During last Wednesday’s Process and Skills class, we were able to listen to former Life Magazine reporter and editor, Michael Durham, talk about his time at the magazine and some of the noteworthy stories he worked on. It was fascinating to listen to him matter-of-factly recount meeting Malcolm X, the Beatles; getting arrested in Birmingham during the civil rights protests; following a KKK wizard around; going to the site the day after JFK’s assassination where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots from – the stories truly were incredible!
The part of Michael’s presentation that resonated with me the most is something that my classmate Emily already mentioned, just how much work went into documenting these stories, sometimes to not have the stories published in the way they were originally planned or to not be published at all. Two examples of this stuck out to me from Michael’s presentation.
In the first example, he described how he had been assigned to cover the Beatles in Miami during their first visit to America. The editors at Life were very hung up on the length of the Beatles hair and wanted him and photographer John Loengard to do the photo shoot in a pool to get the Beatles’ “long” hair wet. It was a very laborious task to convince the Beatles to do a photo shoot in a pool in the first place, then sneak them out of the hotel and onto the estate where the pool was, and then get them actually into the pool since it was chilly outside. After all that, they did capture an iconic image, but none of the Beatles’ hair is wet in the photo!
The second example Emily mentioned in her post as well, but it was such a crazy story, it bears repeating. Michael and a photographer were assigned to do a story on Antarctica. While on location there, the photographer Michael Rougier had a near-fatal accident that involved him falling hundreds of feet off the side of a cliff and needing to be airlifted to New Zealand for life-saving medical treatment. Prior to this, he and Michael had spent weeks living in a tent and following the researchers around. The story never ended up running in Life and all the images captured by Michael Rougier were never published.
These two examples highlight how the finished product (or lack thereof) is truly the tip of the iceberg and the true scope of work can’t even be seen in the final piece. This reality of the process is something that I’m still coming to grips with in my own work. I need to get more used to the fact that part of the process means sometimes spending tons of time and energy on an element of a project or a whole project that doesn’t end up happening. It’s comforting to know that people far more accomplished and talented than me go through the same thing!