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David Leeson

The more things change...

David Leeson examines the impact of new technologies on photojournalism and video.

Discussion topic of the month

This series of essays by Project Advisory Board Members is designed to provoke debate from the backpack journalism community. Join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter @bpjournalism.

This month's piece is by David Leeson. Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Leeson began his career at the Abilene Reporter-News in 1977. In 1982 he moved to New Orleans as a staff photographer for the Times-Picayune. He joined the photo staff of the Dallas Morning News in 1984 where he remained until 2008. He now owns Protege Films, a video production company specializing in documentary films, as well as still photography.  He also teaches at University of Texas at Dallas.

The more things change... - by David Leeson (Part 1) Read part 2

It was 1994 and I was attending the National Press Photographers Association Electronic Photojournalism Workshop. My assignment was to transmit images from a Washington Redskins game using an Apple 150 laptop and a cell phone.

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Things weren’t going well. The modem that had worked fine at the workshop was on the fritz and I was feeling frustrated and stressed. The temperature was blazing, the clock was ticking and the phone was going dead. To make matters worse, the bright sun was winning the power struggle against the dim laptop screen which would have been challenged by moonlight.

I tried draping a jacket over myself and the computer so I could view the screen, but it wasn’t much help. Frustrated, I yanked the jacket off, took a deep breath and wiped sweat from my forehead. I looked up at the stands. An elderly man was looking at me quizzically. “What are you doing?” he asked. I did my best to give a quick explanation.

“You look like one of those old-time photographers with a cloth over his head,” he said, referring to turn-of-the-century practices using a view camera. A dark cloth was used for composing and focusing under bright conditions. The coat over my head was a common-sense solution to a century-old problem. I laughed at the idea and the man said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I’ve thought about that casual conversation numerous times and how basic frustrations with technology in 1994 closely resembled problems faced by a 1900s-era street photographer. Both then and now, the application of technology required innovation.

The similarities seen in spite of the disparity of time teaches a simple truth. Technology is an organic system constantly mutating to both real and perceived needs. It is driven both by the introspection of the creator and the human collective need to flourish. If Darwin was right about an evolutionary process defined by need (eg: substitute gills for lungs if you plan to live on land) then technology is an adaptive response - an evolution defined by presumptive need requiring innovation. If you want to catch a gazelle you’ll need legs like a cheetah, but slithering silently through the grass might be a better way to catch small rodents.

Finding foundations in the chaos of change

In 1982, USA Today was launched as the brainchild of American businessman and WWII veteran, Al Neuharth, who went on to establish the Freedom Forum and the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The newspaper burst onto the scene with full-color section fronts, a result of technological developments in offset printing. The end result was a widespread reactionary response from newspapers who suddenly demanded more color photography even if they lacked the infrastructure to support it.

Color became a rich content commodity and spurred ridiculous decisions to assign a photographer to an event simply because it might make “great color.” I remember an excited city editor explaining the validity of an assignment to me because there would be a clown with colored balloons there. Floral shows nationwide saw a heyday in front page coverage of their events, and photos of flowers and sunsets ruled the day. 

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During those years photographers had to load one camera body with color film and carry another with black and white, and then make decisions about which film would be best for the situation. Back at the newsroom the question of the day was, “Do you have this (photo) in color?”

We printed color separations (red, yellow and blue) using filters on our enlarger with Kodak Panalure paper. On the road we processed color film in hotel bathrooms and made color prints attached to drum scanners provided by the Associated Press or United Press International. Color transmissions, sent over a landline telephone could take 30 minutes each, provided you had a good phone connection.

Some photographers grumbled about having to shoot color while others embraced it. I spent months trying to figure out how to incorporate color and when it would benefit readers. It led me to a deeper understanding of my role as a staff photographer. I eventually realized that it wasn’t the photography that mattered most but rather what the photograph communicated. In other words, the use of color led me to a fundamental belief about my mission as a journalist. Color was simply additional information. Color was content that could lead to a better understanding by readers.

The maniacal craze for color slowly subsided leaving the poor floral show publicity chairperson scratching her head as they fell from the front page to an one-column community events page. Newspapers hopefully had learned a lesson that content was king whether it wore a color or monochrome crown.

