By Jim Colton
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It's about finding something interesting in an ordinary place...I've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” -- Elliott Erwitt
Some people just see things differently…it’s that simple. And nowhere is this truer than the field of photography. The world is a giant Rorschach test and we rely on eyes, other than ours, to make sense of it all. And for that, we are blessed.
In the 1999 movie classic, ‘Analyze This!’ Mob chief Paul Vitti (Robert Deniro) has a revelation, points to psychiatrist Dr. Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal) and says, “You…you…you got a gift my friend….you got a gift!” Today, I am playing the part of Paul Vitti and I am pointing at Michael S. Williamson and saying the same thing, “You…you…you got a gift my friend!”
That gift that I speak of, that Williamson possesses, is the ability to see things where most people don’t. And they may not be things as literal as a shadow or gradations of colors, but more that he sees things for what they can be…or even will be…before it happens. And he assesses them…in microseconds!
He has a list of accomplishments and awards much too long to list here, which include not one but two Pulitzer Prizes (See links below) and Newspaper Photographer of the Year at both POYi and NPPA. His generosity is also unmatched as he continually gives back to the industry through workshops and seminars.
Williamson is a master of color; with reds and greens and blues that saturate your soul. Many of his images even look like paintings…masterpieces in oil and water color. And in some cases, if you squint your eyes, you won’t be able to tell the difference.
He has lead a colorful life as well; one that has taken him from childhood years in foster homes to his current position as a staff photographer for the Washington Post. In the humble opinion of this photo editor, he is a national treasure in the field of photojournalism. And he is a prolific poster on social media. So as an editing exercise, other than his portrait and one historical image, I will be using ONLY images that he has posted on Facebook over the last calendar year (Along with his pithy comments as captions).
In another 1999 movie classic, “The Sixth Sense,” Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) says, “I see dead people.” During our interview, Williamson stated with the same tremulous voice, “I see patterns.” (…where people swear there are no patterns.) This week, zPhotoJournal has an out-of-body, deeply colorful and insightfully rich conversation with the one and only Michael S. Williamson.
Jim Colton: How did Michael Williamson get started in this crazy business? Tell us a little about your "wonder" years.
Michael Williamson: I had a pretty varied childhood. I lived in a lot of different places. Even though my mother was alive until I was about 11, I didn’t often live with her. So I was living with relatives and in foster homes all over the map. And one thing that happens when you have that kind of life, is that you either turn into an introvert and become a depressed kid who hides in the corner…or…you just go, “Wow, well I’m going to meet new friends pretty much every couple of months and go to a new school twice a year.”
In the 3rd or 4th grade, a teacher encouraged us to write our story. I was really good at writing stories because I’d seen a lot of different states. I’d seen a tobacco farm in Tennessee; the beaches of Virginia; California; Oregon; stayed with my grandfather in Springfield, Illinois in a really cool house that was half underground. I lived in a housing project that was heavily minority. To me it wasn’t a big deal to be completely surrounded by diversity and non-English speakers…and extremely poor people. So I would write these stories and the teacher would say, “you know, you’re not a very good speller, (proof that I had hope as a photographer) but you got a way of turning a phrase there kid.
So zooming ahead to the 11th grade at Pinole Valley High School, in Pinole, California; I was the Frisbee king in the quad and skipped many classes and was flunking English. And a lovely teacher named Carol Van Heitsma sat me down and said, “Mike, you’re the smartest kid I’m ever going to give an ‘F’ to. There’s got to be a way for you to survive this English class.” So she actually asked me to write my life story. And she said, “I want it minimum ten pages, typed, single space…Just tell me your story, how you came to be, how you came here.”
