As a student at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, I first met with my thesis advisor in October. I told her I wanted to write about architecture and history. “But we’re journalists,” she said. “We write about people not buildings.” But is that really so? I was convinced that architecture was central to life, and isn’t life what the journalist documents?
Nearly 75 years ago photographer Berenice Abbott produced what would become a historic document in New York City’s history — a collection of 1930s photographs of architectural landmarks, overlooked buildings, skylines, bridges and, occasionally, the people who frequented them. (See photos from the New York Public Library’s digital collection.) The collection was called Changing New York. But, the people are never the focus of Abbott’s photographs; her images documented the landscape and the environment of the people rather than the residents themselves. Was she a photojournalist? How could she not be?
Abbott, one of Gertrude Stein’s “lost generation,” learned her trade from Surrealist photographer Man Ray in 1920s Paris. She got her start in portraits but became fascinated with EugÃ¨ne Atget’s photographs. Atget had photographed the architecture and street scenes of Paris in a particular style, and for Abbott, his work and style became a lifelong fascination.
Abbott returned to New York City months before the stock market crash of 1929. She was fascinated with the energy and vitality of the city’s construction boom and set off to do for New York City what Atget had done for Paris: She would create a city portrait in the age of Art Deco, towering skyscrapers and speedy trains.
But, not long after Abbott arrived, life changed. The Great Depression crashed over the city, the construction boom slowed and Abbott began to realize she was photographing what she would later call “the end of something.” Like any photojournalist, she had her story; it existed in the juxtaposition of the newfangled skyscrapers and the prewar buildings — the architectural collision of past and present, the story of a changing city. While other photographers of the day like Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans turned their lenses towards the poverty-stricken sharecroppers across the country, Abbott turned to Rockefeller Center, to the growing concrete canyons, to the elevated train tracks.
Once told by a patron of hers that “essentially ours is an age of science,” Abbott spent nearly ten years documenting the changing city with a kind of scientific clarity and objective observation prized among journalists. Considered a documentary photographer, she believed in photographing moments as they were with geometric precision and without sentimentality. To her the mechanical nature of the camera provided a way to better encapsulate reality than memory. “What the human eye observes casually and incuriously, the eye of the camera (the lens) notes with relentless fidelity,” she would later write in A Guide to Better Photography. Now decades later and 20 years after her death, her photographs constitute a precise portrait of an evolving city — preserving it and the forces of change it documented for posterity.
But is it journalism? Was she a photojournalist? Do the labels even matter?
Abbott found herself in the midst of a story and documented it the way she knew best — through photographs. It makes little difference that they are beautiful or that they make lovely postcards. It matters little that her focus was the cityscapes rather than the people who populated them. Her photos tell a story with a kind of objective focus that is as relevant now as it was then — perhaps even more so.
More complicated is the question, if Abbott’s photographs of abstracted bridges and empty streetcorners are journalistic, what distinguishes the average landscape photograph from the daily paper’s front-page image? The answer is in the story the images tell. Not every photograph of a dusty farm field tells a story; but an image of a 1930s dusty field might. Not every photograph of a building tells a story beyond that of the building itself; Abbott’s meticulous documentation did. It’s a slippery slope, to be sure, and there’s an argument to be made in favor of every image telling a story. But, there’s a difference between Abbott, who sought to “tell the facts” as she once said, and photographers like Ansel Adams whose people-less nature images were used for wilderness preservation. Abbott never sought to save the buildings she photographed, merely to preserve them in one snap of time.
Pine Street: U.S. Treasury in foreground, near Nassau Street, Manhattan. (March 26, 1936)
Taken all together, Abbott’s 300-odd photographs tell the story of the forces of change, of modernity, of economic depression, of fading grandeur and emerging technology. Journalists tell stories about people, not buildings, I was once told. But, buildings — where we live and die, where we construct our engineering feats and run through our daily work — are part of our stories, and they too are worthy of our focus.
“[It used to be] you would come into a newsroom and somebody was always there…this is the first class where there [is] not a reporter in the newsroom. Everybody went home. Come on in.”
Tired students file into the vacant bullpen in USA Today’s Los Angeles headquarters, following the man with a commanding voice.
Our huddled group is awkwardly large for the narrow aisles, oversized purses and lined notepads jutting and prodding as we shuffle around for space. The room echoes with the hushed murmur that fills museums and churches.
Scott Bowles, film reporter and critic for USA Today, is our guide. He is illuminated by the fluorescent office lights as students lean on cubicle walls and cabinets, holding out their voice recorders. Regardless of being slight, bordering on frail, Scott fills the room with a clear, ringing orator’s voice. His sentences are exact, concise and charismatic. In short, he speaks like a journalist.
Around a hundred people gathered on Monday night at the Innovation Warehouse in London’s Smithfields area, to debate the effect Twitter is having on modern journalism in an event titled Twitter, The Butterfly Effect, and The Future of Journalism. “The media is not the message, the messages are the media,” once wrote David Carr in the New York Times, and it was against this backdrop that the debate kicked off. The assembled panel consisted of Paul Lewis, Special Projects Editor at the Guardian; Anna Doble, Senior Online Producer at Channel4 News; Andrew Walker, founder of Tweetminster; Steve Butterworth, founder of Flumes Media Limited; and Titia Ketelaar, UK correspondent at NRC Handelsblad.
The Guardian’s Paul Lewis started off by arguing that although social media has transformed journalism significantly in recent times, its impact on traditional newsmaking is massively overstated. Although such a statement surely didn’t please the eagerly meta-tweeting audience, there is indeed growing suspicion around news that breaks through Twitter and other similar channels. While there’s little that can be done to stem the flow of false information, a lot can be done to validate and analyze, which is where information professionals should come into play.
Lewis went on to suggest that the future of news reporting lies in the collaboration between traditional and social media, rather than competition, or even substitution between the two. He brought significant examples of recent collaborative efforts, such as the Jimmy Mubenga story, for which the Guardian extensively used Twitter to track down witnesses of the Angolan deportee’s death.
Tuesday afternoon saw Mark Stephens CBE, one of the UK’s leading legal minds and a veteran of WikiLeaks, discuss freedom of speech and censorship at an event called Freedom of Tweet: Censorship, Governments, Marketers & The Law.
The first prickly issue tackled by Mark Stephens was the boundary between the protection of privacy and of freedom of speech (or to Tweet in this case). How can we preserve peoples’ privacy when a platform such as Twitter acts as an open channel for gossip, rumor and, also, facts to flow? Looking back to a famous case of super-injunction in the UK last year, Mark stated that this type of measure, especially when applied to the media of a single country, is bound to be systematically circumvented.
“Impractical law is bad law,” once said Louise Bagshawe, a Conservative MP and writer, and you cannot keep things secret in this day and age because of Twitter and other social networking websites, which are outside British jurisdiction. Mark suggests that when it comes to individuals and companies seeking to protect their privacy (and reputation), legal action is somewhat outdated and ineffective, and a PR campaign is sometimes preferable, as well as considerably cheaper.
The second topic covered by the debate was the role of social media in recent events such as the Arab Spring and the London riots, and the way governments tried in one way or another to assert their control over social networks. Last year, Western public opinion gasped when Middle Eastern regimes completely shut down the internet in order to curb the flow of information in and out of their countries.
At the same time however, the UK government briefly considered closing down social networks in times of crisis–a discussion sparked by the riots that kicked-off in London and soon spread to other parts of England. Mark Stephens argued that even though modern democracies are struggling to manage the speed at which new technologies are being developed, this should not justify any limitation to freedom of speech, which remains a pillar of open and fair societies.