Nearly a decade later, the digital age arrived, accompanied mostly by the mournful cries emanating from photo departments. First to arrive were film scanners like the Kodak RFS 3570 followed by the groundbreaking Leafax which eliminated the need for an enlarger on road trips. But the most ominous of them all was the digital camera such as the DCS100. I was a beta tester for the original 1.3 megapixel DCS and remember spending most of my time rebooting the large and cumbersome hard drive dangling from the end of a shoulder strap at my thigh. It wasn’t long before darkrooms were converted to scanning stations and the age of amber safelights, Dektol and the venerable GraLab timer were gone.

There were many changes during my three decades as a newspaper photojournalist. My first assignments at the Abilene Reporter News were shot with a Yashica Mat-124 G twin lens reflex camera. Today I’m shooting 21.1 megapixel still images and 1920x1080 high definition video with a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR. But no matter the equipment, over the years the message always rang clear...it’s not about the gear, it’s about how you use it.

The steady march of progress

I was introduced to the digital world in the mid-’70s when my dad brought home a black and white Pong game sold under the Montgomery Ward label as the Coleco Telstar Video World of Sports. Dad plugged it into the back of our RCA TV and we turned on the game. My sister and I stood in silent awe. The TV, that didn’t even have a remote control, now sported an interactive game in place of one of the three channels we had to choose from at that time.

A few years later I was working at the Abilene Reporter News. Manual and electric typewriters were on every desk in the newsroom and cold type was scattered along the typesetters tall wood benches. The most impressive piece of equipment to me was the AP Teletext machine that would occasionally rattle to life as it typed datelined stories from around the world.

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Computers replaced most of the typewriters a few years later although the only interaction between you and “it” was the outrageously large CRT monitor and the plastic clink of a keyboard. In many ways, the digital world was growing faster among consumers than it was in the marketplace. I had long since replaced Pong for a Magnavox Odyssey video game along with a growing collection of games rendered in blocky 8 bit graphics.

I’m pretty sure I never used the word computer until the newspaper purchased a few TRS Model 100s. Those behemoth CRTs had less charm than a Pong game. The Model 100 didn’t have a hard drive which meant that all files had to be stored on its 24-32 kilobytes of internal memory. Stories were transmitted to the newspaper by dialing a number, waiting for the signal and then quickly jamming the telephone hand receiver into two rubber acoustic couplers.

Things stayed that way for years. Sure, computers became more powerful and acoustic coupler modem connections gave way to alligator clips attached to wire connections in the speaking end of a telephone handset (yes, you had to unscrew the plastic cover on the phone first) until finally someone figured out a way to plug into a phone jack.

I first “logged on” sometime in 1985 or ‘86. I had a computer with 256 kilobytes of RAM that ran on BASIC. Programs were read from 5 1/4 inch floppy disks and files were stored on cassette tape instead of a hard drive. But it was just enough to computer to log onto free FTP sites and bulletin board services with a 1200 baud modem (or was it 300 baud?)

I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of “the internet” back then. It was years before the world’s first hypertext browser, Mosaic, would usher in the World Wide Web. HTML was a simple scripting language and I quickly assembled my first hand-coded web site featuring some of my sports images. Mosaic eventually gave way to Netscape, which would become an infamous icon of the browser wars, eventually flaming out during the dotcom bubble bust of the late ‘90s.

I was frustrated by the low quality of my highly-optimized images on the web which challenged my 9600 baud modem. I knew that photo sites would one day be a driving force on the web but not yet. The hardware infrastructure simply wasn’t ready for anything more than a low-quality thumbnail.

I remember thinking that I was at the front end of something that might one day become one of the great innovations of the last millennia. There were only a handful of photo sites on the web and I was among them. Not that it mattered yet, because it seemed like almost no one would ever know about my webpage. Search engines had not arrived yet.