She knew I lived in a foster home at that time and that I was on the track team. I had a relatively “normal” high school despite my early childhood. So she said, “I’ll grade you on punctuation, clarity, quality…the whole 9 yards…and I’ll grade you for the whole semester based on just that one project.” So I said to myself, “Oh man, I’m in!” Talk about an easy out. So I wrote this thing and turned it in…and the short story is, when I got it back, it had a big ‘A’ circled several times on the top right hand corner. And then she wrote this little note that said, “My dear Mike. If this story is true, I’m just going to give you the ‘A’ for surviving. If the story is not true, you’re still going to get an ‘A’ for great fiction writing.” I never forgot her. She’s kind of like my boss at the Washington Post, Assistant Managing Editor and Director of Photography Mary Anne Golon who says, “I love your pictures…but you’re late!” I’ve been hearing this all my life!
So by the time I got to be a senior, the local paper actually wanted me to find and write features for them like…find a Pearl Harbor survivor for Veteran’s Day….or go to that church that gives out free turkeys at Thanksgiving and ask who are the people getting the free turkeys and why are they poor. So, I said to myself, “Wow, that won’t be too hard…I know those people.” So I got very lucky as I got to write my very first “social Issue” reporting story as a senior in high school. And for me, it was easy because I lived in trailers with a lot of drunks and nobody I lived with ever went to college…but these were people I knew. So I bridged that gap. I wasn’t that rich kid who said, “Oh no, those people have no teeth…they’re scary.” I was like, “Dude, you look like my uncle!” There was no gap…we related…we talked about eating sugar sandwiches, being on food stamps, etc. They figured out real quick that at one point in my life, I was one of them.
So I graduated high school, All-American in cross country and track, had several school records and it looked like I was going to go to Oregon State to continue track. But this journalism thing man….it just scratched so many itches. It was about being out, meeting people, being creative…even simulating running as I was on deadline a lot…living on that “got to get it done” time frame.
JC: So how did the photography part come about?
MW: In the fall of 1975, the Sacramento Bee was hiring tour guides. So I marched down to the Bee and within 10 minutes, I got the job as a tour guide…which paid $3 for a 45 minute tour…and I had to memorize the history of the plants…how many rolls of paper the presses used, etc.
Then a copy boy job came up and I took it…and the way it worked out beautifully was that I was Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, working at the Sacramento Bee…6:30pm to 2:30am as a copy boy. That allowed me to drive back to the bay area at 4 in the morning where I would work at the local paper Monday to Friday, roughly 9 to 5. So basically for 2 and 1/2 years, I had two jobs, slept on people’s floors because I couldn’t afford an apartment in both places.
At the local paper, they only had one photographer who couldn’t handle all the work, so they asked me to start taking the pictures myself. So I went and bought a $50 Yashica range finder with a fixed 38mm lens…and I didn’t really know how to work it. So after the camera store loaded the film for me, I looked at the little instruction sheet that came with it that said, “Sunny day…a 500th at F8...shade 250th…indoors at a 60th.”
So I am going back to the office and a large fire broke out along the way. So I shot the fire in every conceivable way...A 500th at this, 250th at that, a 60th at this…and I’ll never forget the lab technician who told me after he processed the film that my proof sheet looked like a checkerboard! But there was at least ONE good frame…and it made the front page of the newspaper! And there it was; I had a huge front page photo from the very first roll of film I ever shot.
So I created something called West County Gallery where I did a picture page every week. Then they shifted to color…which wasn’t a big stretch for me as I was already shooting color. And 2 ½ years later a full-time job became available at the Sacramento Bee in 1978. I knew the paper. I knew the photographers. I worked in the lab.
To this day, one of my best friends, Dick Schmidt was a mentor who took me under his wings when I was 18, would say “Come on, kid!” He and another guy named Owen Brewer were really sweet, because I didn’t have a whole lot of money to pay for printing paper. I had a little lab in my bathroom but what they would do is say, “Look, we’re going to show you how to do it…but at some point you’re going to have to make your own prints. So I watched them burn and dodge and do all this crazy stuff and I’ll never forget the biggest mistake I made. One of them made this really nice print of the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog…and said, now match this print. And I was so proud that after 150 sheets, I finally nailed it…and I was beaming…but they reminded me, yes you matched the print but we did ours in 5 minutes and you took all day.
