Part 2: Ken Light and the State of Documentary Photography
This is the second in a three-part series about the influence of philanthropist David Logan.
Ken Light is the Reva and David Logan Professor of Photojournalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a one of the most highly respected documentary photographers working today and an authority on the topic of documentary photography in our global society. Ken is the author of eight books of his photography, including Delta Time, To The Promised Land, With These Hands, Texas Death Row, Coal Hollow, and Valley of Shadows and Dreams. His latest book, What’s Going On: America 1969-1974, will be released at the end of October this year. In addition to his publications, Ken has exhibited in more than 180 one-person and group exhibitions around the world. He is also the recipient of four National Endowment for the Arts grants, including two Photographers Fellowships, the Dorothea Lange Fellowship and a fellowship from the Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation.
I spoke with Ken recently about his experience of working with David Logan and about his thoughts on documentary photography today.
Tim Greyhavens: You're one of the relatively small group of people who hold the position of an endowed chair for photography. What does that honor mean to you?
It has meant more recognition both for the work I do and what I do with the university. Moreover, it recognizes the importance of photography. This was an endowment that David Logan really wanted, and then the Logan family and the foundation followed after David's and Riva's deaths. For me what's exciting about it is that it has created a legacy position at the university in photography, which is very, very important. Photography for a number of years was taught within the architecture school and then when those professors retired the school allowed the positions to disappear. The fact that there is now an endowed a position dedicated to photography to me is the real gift of the Logans, and also in some way it is a legacy for me as well.
Ken Light (Photo courtesy of Ken Light)
How did you meet David Logan?
There's another professor in my department, Lowell Bergman, who runs the investigative reporting program. He was introduced to David a number of years before I met him. Lowell convinced David to endow a chair in investigative reporting that he now holds. At some point David had a conversation with Lowell and was surprised to learn there was photography department that he didn't know anything about.
At that point I was introduced by Lowell to Jon Logan, one of David's sons. It was really through Jon that I was introduced to David, in Chicago. Jon lives in the Bay Area and has done a lot of community work around AIDS and other philanthropy. I knew that over the years the Logans had supported numerous photographers and also had supported people writing about photography. So I was familiar with the name, but I had never met David until I was introduced by his son.
When you read stories about him it’s clear he had a real passion not only for photography and journalism but also for music and the arts in general. He seems like an incredibly well‒rounded and also a very sincere individual.
He loved the arts and was a huge supporter of many art forms. He had been on the Illinois Art Commission, and his house was filled with art, photography, and works on paper. His first love of collecting had been photography books, and then he bought prints and then he began to collect illustrated books, limited edition books with prints by Matisse, Picasso and other greats. He really enjoyed talking about and engaging in photography with people, plus he was an amateur photographer himself.
More than anything else he really believed in creativity. One of the last things he did in addition to our project was a major donation to create the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, which is a mind boggling building. It’s a huge complex with a state-of-the-art theater, and it's really the dream of any arts person to have that kind of environment on your campus.
He was a very interesting person, very successful in business, and also a very hard negotiator. When he had an idea it was his idea, and you had to work with him to somehow fit things into the mold of what he was trying to do.
He said that photojournalism was "the guardian of the public interest." Did you ever had any discussions with him about what that meant, especially in context of obviously biased reporting like Fox News that may not quite fit into that category that he characterized around public interest.
He was very progressive in his political ideas and I think that he felt that freedom of the press and journalism was so, so important. The first thing he did with Journalism School at Berkeley was to support investigative reporting, because of the reputation that Lowell Bergman had before he started working at Berkeley. David believed deeply in the idea that no one is too powerful to not be investigated.
In addition to his endowing the chair that you now hold, he also gave a major collection of photography books to the Bancroft Library. Do you know how he got hooked on photography?
He told me that one of the things that influenced him initially he had stumbled on by pure luck. He was a law student at the University of Chicago, and during lunch breaks he would go to a used book store near the law school and browse through their shelves. Amazingly, they had a complete set of Camera Work, which he would go back to every time he went there.
He did this for quite some time. Finally one day the owner of the book store said to him, "Dave, someone's offering me money to buy the Camera Work set. I know how much you love them so I wanted to ask you before I sold them. What do you want to do?" So that was one of his earliest purchases. I have no idea how much he paid for it, and at the time it was probably with an installment plan. But that was his introduction to fine art photography, and he never looked back.
He went on to acquire a number of sets. I think he had three complete sets by the time I knew him ‒ that's how much he loved them. The quality of the images and text in Camera Work really instilled in him the importance of fine quality books. Every time he would travel with his family one of the most important things he would do was go to a local, used bookstore wherever he might be. Jon [Logan] told me stories of how they used to have to climb the highest shelves among the dustiest books looking for some gem that David could buy and add to his collection.
