presented as photojournalism (and it gets complicated because there were references to a famous Kent State image) in some of the commentary on McCurry. Until reading about the earlier India set-ups I was somewhat sympathetic to McCurry's claims that he was no longer doing photojournalism so it doesn't matter what he is doing now. The problem was that he is known as a photojournalist, and there was no easy line of demarcation. One solution would be to publish under two names, like some novelists do (for example Evan Hunter/Ed McBain--neither of which was his real name.) But of course, the McCurry name is worth something.

And I do own McCurry's South Southeast which I've found to be an inspiring and beautiful book. For me, there's something sad about the whole thing.
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Old 06-22-2016   #6
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I mentioned this on the Online Photographer: we tend to forget that Gene Smith was a master of darkroom manipulation long before Photoshop. For instance, his famous Albert Schweitzer photograph was a combo print of at least two negatives (I forget the details). But Smith was never condemned for his manipulations and is still revered today by most photographers for his dedication and body of work. I believe the reason is because Gene Smith was considered a photo essayist rather than a conventional photo journalist covering the news. He worked from a Point of View, not from a position of neutrality and objectivity.

It's a bit odd to me that McCurry's work hasn't been categorized the same way. His Nat'l Geo stuff certainly fits the category of the photo essay. Doesn't National Geographic equate at least a little to the old Life and Look magazine in their use of photo stories? Once viewed thus, McCurry's work is W. Eugene Smith traditional. Of course with today's emphasis on Puritanical prudishness, Smith's work as well as McCurry's can face condemnation.

From what I've read--and I have not been following this very closely by any means--McCurry screwed up by his initial denials, deflections and obfuscations. If that's the case, he kinda dug himself in a hole with no one else really to blame.
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Old 06-28-2016   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Dogman View Post
But Smith was never condemned for his manipulations and is still revered today by most photographers for his dedication and body of work. I believe the reason is because Gene Smith was considered a photo essayist rather than a conventional photo journalist covering the news. He worked from a Point of View, not from a position of neutrality and objectivity.
It was not generally known that some of Smith's famous documentary photo essays contained faked shots until the subject was widely publicized(widely in the "photo world", that is) by an article in one of the national photo mags sometime in the...Bill, maybe you remember this...mid 1970's or early 1980's. Was it Camera 35 that had it?
By that time , much of Smith's subjects and style had passed into the unfashionability that is usually reserved for corny stuff from 20 or 40 years ago. But all the caption copy that accompanied those Time/Life repackagings of Smith's material rang a touch hollow from then on.
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Old 06-29-2016   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by pluton View Post
It was not generally known that some of Smith's famous documentary photo essays contained faked shots until the subject was widely publicized(widely in the "photo world", that is) by an article in one of the national photo mags sometime in the...Bill, maybe you remember this...mid 1970's or early 1980's. Was it Camera 35 that had it?
By that time , much of Smith's subjects and style had passed into the unfashionability that is usually reserved for corny stuff from 20 or 40 years ago. But all the caption copy that accompanied those Time/Life repackagings of Smith's material rang a touch hollow from then on.
Most of Gene’s stuff was pretty straight. If a print were headed for reproduction he would make it a little lower in contrast and heavier in highlight detail than a print for exhibition. He used variable contrast paper and ferricyanide to make the main subject stand out from the rest of the scene. A touch of added contrast and brightness for the main subject in a complicated shot was probably more straight forward than cropping the other stuff out, which was the standard procedure for a lot of news photographers. Since 99% of his pictures were in black-and-white, if there was a tonal merger where two colors merged to the same grey and legibility was important, he would go in with bleach and make one of the colors lighter or darker.

Much has been made of the fact that he used bleach and ferricyanide to create open eyes in the mourners next to the dead body in one of the Spanish Village shots. Remember what film speed was in those days. He was photographing a family mourning the death of the father with bounce flash. And he was not going to keep shooting until he got the perfect shot. As to the Schweitzer shot, I never could figure out why he moved the worker, but he certainly didn’t make any secret about it.

And guess what, a lot of “news” shots are posed. When an editor says, “Go take a picture of so-and-so,” and you call and make an appointment. the picture is posed. Gene’s shot of Tennessee Williams was taken with multiple strobes. I suspect Williams was aware his picture was being taken. I suspect the readers of Life didn’t think Gene snuck into Williams’ house. When I took a picture of Williams, I suggested we take a walk on the beach. I did it because there were a lot of people at his house that kept involving themselves in the picture. I think Williams was as glad to get away as I was. The picture is just a posed head shot, but the conversation was wonderful.

Gene was my friend and neighbor, someone I would run errands for, a famous, celebrated photographer who taught me a lot. When I moved out of the City, he visited. When he went to Japan he entrusted me with his papers, his negatives, his prints. Some folks writing about Gene would ask to interview me. A lot was written about Gene along the “crazy genius” line that made me uncomfortable. I wrote a piece about the “Myth named Smith” debunking tales that involved things like Gene walking 20 miles through the snow to pay back an elderly lady the dollar he had borrowed from her. I saw Gene up until that last day he moved to Arizona, but for those last years I thought it was time for me to keep my mouth shut. When Sam Stephenson did the exhibit, The Jazz Loft, most of the recordings were of musicians playing. But one was this conversation between Smith and this newbie, me. Sam and I were listening to it when the exhibit came to NYC. I think Sam said that I was the person on the tape. Anyway, a crowd formed and started to ask questions. I talked about Gene for a long time, and the ban on talking about him in public disappeared.

So Gene didn’t really “fake” shots. He did do essays that expressed his opinion. They weren’t mind blowing, unexpected opinions - War sucks;Country doctors work hard but do something worthwhile;a city like Pittsburgh is really complex; toxic waste can really do bad things to people.

As to a Camera 35 article,,, You say, “It was not generally know that some of Smith’s famous documentary photo essays contained faked shots until the subject was widely publicized by an article in one of the national photo mags.” Jim Hughes was the editor of Camera 35 and the author of “W. Eugene Smith, Shadow and Substance,” a 600 page biography. So the article may well have appeared in Camera 35. Jim is a good writer and a good editor. I contributed articles to Camera 35 when he was editor. He asked to interview me when he was writing the book and actually gave me copy to read that he had already written. To my taste, it leaned a little heavy on the “expose” side, and I declined. But the book is on my shelf.

Do I think Gene faked shots? No. Do I think photographs reflect the opinion of the photographer? Every news photographer chooses where to point the camera, how to frame the image and when to punch the button. Even when they are trying to “tell the truth” it’s HIS or HER TRUTH.
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Old 06-29-2016   #9
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Thank you Bill
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Old 06-29-2016   #10
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Karl Marlantes, in his Vietnam war novel, Matterhorn, includes a section in which one soldier tells a story to a group of other soldiers. The narrator recounts how, to paraphrase, "none of the things in the story happened, but the story is true."
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Old 06-29-2016   #11
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I would have guessed Camera Arts, but would have been wrong. Found my Nov/Dec 1995 copy of Darkroom & Creative Camera Techniques (the & Creative Camera in smaller letters), edited by Michael Johnston at the time. The Jim Hughes article is "Dancing in the Dark: The Darkroom Secrets of W. Eugene Smith." It has the Schweitzer photo with the added saw and hand, which I remembered, and the steelworker with goggles, with added reflections, which I didn't, as well as "Spanish Wake," discussed above. Interestingly, David Vestal's column that month was "Take or Make?" And, spoiler alert, the answer is both are good (though Vestal says he himself was a "taker.")
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Old 09-04-2016   #12
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Late to thread, but fascinating nonetheless. Bill, thank you for posting.
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