JC: As someone who experienced the analog to digital change in our industry....what do you miss about the analog era? And in the interest of fair pay, what don't you miss?
MW: We’re in this strange “one foot in old school and one foot in new school,” and I think we’re kind of the lucky generation that's had the chance to straddle the two. When I was just doing this “30 Years On” story with my buddy Dale Maharidge, one of the things we laughed at when we were driving was, “Do you remember how we did it?” Like, we had to have a map of every phone booth in town. We had to have knee pads because we were at court houses on our knees digging through old death files, tax files, and graveyard maps. We’d go into diners and bars and say, “Hey, we’re looking for so-and-so, or do you know where so-and-so is?” And everybody in town within 24 hours knew we were there.
So I want to take credit for inventing Twitter. Because everybody was saying, “Hey, there are these two guys poking around, what the hell do they want? Well, I think they are looking for the Kutscher family.” And we’d be walking down the road two days later, and someone would come up to us and say, “Are you the two guys looking for the Kutchers?” No social media; no cell phone; no internet. What took us 3 years of research we could do in a week now. You can find out who is dead, who is alive, where they live and where their relatives are. So this trip, we decided to not do a lot of internet. We kind of went back to old style, just knocking on doors.
I was a real pain in the butt at the Post; because they went digital and I kind of didn’t want to. I thought the quality was terrible….which it was at the very early stages. We still had thousands of rolls of color neg…so actually former Assistant Managing Editor for Photography at the Washington Post, Joe Elbert let me stay shooting film probably a year after everyone else had gone digital.
Digital has arrived, it’s great, I love it….it’s changed my life. I shoot a lot more and because of that I get better pictures. I mean I did a 4-year project on 96 rolls of film. I shoot 96 rolls a week now! And I’m better because I can shoot more images.
I still shoot film for fun. I mean we shot chromes at the Sacramento Bee; that Ektachrome 160 that we would push one stop that was surprisingly good. Then the Fuji 100 that pushed one stop beautifully…and the guys in the darkroom saying “Keep this stuff UNDER because we can always blow though it….but if you shoot it pastel and over exposed, we can’t put it back.” Color, for me, was always like Kodachrome at National Geographic…what would Bill Allard do? This idea (“You shoot rich and dark!”) goes back to the days when I was shooting Ektachrome.
JC: I love, more than anything, the intense use of color in your work....very Alex Webb-esque (Now I'm really dating myself!) But I also love the way you see...you are, in my humble opinion, a master of composition. Do these beautiful feature pictures jump out and bite you when you see them....or do you actively search them out? What constitutes a “Kodak Moment” for you?
MW: One of my favorites quotes, and I used to have it on my locker was from Garry Winogrand who was asked why he liked taking pictures and he said, “I photograph to see what something will look like photographed.” And it was a very interesting way of him acknowledging it’s not real life, necessarily. People aren’t in black & white but I shoot black & white street scenes. And I like to see how this scene I saw looks. But what he was really saying was, “I do see the world as a photo.” So when someone on Facebook goes like “Dude, do you see the world like a photo?” I don’t see it any other way but as a photo! Look, I don't "do" photography -- I am a photographer.
If I’m driving down the street and I see a sunset, even if it’s still a little bright, I would be like…you know in Terminator when he’s searching out his enemy, he would have this computer grid though his eyes; man at 35 yards…can’t use laser…45 degrees, blah, blah, blah. My brain is doing…Oh my Gosh, if we just had something on the left, built in the composition, spectral highlights, under exposed by one stop, let the shadows go black...I would go through this all in a quarter of a second in my head and then I would just look away…saying, “Naaaah, it’s not enough.”