By 1997, the web was surrounded by a frenzy of venture capitalists and Wall Street traders. A new economy was created and investors were girded by sheer potential. I bought a 48k dial-up modem and coded a new web site, fieldandforest.com, featuring the nature photography of my girlfriend, Kim Ritzenthaler (who I married three years later) and me. The web was more demanding, so I learned how to hack CGI scripts, incorporate Javascript and eventually created an enormous website that grew to more than 30,000 unique users monthly. The site’s popularity eventually exceeded my ability to maintain it. I was still hand coding. It lingered for nearly a decade before it was slowly abandoned. It’s still there but the last update was in 2005.

My experience with web video began in late 1998 on fieldandforest.com. I borrowed a small video camera, recorded myself giving photography tips, spent at least two months trying to figure out how to convert the footage from analog to video, and then a week or two learning to optimize and script it for streaming before I could finally upload it to the server.

My first web video can be seen in its original form thanks to the Wayback Machine (www.archive.org) - project. The videos were highly compressed using RealPlayer, the top player in web video software in 1998. Nonetheless, web infrastructure was still dictating how content could be viewed. Speeds were better than they were when I created my first photo site but they were still marginal. Modem speeds had improved but video pushed the envelope for most web users who were mostly limited to a 56 kbit modem (or less). Thus web video was often little more than a thumbnail with motion and sound.

There were relatively few non-linear video editing programs available at the time and the few that I tried to use, such as Adobe Premiere were not user-friendly - euphemism for “I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.” I eventually purchased a Sony Mavica FD88 camera that could record up to 60 seconds of low-resolution 320x240 videos to a 3.5 inch floppy disk. The 60-second limitation led to one-shot tutorials that did not require editing.

I began carrying the Mavica with me on local and foreign assignments to shoot clips that I offered to DallasNews.com. Unfortunately, none of them were used. Undeterred, I began shooting tutorials about photojournalism for use at a site I was creating called photojournalism101.com. I hoped to build a niche social network for university photojournalism students. I was nearing a soft launch of the new site when my boss, John Davidson, the director of photography at that time, called me into his office. It was sometime in the fall of 2000 and he asked me work on a special project for him. I would soon become a full-time photojournalist shooting video for a newspaper.

PART 2

A new directive

In those years (early 2000s), the Dallas Morning News’ online version, like most newspaper web sites, was a separate entity from the paper version. Department managers on the print side, keenly aware of their lack of control over how content would be displayed on the web, did their best to build cooperative relationships with web managers by using a blend of bootstrapping and glad-handing. The only thing missing from their repertoire was the time-honored “baby kiss,” although, asses were sometimes offered as a substitute.

John Davidson was about as far from an ass-kisser as a pit bull is to a kitten. He was a passionate fighter with a take-no-prisoners policy in support of photojournalism and creative freedom. His reputation for fiery outbursts, aimed at anyone who dared question or - God forbid - challenge the highest ideals and standards of photojournalism, resulted in more than a few nuclear explosions. I admired his leadership that demanded a no-excuse standard for the photo staff.

As I sat down in his office, he told me that he saw someone from the web staff shooting a video in the photo studio for use on DallasNews.com. His concern was that video, a visual medium, created by someone with no background in photojournalism, could lead to an erosion of photojournalism standards on the web. So he asked me to take a closer look at video from the viewpoint of a photojournalist. The meeting ended with a succinct order I will never forget: “Just go DO something.”

The power of passion and belief

Unfortunately, there was no budget for video equipment. I borrowed a camera from the managing editor and assigned myself to a promotional event sponsored by Oscar Meyer. The camera’s battery was dead within 15 minutes. I stopped shooting, found an outlet, plugged in and charged for five minutes. I taped for another five before it was dead again. I kept recharging and shooting for the next couple of hours. The limits of this technology were frustrating to say the least.

I also faced rejection from staff photographers and even photo editors. I had been a leader on the staff and mentored many. Now I was seen by some as a sell-out. Staffers were offended that I would “give up” my passion for the still image in favor of a gimmick like video. Because the fruits of my efforts were no longer seen daily in the beloved paper version of our publication, others believed I was simply running a scam - getting paid to do whatever I wanted and accomplishing nothing. I was told by one shooter that a photo editor expressed dismay about me during a company luncheon, saying, “I don’t know why we even pay David Leeson a salary when he doesn’t do a damn thing for photojournalism.”

