The photo column

Dancer Gelsey Kirkland leads a master class during the summer workshop at Southern Ballet Theatre. (Tom Burton, 1998)

This week on the National Press Photographers Internet discussion list there has been a lively discussion thread about whether certain equipment influences a photographer’s “vision.” The first of the year must be an idealistic time because a thread similar to this this gave me an idea two years ago that has since seriously changed the way I look at my photography and my career.

The thread at the start of 1997 was also about “vision” – whether photojournalists could adopt a personal point of view and still remain objective observers. Photographer Greg Mironchuck wisely pointed out that a writer at a newspaper with a point of view was called a columnist.

That thought hit a chord with me. I posted a question to the list: Could there be a photo-columnist?

To my surprise and excitement, several people pointed towards the work of Mary Beth Meehan, a photographer at the Providence Journal . She was shooting a weekly feature that profiled slice-of-life moments in her community. She wrote a very short copy block and all of the work was self-generated. She was a photo-columnist.

The idea caught my imagination. I liked the idea of one photo a week that was all my own. Since I can write, I would not have to rely on a reporter for assignments. And I thought that after all my blabberings on the Internet that it was time to put up or shut up. I stepped away from the modem and started pitching the idea to the editors.

Members of the Camereta Chorus rehearse with students from Jone High School.
(Tom Burton, 1998)

I had to find a way to model the column so that it would fit into the needs and style of my newspaper. We are not a “photo paper” where photographers are treated like royalty so I couldn’t pitch a “photos Tom thinks are cool” treatment. I found a hook for the feature that proved to be a perfect fit for both the newspaper and me.

“A&E Gallery” debuted on page three of the Arts and Entertainment section of our Sunday paper on June 1, 1997. Tomorrow we will publish the 82nd installation. The first column featured a couple who turned a 1977 Cadillac into a rolling sculpture called “Carro Bizarro.” The most recent piece is on the art of tattooing. In between I’ve photographed dancers and artists and singers and actors. It’s become very popular with readers and something that’s very personal to me.

As the column has developed, I’ve tried to make photos that are perhaps off-beat or quirky and certainly not what I would normally shoot on assignment. For this feature, the photography comes first so I follow whichever direction opportunity leads me to find an interesting image.

Miss Sammy at Drag night at the Union restaurant. (Tom Burton, 1998)

I’ve learned many things while meeting the artists and entertainers who are in A&E Gallery. I’ve also learned something about myself and my work.

For instance; the responsibility of producing a weekly feature that carries your own name really helps you define the quality of your work. I’ve learned that the cliché “raising the bar” is often misused. Most of the time, we utter that phrase to indicate that our best work will get better. But in track and field events, the bar doesn’t measure the highest point the athlete jumps but the lowest. When you have a weekly feature, you have to come terms with what your own lowest acceptable work is. On a busy week with deadline approaching, what will I settle for?

I’ve also learned that when you take a personal approach, not everyone will like it. Although the feedback I get is vastly supportive, I have gotten phone calls and letters from people quite angry with my work. The problems come most often when they don’t understand that the feature is not “artist-of-the-week.”

I’ve come to understand that creative, dedicated, passionate artists have many things in common, even if they work in different disciplines. They all talk about the “essence” of their mediums and of personal work. They also talk about the difficulty of making a living and the constant desire to create their art.

I realized that, without planning it, I was prepared for this kind of assignment. My father is a painter and I grew up around a studio. For 10 years I’ve covered theater and dance – both areas my wife studied in college. I played trumpet in jazz and symphonic groups as a kid and I minored in English so I could read literature for credit. This background doesn’t make me an expert in anything but it does give me enough of a background to recognize the things that are special to a life in the arts.

Cullen Douglas, right, stares at actor Barry Hall in the 1998 Governor’s Summer Theater Institute, a project of the Orlando Theater Project which is in residence at Seminole Community College. (Tom Burton, 1998)

And for the first time in my career, I have a true body of work rather than just a diverse, strong portfolio. Each of the photos from Gallery relates to another and as a group, they seem to have message.

A photo-driven column is an idea I wish was more common. Any photographer could adopt the format but instead of copying the work of another photographer – something that’s very easy to do with other photo projects – the photographers would have to develop their own vision. Photojournalism would become more diverse and photographers would be known for their own unique approaches.

At a recent photojournalism convention I showed editors my Gallery clips, looking for feedback. They all seemed to like it and several said it would be a candidate for a community awareness award in a national contest. But one of my friends who is now working for magazines instead of newspapers had a different perspective. He said this project was bigger than the categories of a photojournalism contest. He said it wasn’t about community awareness – it was about Tom Burton wandering through the community. He thought it worked best when the photos and words were more personal.

I think about this advice and smile when I remember the prototype stages of A&E Gallery. We hadn’t come up with a name for the feature and the design director kept calling it “Burtonville.” We’d all laugh but I was nervous about taking that big of a risk with the name. After all, that would be waaaaaay out there.

But I see that the feature, in some ways, has become Burtonville. It’s the things I’m interested in and a place for me to publicly muse on the process of art and the workings of creativity. It’s the kind of stories I would cover every day if I didn’t have a newspaper job that still required me to shoot mug shots of frying pans, burned out cars and people-on-the sofa portraits. By trying to make a different kind of photo once a week, I’m wondering if at my center, I might not be a photojournalist after all.

But I know I’m lucky to have both a newspaper job and this assignment once a week. The column is a kind of raft that’s built stick-by-stick and week-by-week. It helps keeps my idealism afloat.

Tom Burton

originally published on Janaury 9, 1999 at digitalstoryteller.com

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