I see patterns, where people swear there are no patterns; my curtains…my vertical blinds…the trees making a shadow. I did one the other day…Dale was with me…and I cracked him up. There were these vines that were on the top of an old cotton gin building…just on the top….but the shadow of a tree behind me made a shadow of this stark trunk on the building…so it was a trunk shadow, but real vines…and if you squinted, it looked like a shadow of a tree that was glued up against the building….but it wasn’t, one was real, one was a shadow. But I saw it in like a hundredth of a second…and said, “Oh Dude, STOP! Whoa…look! Look at that...the trunk, the tree…and Dale is saying…What? What? I don’t get it…and I go, “Look…the trees!” And then finally he’d say, oh yeah…but again I was seeing it as, a full stop under, wait for the light to get a little sculpted so the tree has long shadows…simulating the trunk…and Boom…it was there. But I saw it as it would be presented as a photo…not necessarily as it was in real life.
JC: So you think photographically? Would that be the simplest way to put it?
MW: Yeah, I actually think I’m one of those guys, like I saw this show of a guy who could memorize millions of numbers. He could multiply Pi (3.14 and the extended numbers) by several thousand in his head on the spot. And they asked him how he does it (It’s actually a medical phenomenon) he says he doesn’t see in numbers, but he sees in colors. So he doesn’t remember 3, 4, 2….he remembers green, yellow, blue…and that’s how he does it. And this has actually increased as I’ve gotten older…where I’m seeing the pattern quicker. Remember, in black & white, we used to have a problem. If someone had a green shirt on…against a red wall…holding a blue thing…you didn’t have a photo. They were all gray and you didn’t have any separation. Whereas in color, I obviously see the separation immediately…but I also see the incredible gradations of separation that will save a photo.
I did a lot of re-shoots of the Walker Evans photos of the 1930’s. And now that I think about it, it’s actually just gray, black and white. But when I look at those old buildings now….it’s yellows, it’s grays, it’s browns and oranges. The rotting sharecropper’s shack has six colors in it…not one or two. And I see those colors instantly. Most people would see it and say that’s a gray shack. And I say, that is NOT a gray shack! Look closely!
JC: Do you think your early years in foster homes and orphanages colored your world and perhaps your curiosity? I know you are passionate about coverage of the homeless and it seems you are almost always "On the road." How do you balance all that with your own family? Is it easier now that your daughters are older…or does it not make a difference?
MW: Yeah, I did limit it a lot when they were younger. And by the time they were old enough to understand what war was…it became like “Daddy, you’re not going to Afghanistan.” And “Daddy, you’re not going to Iraq.” I mean, they made me promise. I went to Kosovo…and there were some rough assignments in Africa and the Middle East several times, but they were like “NO!” and I said, “OK, I won’t!” And despite being asked several times, I have never been to Afghanistan or Iraq.
But where I got lucky was, there was a stretch of about eight years when they were very young, where I was on a permanent shift. I worked Monday through Friday, noon to eight. I had weekends off and I always had so much comp time that I had six, seven, eight weeks that I’d use during the Summer. So one of the ways I was lucky was that when they got older…it looked like I was traveling a lot but it was like a week out and a week in…3 days out, 3 days back…I was never gone months and months at a time and thank goodness for technology because I could keep in touch with them. But they’ve gotten older…they’re in college and high school now…they have their own friends…but we text every day.
And I have to say the rewards are amazing. My oldest daughter Sophia wants to be a doctor and help the poor. She’s involved in the social justice club. She teaches poor kids to read. My other daughter Valerie is interested in the environment. She’s done projects on the Chesapeake Bay. She wants to go to the Dominican Republic next year and dig ditches for the poor.
Sophie sent me a picture from the social justice club and I’m like, “Why didn’t you tell me you were in this club?” And she’s like, “Well Da, it’s a no-brainer. You taught me that we should work hard to make the world a better place. So I’m doing it. That’s not something that you have to mention. We’re Williamsons…that’s what we do!” And I’m like…Boo hoo…like a blubbering baby…Oh my Goodness…she’s doing it!