In your role now you probably have to do fundraising for the school and for the photography department. There's probably nobody else like David Logan, but are you finding others out there who have similar interests? Are there people who still are really enthralled with photography and your work and the work of documentary journalism?
We have a number of donors that really love photography and have donated to the program for the last 10 or 15 years on a regular basis. Most recently we had a show of the music photographer Jim Marshall, who died a number of years ago. We started working with his estate to create an endowment in Jim's name, and we were able to raise $35,000 to give a photo student full tuition, room and board for a year, which is wonderful.
Do you think that the nature of a professional career in documentary photography is fundamentally changing due to our rapidly transforming technology?
I think it's a transition. The nature of the media has really changed, of course, and the value that media outlets have placed on paying for photography has dropped. But the difference between individuals, for example, taking a grab shot is very, very different from a documentary photographer who is diving into a story, spending months and years developing an idea of what the world is that they have entered and what people are thinking and how to visually tell that story. And rather than one or two pictures, a professional can produce 100 or 150 pictures that really are a credible record of the story they're experiencing instead of simply what they see. I don't think that will change. Most people are either looking to make an image that they put on Facebook that's really pretty to look at or a moment in their life, but they're not diving into a story to tell it with their heart and soul.
I think the art and the act of documenting events will continue as long as photography is around. The issue of how you support yourself is a really big issue, and that obviously is something that a lot of people are really struggling with. That's changed drastically. The idea of getting a week-long or two-week long assignment, those days have mostly disappeared.
True, but on the other hand new ways of working have appeared. Like a lot of people, you recently turned to Kickstarter to fund your latest book. How was that experience for you?
The positive change is, of course, the technology now. You can now reach a much larger audience you couldn't reach when I started my career. Also, the ability to self-fund projects is in many ways miraculous. The new book that's coming out will be my 9th book. All the other books I've done largely with the big publishers like Aperture, the Smithsonian or universities. With this project, which I've been showing around for many years, publishers became very hot for it, then very cold. One publisher said, "Well, I hate Nixon." Another publisher said, "Oh, I've seen these pictures before."
I came to realize that it's era from '69 to '74 was such a volatile era that people still don't talk about all the things that happened during that time because there’s still a fear of the subject matter. I decided to use Kickstarter and raise the money so I could assume control of my own work. Being able to hire a designer and choose the printer that I wanted to work with is very liberating. I've always gone on press with my books, but everyone was always in a hurry. They always had many books they were designing, and mine was only one of them. They didn't have time to be playful. It was like, "Here's the cover. We want you to look at it, because this is the cover." I never had the chance to say, "I want the type to be different, or I want the cover to be different."
Largely I'm happy with my books, but this book was fun. It was a wonderful, creative process in which both my wife and I could be involved. We spent a lot of playful time thinking of ideas. My designer made many, many covers until we came up with one that we all liked. That was fun. I think that's an incredibly positive side of this change that's happening to photography and in the world in general ‒ the ability to reach out through LinkedIn or Facebook or email and gain support.
The Reva and David Logan Gallery of Documentary Photography at UC Berkeley.
Do you think that the crowdsourcing efforts like this are response to a failure by traditional philanthropy to respond to an increased demand for grassroots efforts?
I don't think it's a failure of philanthropy. My experience is that photography has been in an interesting place in terms of philanthropy for many years. There have been a number of foundations that have been very generous and have given me money for a number of my projects and books. However, there have been foundations that, when you approach them about an idea of telling a story they would say, "Photography? Well, why should we give money to a photographer when we can actually give money to homeless people instead of you taking pictures of homeless people?".
There was a disconnect between the idea of the power of a visual image to tell a story in a way and the effect that story could have to really rally people around an idea. The wonderful part about the shift to crowdsourcing is it has democratized philanthropy. You're not really dependent on the people or the foundations that have multiple millions of dollars. They are surely doing good work, but things like Kickstarter provide almost anyone with the chance to get involved. I had more than 465 people give me money, and it ranged from people giving $5 to people giving $1,500. I think that's fabulous and quite amazing ‒ now everyone can be a philanthropist. I got a lot of money from people I didn't even know.
I like the term of “democratizing philanthropy” because it captures the essence of people giving sometimes a very small amount, and yet whatever amount the give is a meaningful amount for them. People want to feel like they're contributing to something bigger that hopefully will make a difference.
Absolutely. I raised $45,000 in 30 days, and it was a lot of work. But if I had gone to a foundation it would have also been a lot of work, and I don't know that they would have written a check for $45,000 to do this book. I think it's fabulous, really fabulous for the arts and creativity in general. The fact that people can choose what they give to and they chose my book is wonderful. It's new age philanthropy.