The same photo editor. months later, presented images made for a special project at one of our monthly staff meetings. After spending at least 20 minutes clicking through a slide show - pausing to praise each image to a round of applause from the staff, then glanced at me and said, “Oh yeah, and David did a little video too.” What wasn’t mentioned was that I had spent 3-4 months on the story, shot more than 60 hours of footage, edited it into a short documentary that aired on a corporate-owned cable TV station and the Dallas PBS affiliate KERA. I had invested roughly 400 hours of work into my “little video.”

But that was the climate and I was already prepared for most of it. If there was anything I had learned about excellence in any career it was that the winds are most fierce at the top of the mountain. Overcoming adversity is a familiar mantra for any pioneering effort. Expect to encounter turbulence. Expect to be demeaned. Expect ridicule. Expect backstabbing and ankle-biting that speaks of ignorance and/or fear. Let it go. If it is at your back, ignore it because your future is in front of you.

I kept moving forward in what had become a new passion. I had discovered a new and powerful way to tell stories. Furthermore, I saw the writing on the wall and knew that web video for news media would soon explode, and I wanted to be on the cutting edge of that innovation. So I let negative comments roll off my back, knowing that one day they would all have to join the march toward “progress.”

Following the bombing of the Twin Towers in 2001, I was asked to put down my video camera and pick up my still cameras to cover the invasion of Iraq. I insisted on taking a video camera with me but was told no by the new director of photography. “You can’t do both, because you can only focus on one or the other and we want you to focus on stills.” Where I had managed to stay cool in the face of naysayers until now, this was the straw that wanted to break my back. I made a stand and said that I wasn’t negotiating. Get me a new video camera or I won’t go.

The culmination of a career

I was 45 years old and had spent a quarter of a century working toward a place where my skills would be in top form - a time when I would be a “seasoned” photojournalist. For years I anticipated this era of my career that would lead me to the best work I had ever done and usher me into a successful end chapter into my 50s and hopefully beyond.

I had already experienced the flavor of the seasoning many times as I watched younger, less-experienced photojournalists move frenetically on assignment, betraying the confidence of self through movement alone. It is merely part of the process. I was no different in youth - shooting events with formulaic rituals and crossed fingers. I never once felt greater or lesser as I watched them work but I could taste the difference of experience and maturity as I learned to wait for “the moment” to arrive. You cannot rush a moment. It either appears or does not. The advantage of seasoning is that you can smell a moment from a distance as easily as a July 4th cookout or a turkey seasoned with rosemary and mint at Thanksgiving.

That’s the essential seasoning I had worked so hard to attain. And now I was holding some crappy video camera and trying to figure out a way to integrate it into the traditional form of the photo essay and the photojournalist’s workflow. Snatched from the streets of Dallas that I had come to know so well, I became confined like a prisoner to hundreds of hours of analysis and editing as I did my best to form an expatriate existence in a foreign medium. I borrowed a little - bits and pieces from television and indie film - but knew that the process had to be “ours.” I knew the only real option was to build upon the experience we had already gained as still photographers, if it was going to work in my industry and for my friends in photojournalism.

The business of hit counts

As circulation numbers decreased across the board for newspapers, I watched as concerned managers increasingly began supporting the business interest of newspapers, and in the process, often usurped the wisdom of journalism and their own history. The rush to video became the shining hope of for a threatened industry even as video itself was deemed a threat by it employees. At risk were the traditions of our beloved institution. Quantity ruled over quality, and unprepared and untrained shooters were thrust into a new era that was as intimidating to some as starting a new career. The demand for video clips hit our photo department like a tsunami, forcing photographers forward as they flailed and grasped to hang on to the familiar old equipment for dear life, as though it might be swept from their reach forever. And people were empowered to make decisions about video who had little or no experience with the medium.

The mandate for hit counts resulted in ridiculous demands to produce. I tried to explain the virtue of standards and the intrinsic need for a better infrastructure to meet their demands. Everything became improv and was destined to fail in the same way that slow connection speeds limited the web and print deadlines limited relevance in an era of non-stop news and information via the web.