JC: You've won two Pulitzers and scores of other awards throughout your career, including Newspaper Photographer of the Year at POYi and NPPA and the White House News Photographer of the Year as well, no? How important are awards in the development of a photographer's career?
MW: Wow…that’s like asking Mrs. Lincoln how she liked the play besides the shooting! Well, it’s like that skit on Saturday Night Live with the Latino baseball player who said, “Baseball has been berry berry good to me.” I have to say, that I learned the power of contests early on. In 1984 I did a project with Dale where we drove across America for two months doing a thing called “The Pulse of America.” It was a pre-election series, filed 3 times a week; typed on a typewriter and sent by FedEx. But I had to develop my film at the labs of little newspapers as we drove across the country. And at almost every little newspaper I went to, someone would say, “Oh, you’re Michael Williamson form the Sacramento Bee.” Because I had won some awards in California, such as runner-up for Press Photographer of the Year, the Nikon World Understanding Special Recognition Award for the homeless on the road work that appeared in a lot of magazines and we had our first book published.
So even in 1984 when I was still pretty young and I didn’t know totally what I was doing, enough people had seen my name in News Photographer magazine…God bless them! If I was just a hayseed knocking on the door, they might have said, “Well, you know, we dumped the chemicals already.” There was only one place in like 20 different states that said, “Naaaah, you’re competition so we can’t help you.”
JC: With the proliferation of images and contests in the digital age, has the recognition and weight of contests diminished? I think they used to be more important in our era….but there are just so many of them now.
MW: I think there may be a vibe that they feel less important because they carry less gravitas? I mean, it used to be, if you were Photographer of the Year…that was a big one to win! Because you had to have lots of variety in your portfolio such as news and sports and features…my goodness. I mean look, I worked with Carol Guzy. Let’s just get this out of the way. She is the best newspaper photographer that ever lived!
I really wonder if some of the portfolios from the mid-1970's would win today. Pictures were sometimes judged to be good just because they were sharp. Remember shooting those football games? “It’s sharp…that’s good enough!” Fingertip catch? Good enough! And now, shooters don’t have to worry about focus, they don’t have to worry about exposure. There are also more good photographers out there because they can cut right to the art of story-telling as there is not a big learning curve for stuff like mastering quick manual focusing skills and estimating (accurately) exposures.
When I used to go to the Philippines or Central America, I saw the same ten people over and over; from the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, etc. These days, there's 500 younger shooters out there and they’re all competent. Back then, you could be considered a really solid photographer if you just had good technical skills...and if you looked closely at say, some of the wire guys back in the day…they weren’t always spot-on brilliant, shooting multi-layered, pithy and interpretive photographs of America. They just got clean and mean images that had the information…and the pix were sharp. The standards are higher now. They want photos that are moody, interpretive, colorful…with World Press Photo-ish…looks to them. So what would have won something in 1980 might not place at all now.
So the reason that Carol Guzy is so important to me is, take any one of her FOUR National Photographer of the Year portfolios and she would still clean up in the contests today! Do you realize that one year; the Washington Post was 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th for Photographer of the Year! That was crazy! And that’s because we were still doing classic story telling. And we had plenty of opportunity…and it was well edited…and there were tons of people that could have been in that mix.
JC: You had a tremendous staff during those years.
MW: And they were all different; Carol Guzy, Lucian Perkins, Dudley Brooks, Nancy Andrews. It was like a football team; that’s the catcher, that’s the kicker, that’s the thrower. The point that I’m making is that we are still telling stories. We’re telling them with depth and telling them in different ways with a more artistic presence…and believe me, the photography today is better than ever. I’m not saying that there is not anyone out there as good as Carol Guzy, I'm just saying that I rarely see anyone match her depth.
JC: You’ve been a staff photographer for the Washington Post since 1993! Do you have a “favorite” story…and why? If not, briefly, what were some of the ones you enjoyed working on?