Part of the power of really well done documentary photography is to shock people out of their complacency and, ideally, motivate them to take some positive action. Today with the globalization of media we're seeing more and more startling images being thrown in our face every day. How do documentary photographers make an image really compelling and yet not always feel like they have to raise the bar to get something even more startling?
I do think the bar has been raised way too high. When I was growing up, the bar was the startling Eddie Adams photograph [of a man being shot in the head]. Today some editors demand that the photographer start at that level and deliver something even more startling. To me there is a difference between those front page news images and real stories told by photographers who can spend years on a project. We were able to bring Sebastião Salgado’s Migrations exhibition to the University Art Museum, and it was the most popular show in the history of the art museum. Those pictures are very hard to look at, and people would say to me, "I went once and couldn't look at all the pictures. But I went back a second time because I had to know the whole story."
Hard images that are part of a bigger story are really different than something like the horrific images we see of bombings in Iraq, for example. I think one of the essential aspects of documentary photography is the historical power it can generate. Most photographers who are doing this work understand it needs to be seen now, but I think they also understand that in 100 years this visual record will also be important because people try to bend history.
I remember when the Great Recession started. All of a sudden Dorothea Lange’s pictures started to pop up in magazines and newspapers, comparing the Great Recession to the Depression that had happened in the '30s. It wasn't movies or books that got people’s attention – it was still photography. It has an incredible way of connecting to the human spirit that people can envision themselves and can observe it and see it.
You've probably heard the quote from Jean‒Luc Godard who said, "Photography is truth, but cinema is truth 24 times a second." Do you think video is any more or less truthful when telling a story when you're out in the field trying to really capture what's really going on?
I don't know. There's something very different about looking at a still photograph in that you can observe it closely, move into it with your eye and your mind and think about it. I think of Lange's White Angel Breadline. It's the lone man on the railing with his rumpled, old hat, and you don't really see his face and his heart in his hand. He's holding his tin cup on the edge of the rail, and there's about ten men behind him wearing fedora's and work hats with their backs turned to him. I think if that was a video there would be noise and the men would be shuffling, and the man with the hat probably wouldn't be as solitary as he looks in the photograph. Somehow for me that single photograph captures that spirit of the intensity of the Great Depression and what happens to people.
Another great example is the Eddie Adams photograph. There was film of that that was shot by a film crew as Eddie Adams was taking that picture. You hardly ever see the footage, but I remember seeing it. You see the gun getting pulled out, then the guy gets executed and he folds over, and the whole experience is laid out for you. When you look at the Adams picture the bullet is suspended, and the horror and the death is suspended and you know this guy's dead. You’re forever caught in the horror of that execution.
It seems like there's nothing you can't show now, but at the same time another challenge is there's almost nothing you can't change in some way in an image. How do you talk to your students about truth in documentary photography ‒ about not being able to move something around and yet still keeping the honesty in what you're trying to portray?
It's very simple. In documentary photography what you witness and what you see is what you have to portray. You should be good enough to observe the things in front of you and eliminate thing you don’t want people to see by moving to a different angle or changing the lens. Photoshop should have a very, very limited use for burning and dodging and maybe working a little bit with the color if it’s not right. I give students a lot of examples of where people have gone wrong, starting with Alexander Gardner dragging the body in his Civil War picture. In this age, the idea of truth is really, really important because lying has become a spectator sport for many.
Do you think that was part of what David Logan was trying to do – to endow the concept of photographic truth?
I think it's not only that, but it's all the moving parts that he rolled into one. He endowed two chairs at our school, gave us a Gallery in the Journalism School to show documentary photography and left us his amazing collection of photography books. He left not just these individual gifts but the gift of instilling the idea that photography is essential to the core of an educational institution.
This kind of philanthropy really changes people’s lives. It's so, so important, particularly in the arts, which in many ways have suffered in this country. I was really lucky that I got two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as well as a publication grant. In my era we took it for granted that the NEA's giving money, and every two years you could apply and get a grant. Your peers would be on a panel and look at the work, and most of the time they’d select you and you got money. That has disappeared. It think that's really sad in a country like ours that when people think about the arts what they hear most about is a Sotheby's or Christie's Auction and a Picasso going for $140 million dollars. To many people that's what art is all about.
There's no sense of the sacrifice that that photographers and other visual arts people make to do the work that they do. That’s why the way that the Logans gave is so important. It’s for the photographers and artists who create the art as well as the legacy that those artists will leave. It’s for now and for the future that all of us will create.
Go to Part 3: A Passion for Books and Scholarship