One day I was invited to attend a meeting of top-level management. It was a first and I was as nervous as I was brashly confident in my beliefs. Eventually the meeting turned to “hit counts.” There was a heightened pulse in the room. Web metrics were like raw chickens thrown to sharks. Finally, I spoke up and said, “Look, if our business is about hit counts then let me go shoot some video porn tonight and you’ll have 50 thousands hit by tomorrow morning.” There was a great silence. Then I said, “But that isn’t what we stand for is it? No. So let’s make choices based on what is right and trust that the hits will follow.” Well, word spread fast and it wasn’t long before people were saying I was “opposed” to hit counts and, of course, I was never invited to another meeting.

The video frame grab

I would be remiss if I failed to mention ‘“frame grabs.” The subject is noticeably absent from this writing because, as I see it, my reputation and respect as a photojournalist were pinned to a clever innovation. I had already concluded that still photojournalists transitioning to video should and could hold fast to their skills as still shooters. Video, I insisted, is a change of cameras and little else.

The proof I sought was found in a frame grab. The logic was fairly simple. If a high definition video camera, shooting at 24 or 30 frames per second was used in the same way digital still cameras were used, then video could provide storytelling options that could be decided after the fact by editors. Video coverage could provide 1) still images for both the print and web editions 2) audio could be extracted from video for radio or web use 3) stills and audio could be combined to create a multimedia slide show 4) it could be used as a video or 5) all of the above.

HDV video cameras can produce a 5.93 MB image at 72 DPI from a single frame. It’s more than enough for web use. But one night, my son, David Leeson II, who was working as a full-time video editor at the newspaper, found a unique approach to creating frame grabs. He came up with the idea when he was asked to create mural-sized images from low-resolution image scans. I was standing behind him that night as he was trying his innovative idea.

I was getting frustrated. I needed the frame grab and the deadline was rapidly approaching. I knew enough about Photoshop to recognize what he was trying to do and, in my opinion, he was wasting time. I said, “David, you can’t do that. It’s a waste of time.” He replied, “Hey, dad, back off. I know what I’m doing.” So I shut up and waited for the moment I could tell him, “I told you that wouldn’t work.” But, thankfully, it worked. I called it voodoo, and named it the Voodoo Tool.

My son’s innovation produced a 67.8MB frame grab at 203 DPI with no visible loss of quality. Instead, the image seemed to have gained quality, though I realized it was some sort of clever visual illusion. It was a significant breakthrough and threatened the efficacy of the 35mm DSLR for newspapers.

The technique involves an outrageous interpolation of an image first and then scales it back to the desired size. The remnants normally created by interpolation are basically hidden or subdued by the process. It was brilliant. Word spread rapidly in the photo department. Former staff member and Pulitzer Prize winner Smiley Pool strolled into the video editing room the next day. He looked at the frame grab, shook his head and said, “It’s all over now.”

Unfortunately, Voodoo was ultimately rejected for use at The Dallas Morning News even as its popularity grew around the world and DMN staffers continued to use it secretly. My son, who was 20 at the time, withdrew support of his process, primarily because its infamous popularity created more burden than he wanted to shoulder. All further development and refinement of the process was left to me.

In many ways, I consider the Voodoo Tool as the most significant overlooked and misunderstood early development of the newspaper video era. The Voodoo Tool was the missing link that could bridge the gap between fiscal responsibility in the midst of declining revenues with the need for professional gear. The common question from publishers was why they should spend 5,000 dollars for a professional video camera when they could spend 500 dollars on a camera suitable for web video. The Voodoo Tool provided the efficacy and veracity by its ability to meet the need for web video with the print edition’s need for high-quality still images.

Unfortunately I needed more than Voodoo to extend my career in newspapers. But I knew my life as a daily newspaper photojournalist was coming to a close as early as 2006. But death is always sudden. My 30 years in newspapers came to an end during a final staff meeting in late 2008.

The end of my career in newspapers

I was sitting next to the executive editor in a hastily-called meeting. A Power Point slide show detailing demographics and statistics explained the need for another round of changes in newspaper strategy. In between the lines and stats was the unspoken whispers of more staff reductions. At some point I lowered my head and began to reminisce. My fellow photojournalists and I had waged a valiant war. I remembered the battles, the assignments and the “hills” we had charged and taken. But now it seemed hopelessly lost.