MW: Oh man, I like them all! I can tell you about one of the more interesting ones…in terms of like whoa, I’ll never do that again! I followed a gentleman undergoing a gender reassignment. He had to get hormone treatments, he had to dress like a woman, act like a women and get counseling. And I was in the Operating room and I watched him go from a man to a woman …and that was about as interesting a thing as I have ever seen from 4 feet away…I can’t lie.
And it had a complicating issue in that he had some Native American blood in him and it was very important that he carry some vestige (of his former self) in his little medicine sack that he wore around his neck. And he had requested that his testicles be saved! And the doctors in the operating room said, “We don’t save stuff, sorry.” So he said to me, could YOU save them? So it wasn’t that I just photographed this amazing story; I had to hold a jar…and collect them…when they came off…and then give them to him in the recovery room…so he could eventually dry them out, turn them into powder…and wear them around his neck.
So now waking up in recovery in this little hospital room in Trinidad Colorado…beautiful mountains in the background…and totally back lit on the bed…and I said, “Georgie, how you doing sweetie, how you doing?” And the first thing he said…sorry, the first thing that SHE said was, “Did you save my balls Mike?” And I said, “Yeah, honey…I got ‘em…it’s OK.” And I handed them to her in a paper bag like it was some malt liquor.
I think as far as a story with ridiculous intensity, it was probably Rwanda. I stood on a hillside and I watched 200,000 people coming at me…and I couldn’t pick up the camera. I was watching a biblical exodus and I couldn’t shoot! I was like…wide? Tight? The feet in the mud? The injured? I stood there for 45 minutes saying to myself, God…what is this? And then I had to go where they were fleeing…so that’s not very good!
JC: I've had the great pleasure of working with you as faculty at the Eddie Adams Workshop. I know you do several workshops over the course of the year, as well as speaking engagements and presentations and even some contest judging. Many of these “ways of giving back” are unpaid, gratis work. Why do you do them?
MW: First of all, I love these young people. I have a 19-year-old and a 17-year-old, and I see where they’ll be in 3 or 4 years. And most of the folks at these workshops and seminars are youngish. Maybe the Northern Short Course, you tend to get an older crowd. So you meet the millennial and the geezer at the same table. But they are curious and they are hungry and they know the odds are against them but they still want to be a professional photojournalist today. God bless them!
It is a little weird to be older…that I’m like the oldster to some of them. I met a guy that said when he was 19 he saw Walker Evans speak. Walker was 71-years-old and he was like this old sage and I said, “I don’t want to be the geezer Walker Evans saying “Back in the day, when I used the flash powder…’” Because the fact is, I can operate for long stretches with no food; no sleep; I can drive 24 hours; stop twice for a bathroom break…there’s nothing about my age that will give youth a competitive advantage…Sorry Kids! Wink. Wink.
I will say this; I do think there’s a teeny bit of a shortage of good ideas to be honest with you. Robert Gilka, then the Chief of Photography for National Geographic once said, “We're up to our armpits in great photographers, but up to our ankles in good ideas.”
So the only advice I would give is, “You’re talented, you’re smart, you’re dreamers, you’ve taken this on…so go poke around in some darker corners that haven’t had some light on them yet.”
JC: How important is social media in today's publishing world, including Facebook, Instagram and others? I see your postings on Facebook...and always look forward to them. Do you also have Instagram, Twitter, Flickr or other accounts that you use frequently?
MW: If you go to battle you’re probably better off if you have a sword and a gun and a Taser and maybe a grenade in your back pocket. So I just look at it as another tool to blast through the noise and pursue your dream and have it seen. Remember, I don’t shoot pictures to put in a box and store in a closet. They’re for dissemination…that’s the goal.
That’s why contests are cool. It gives these photos a whole second life. People who dismiss contests don’t understand…it gets printed in the book, on the website…people who missed it the first time can see it again. The beauty of contests is that you can even pretend that you didn’t enter them when you get your butt kicked. But when you win, the photos have a second life. You get the name recognition…people remember you. Each cycle gives you the chance to reevaluate your year and see if you've grown or are just making the same photos over and over again. No harm in that.
