Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Where did it all go wrong?

A few years ago, before the blunts got it in the neck for hacking phones for stories, press photographers were that week's ten-minute hate.

Back in 2006, someone very prominent in the press photographers pack asked on a forum, "where did it all go wrong?" With it looking like deja-vu all over again, I thought I'd revisit my opinions from then.

My short answer is/was digital bringing the cost of acquisition and distribution down plus Mel Gibson's revenge fantasies.

Papping has been around for a long time. In 1880's the good burghers of Edinburgh were complaining to the newspapers about photographers prowling in the parks photographing goodness knows what.

Hollywood is to blame too. I can't put my hand on it now but I've got a cutting somewhere about how in Hollywood movies and TV 'sleazy' and 'journalist' are synonymous, perhaps as some kind of revenge for revealing so many movie star indiscretions.

Having been there on both sides as a journalist and film technician, I'll tell you what you read in the likes of People Magazine might not be 100% right but it's 99% right and just the tip of the iceberg. Some pretty dodgy stuff happens in Hollywood, someone's got to expose it and the trade press won't.

It isn't also the fact that most paparazzi today probably don't know an f/stop from their elbow, the rot set in well before Diana. There were a people before Princess Diana's death getting a bad name for photographers. Sean Penn if I recall correctly.

I was working in LA when Diana died and took part in the boycott of Fran Drescher when she started spouting off with George Looney and Tom Cruise-control about the paps killing Diana. How could the photojournalists not follow Diana? They didn't cause her driver to drive too fast. Most likely they knew exactly where she was going and - don't ask me to prove it - but I have been told that Diana or someone in her camp was feeding them tips all the time. She was at that time fighting a battle with the palace in the media.

When I started doing photojournalism, as a second job initially in 1995, there were about 20 faces that I saw regularly at the photocalls in Hollywood and about maybe another 50 that worked very part time. There were perhaps 10 photographers who were the hardcore street paparazzi in Los Angeles.

I liked to think of myself as a pro and that sort of thing was beneath me, well, economically unnecessary. I worked for an agency that had been around a long time and specialised in portraits and red-carpet but not hardcore pap. My picture editor was really fussy about quality and you thought it a good thing if they selected one or two pix from an event where you shot 10-20 rolls of film as they had to then dupe it 400 times and send it to all their subscribers, so there was some investment in you as a photographer by them. If they thought you'd cock it up, they didn't send you to the A-list events and you had to wear a tuxedo for most A-list events.

I wasn't paid as salary but was on 60% of my sales but as I had to pay for my film and development myself, (in those pre-digital days) it was not something you could do for long if you didn't take pictures that sold. I did take pictures that sold very well and I gave up my well paid studio job to follow my bliss. Dumb fool ass that I was.

That was then the gentlemanly world of celebrity photography. The stars could rely on you to make them look good and when you had been around a while, you were on first name terms and they'd come over and chat to you after they'd done their entrance and you'd put your gear away. Then a few Fleet Street boys realised that Hollywood was a goldmine.

With digital acquisition and distribution, agencies figured that covering an event with four kids was more profitable than keeping an experienced snapper tooled and fuelled. These were vastly different career entry paths from when the agency I worked for straight out of school had me in a darkroom for six months before the editor thought it'd be OK if I went outside with their Rollie.

The dozy Americans didn't know what hit 'em. New agencies doing pap sprang up everywhere and the ranks of rope-rats swelled and swelled. Some of the social mutant photographers seemed to be recruiting their friends from Britain and France rather than the agencies sending for the pick of recruits from the photo colleges. The social contract with the celebrities was lost. The celebrities retreated into their shells, hoping to be protected by the micro-management of press agents who traded access to them for flattering coverage. The press agents drove a hard bargain with a very select few so the media left outside the party started digging a little deeper for the dirt...

Soon the investment in cultivating contacts with celebrities was yielding very little returns, it far better to chat up the maid, the driver, the plastic surgeon's receptionist. The chasers and door-steppers cleaned up, pushing "Fairtrade" celebrity content off the picture editor's screen. Then it it was, "if you can't beat them, join them."

So onward goes the march to the collapse of civilisation.

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