Lindeman: Cartier-Bresson, Nachtwey and the decisive moment (column)
Here’s a story about the moment I realized journalism is much more than reporting, writing, editing and repeating. Well, two moments actually.
Way back when, I took one of the worst college classes of my four years at Colorado State University. The third-year course was titled Photojournalism, and as an aspiring journalist who managed to fail photography in seventh grade — let’s just say a few of us saw it as an excuse to go skateboarding — I was looking forward to that class more than anything else the entire semester, maybe the entire year. You mean I’ll learn all about aperture and shutter speed and ISO and lighting and everything real-live photographers know, and I’ll get credit for it? Sign me up.
Four months later, I’d learned hardly anything about the technical side of photography and tons about the, uh, types of photography I’d encounter in the field: hard news, feature news, sports, live performance, blah blah blah. Sure, each of those types was paired with an assignment, but the professor was usually too busy singing the praises of legendary photogs like Henri Cartier-Bresson (he of “the decisive moment”) and James Nachtwey (he of the most haunting war photography I’ve ever seen) — and then asking us to write essays about their work — to teach the class how to, you know, work with lighting from moving clouds at a midday soccer game, or fine-tune the right combination of values for a sweet motion-blur shot. Guess we had to be art majors for that stuff.
When I realized the class was nothing I wanted and even less, I decided to be my own teacher and scour the internet for all the photography tips a 20-something wannabe could ever need. I took those YouTube videos and insanely detailed how-tos with me into the field, where I shot photos worth no better or worse than a run-of-the-mill B (other than the poker game, which earned a C, but that was just an excuse to play poker on a school night). Pretty sure I passed with an A-minus somehow.
Fast-forward to my first few weeks as sports editor for the Summit Daily in 2015. I came into the gig knowing I’d have to take photos, but I’d hardly even touched a camera since that junior-year throwaway. (Even entry-level cameras are ungodly expensive, and when given the choice between new snowboard gear or an SLR, the snowboard gear always won out.) Still, I had the urge to simply get better already at something that seemed way easier than writing — just point, click and repeat, no interviews or brain power required — and so I opted to be my own photographer for a feature article with our longtime On the Hill host, Zach Griffin.
Needless to say, I mucked it up, and I mucked it up bad. I took at least 300 photos — it seemed like a lot at the time, but future me knows 800-900 is more reasonable for two hours in the field — and only five or six of them were even worth editing. I’d messed up the white balance and I’d brought just two lenses. To make matters worse, it was my first time shooting outside on the snow, and even though the weather was nearly perfect on that warm April morning, I was constantly fighting with fogged lenses and wet splotches and everything else Mother Nature can throw at someone who’s in over their head. Thank god the article nearly wrote itself.
Over the next few months (and two years), I used that disastrous shoot as my Photojournalism teaching moment — the moment I decided to take lemons and turn them into the kind of lemonade Cartier-Bresson might admire. It forced me to get better at photography, each and every day, because the only thing I hate more than seeing half-a**ed work in print is seeing my name next to it.
Since then, I’ve shot photos at two Dew Tours, two pro cycling races, dozens of high school sports games, dozens of mountain bike races, the summit of Quandary Peak in May, the entire length of the Tenmile Range — the list goes on. Of those thousands of photos, including hundreds that ran in print, I’m truly, deeply proud of maybe two dozen.
So it goes in photojournalism, and in journalism at large. Not every article can be a shining example of craft and fact, not every bike video or GoPro Spartan Race or even social post is going to break the internet. More often than not, actually, random shaky-cam footage of moose doing moose things within steps of my back door will get more attention — and, on social media at least, more praise — than a feature package I slaved over for several hours. That’s something they don’t teach you in j-school, but something I’m sure Bresson and Nachtwey understood in their bones: A portfolio of stunning work means little without an audience.
Which brings me to you: my audience for nearly three years. It’s been a pleasure covering anything and everything you crazy Summit locals get into for fun, from paragliding off Peak 5 to riding mountain bikes in driving, pouring rain, just for the hell of it. I’ve interviewed Olympians and future Olympians, I’ve explained how to blow your ACL and then how to recover from it, I’ve spent more hours than I want to admit filtering through trail footage for a minute-long bike video — and you guys and gals have read it, watched it and (hopefully) enjoyed it all.
I’ve come to the next decisive moment in my career, and while it’s bittersweet to be leaving the Summit Daily sports desk, I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned here and everyone who’s taken a few minutes to read what rolls off my fingers. Much love.
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