So I look at it being the same thing with social media…more people will see it. Look…I get 400 likes on Facebook but I get 600 on Instagram…and those are different people. Most people on Instagram don’t follow me on Facebook. The Post loves it…it drives traffic. I always link the gallery when they have a story…and their numbers go up. I don’t do Twitter as much as it’s mainly a word thing. But Facebook and Instagram are the two that I would say I use the most.
I did a project where I lived out of my car off and on for most of a year. And I filed that whole story…I wrote it…found it, researched it, photographed it and delivered it…on my iPhone! It ran in 3 places; the Post home page, in this thing called “Intersect,” and it ran on Facebook. And It got seen…and I did it live…from a diner in Milwaukee or an underpass in Nashville, etc. And that was several years ago when the iPhone was still new and unique. I took it on.
I missed my "real" camera but I also got into a lot of places with that little baby phone and got pictures that people would have said no if I had my big camera. Once I had to shoot a display in the window of a very high-end store and got kicked out with my real camera so I went back with a silly hat on and a flowery shirt and acting like a dumb amateur shooting with a phone. I'd mumble things like, “Hey, look at that expensive purse!” Snap. Snap. And the pix turned out fine. So I Facebook regularly, almost daily, and I Instagram almost every other day.
JC: You've had a great run....do you think you'll still be doing this (or something like this) ten years from now? Do a little crystal balling for me....set the scene for me for Michael Williamson in 2025!
MW: I‘ll be shooting more and I’ll be busier and doing more fun stuff in ten years than now. My girls will be out of college and I may have more free time. I promise you I have no intention of slowing down...heck, I'm just getting warmed up. One thing that has been amazing with Mary Anne Golon… is that like a lot of newspapers, we have to write these performance reviews and talk about our goals. “What are your goals for next year…where do you want to improve,” that sort of thing. And I definitely needed improvement on things like making deadline and issues like that. But Mary Anne’s been great in getting me to open up…with use of space. I used to be lighter, brighter, and tighter in the old days…and to stop cropping so much…she’s not big on cropping. And I got better. Even my daughter said, “Da, you know what? You got better last year!” And I said I want you to say that next year…and then say that the next year…and so on.
This is why they allow us so much creative freedom. It used to be that we'd tag an iPhone photo in the credit line: "Image made on a smart phone with an Instagram filter."...or..."Image created with an iPhone." We don’t have to mention that anymore….people know what that is. They are visually sophisticated and know where it came from and what it was. And where Mary Anne has been one foot in old school and one foot in new school is like, “We don’t have to explain ourselves. People can handle a really artsy photo.” Recently I made a really artsy rainy day photo that was offered for the front page and the Executive Editor was hesitant, "Hmmmm...it's...just...a bit...too artsy for A1, no? Though skeptical he was lobbied by several other editors to go for it...It ran and it got thousands of Facebook likes...so even a straight shooter news guy can enjoy eye candy...that's a good thing.
We have this thing called “Seen” (See link below) which she started and people can put in their drippy drop of rain on the windshield, the bird reflection on the old refrigerator…you know…seriously artsy…nothing too literal…and just when we think it’s too darn artsy…we get the most comments. And I like the fact that the Washington Post has said…you know, our target audience in the future is people who GET this. Go for it! So what she’s done is like, remember that box of crayons that had 16 colors in it? “Here’s a box of 64!”
JC: Lastly, any final thoughts that you'd like to share with our readers...or sage wisdom/advice you could offer to anyone who might be contemplating a career in our industry?
MW: OK, this is where I am going to sound like an old guy. And I can’t see you, but I can envision your head bobbing over the next few minutes. When I first started doing Eddie Adams, fifteen years ago…twenty darn near…we had a lot of newspaper kids…some from Arkansas or Iowa…wherever. And they would work at the paper for 5 years and then go on to a bigger place like Indianapolis…and then end up at the Tribune or something when they were 33. And there was kind of an arc that people understood; Small, medium then large. I understand why that arc hasn’t continued.