The tears welling in my eyes eventually spilled onto the conference room table. As a leader, I refused to risk demoralizing others with my sorrowful capitulation to the inevitable. So I wiped my tears from the table with the left sleeve of my sport jacket and abruptly walked out of the meeting. I was distraught. The world was spinning out of control. I could barely believe what was happening. But I knew in that moment that my career in newspapers was over. I took a buyout and said goodbye to an industry I loved, a profession for which I had risked my life many times.

It took weeks before the tears stopped. I grieved my failure to shepherd the Dallas Morning News through the reactionary mistakes revealed by history as much as I grieved the loss of my identity as a daily newspaper photojournalist. The tears continued long after becoming a freelancer. A staffer at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans once told me as she looked down at my press tags that I wore everywhere, “You’re only as good as your next press pass.” I thought it was a delightfully strange comment at the time. But as I sat in my home office in late 2008 contemplating a new beginning at age 50, in the face of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, I could feel the loss of my press pass.

I regret that I was unable to finish what I had started. Mostly, all I wanted to say was that the need for video standards was essential. The good news is that my departure was not missed by the industry. I have never considered myself to be so important that my absence would be palpable. I was just a solder, like my peers, doing my best each day to stand at the side of justice and truth. My failures and victories are no greater or lesser than anyone who chooses to stand for something far greater than self.

Foundations for video

I believe newspaper video and multimedia, overall, is woefully lacking a singular voice - the unity created by the same high standards expected for still images. I would never suggest that I have all of the answers but I have some ideas about what I believe should be the fundamental characteristics of newspaper video today.

  1. Newspaper video should be executed with the same premise that motivates us in shooting stills: the power of the moment. The video camera is just another tool with the ability to capture two additional layers of information - motion and sound. When I use a video camera, I am the same photojournalist I was before. Moments are discovered in a millisecond of time, so video captures something I call the extended moment. It can also be imagined in reverse. Therefore, within every extended moment recorded in video, one can discover one or more decisive moments that comprise a great still image. Photojournalists must seek great moments whether they are decisive or extended.
  2. Newspaper video must be credible. Credibility is the only true commodity of a journalist. Anyone producing video for newspapers must be held to the same standards we insist upon for photojournalists shooting stills. Anything less is not only tiresome and pedantic, but will become a fetid cancer in the industry that threatens our core mission. Newspapers are like any businesses seeking profit, but like any venture, a failure to adhere to the standards of ethical and credible journalism is the abandonment of the unique core product they offer.
  3. Journalistic service to the mission of truth, justice and freedom through free speech should never be measured by “hit counts” or popular demand. When popularity becomes the decisive factor for journalism, our objective is maligned, our mission is confused, public trust is damaged and our call in defense of a free press is subjugated.
The longevity of mission

The history you’ve read here has hopefully told its own story. Great innovation is discovered in the light of yesterday’s teaching. It is the organic reinvention of lessons learned from the past. Newspapers, like the rest of the world, must evolve by forming a symbiotic relationship with technology as we constantly innovate in support of the core values of great journalism.

If video can add to that essential message, then it is our duty to use it in a way that affirms our mission. If motion and sound can make a difference in our world, then it is worthy of our best efforts. Regardless, a simple truth remains that we should never subjugate our values and purpose for the expediency of technology. Technological advancements and the innovations that follow are the constant march of humanity that seek to redefine better ways to serve the common good.

The digital age has introduced a new paradigm for news and information. The web is the new catalyst, no different from the transcontinental railroad or satellites in space that afford new opportunities to serve the common good with the immediacy of factual and fair communication. Few would argue that truth should be the holy grail of information because of the potential for change it brings to society.

How well we perform our duty as journalists is a question of standards. The standards and ethics of newspaper photographers in the US are the best in the world. Any current or future technology will not or should not usurp the standards of our high ideals. I would have rejected video years ago if I had not seen within it the power it holds via information alone. Nor would I have cast a quarter century of my life in pursuit of storytelling moments into the abyss to catch a ride on the “trend train.”

Ultimately, I discovered a constant truth in the standards of truth itself through the lessons taught me by history: the more things change, the more they stay the same.