One of the things that arc did was that people honed their skills…they had ridiculous assignment loads…and they were really ready to rock this world by the time they were thirty because they had done ten thousand assignments and they knew that they might have to start small. There’s this thing now that people want their first job to be at the New York Times. Some of them are almost good enough…I can’t argue with that. But it’s not even that they ARE good enough. I don’t care if you come out of whatever school and you’re twenty three and you’re the hottest thing since sliced bread…but there’s something about having lived in a small town…having suffered a little bit.
And I get a lot of kids saying…no, I’m going to India…I’m going to Africa…and I’m like, “Whoa, whoa…Josh….Have you ever covered a pie-eating contest at the state fair?” “NO, doesn’t interest me.” Please, don’t get into our business then. I beg you. I’ll give you my next year’s check if you become a truck driver. Please! You have got to find a ribbon cutting, and say “I’m gonna go crazy on this one...I’m gonna put a GoPro on the scissors.” I mean, I want you to be having fun because if you can make something out of nothing at these small town assignments…by the time you go do lepers in India, you should have a sophisticated take and an intimate way of seeing.
I would tell young people “Don’t be afraid.” And I don’t want to hear anybody under 40 talking about their “STYLE.” Your style just comes as a result of what you love and what loves you. If you are thinking about style, I will take a bb gun and pop you in the shin…I really will. Because then you are trapped by some “LOOK” some “WAY” of the way YOU see it.
And you know something, when you’re 22, I don’t really care about the way you see it. I want you to cover the event…so I know what happened. Of course, at some point, you mix the two, you can have your vision…you can have a take on life...just don't forget who you are working for.
Nobody said it better than Joe Elbert. One of the great lines: He went through this young shooter's portfolio…thumbed through it…it was over burned…over bleached…over everything…and he looked up and he said, “Well, James…I didn’t learn anything about your subjects, but I certainly learned a lot about you.” Now that may have been a little harsh because in some circles they are encouraged to be themselves. But I would just say…don’t try to reinvent the bicycle until you’ve mastered riding the bicycle…and understand the aerodynamics of it…and the feel…and the pressure in the tires.
So this is not a diss in any way. And in some ways you can admire them when they say, “Nope, I’m not going to work in a small town. I’m gonna start at Magnum.” You know...there’s a part of me that says, “God bless that tenacity.” But it’s not even whether you’re good enough to do it; it’s whether you are “mature” enough to understand.
As for an older shooter like me...I still have to use all my experience and energy to stay relevant…because I can name 500 people who can do my job tomorrow! I only keep my job because in theory, I hope I can offer the paper something they just can’t get anywhere else. But most of that is not being special or brilliant. It’s just being really experienced…and pretty darn in love with it. And hard work does not scare me.
Sometimes, I introduce myself to people when we finish our meetings and I say, “You know you can brag to your kids about this meeting.” And they say “Why?” And I say, “Because you can say that YOU met the man who believes from the bottom of his heart, that he has the world’s greatest job!” And they always say, “I believe you!” And that’s the one thing that maybe it’s hard to compete against. Sorry guys...nobody loves it like me! I’ve never been bored…and I love it! And I never forget how lucky I am.
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The Washington Post: www.washingtonpost.com/
The Washington Post “Seen” Photo Column: https://www.washingtonpost.com/conversations/seen/2013/04/05/0c9284e0-9bc7-11e2-9a79-eb5280c81c63_gallery.html
1990 Pulitzer Prize Winning Book: And Their Children After Them: http://www.amazon.com/Their-Children-After-Them-Legacy/dp/1583226575/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
2000 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography: http://www.pulitzer.org/works/2000-Feature-Photography
Other Books: Michael S. Williamson Amazon page: http://www.amazon.com/Michael-S.-Williamson/e/B004A22VKG/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1448667734&sr=1-2-ent