Anyone in the wrong place at the right time can create a noteworthy photograph. The technology of picture taking is now so foolproof that it routinely trumps the artistry of professionals in breaking news. The most articulate images from the July 7 bombings in London were shot by passengers with cell phones. The torturers at Abu Ghraib recorded their own crimes with cheap digital devices and created some of the first icons of the 21st century.
In the introduction to his refreshingly broad-minded book Witness: The World's Greatest News Photographers, Reuel Golden acknowledges these challenges for photojournalists. But as a senior editor at New York City's Photo District News, the largest U.S. magazine for the trade, he's keener to emphasize the personal integrity and courage of those who bring us bad news from dangerous places for a living.
Golden understands that reportage with cameras was practiced steadily from the 1850s; he includes Roger Fenton and his panoramas of British soldiers on maneuvers during the Crimean War and one of Alexander Gardner's "staged" photographs he was not above placing a rifle next to a corpse for dramatic effect from Gettysburg. And Witness does not make fussy distinctions between "art" photography and "news" photography. Social documentarians Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange mingle with Gilles Peress, James Nachtwey and Luc Delahaye, who made their names on battlefronts during the 1980s and '90s. Nachtwey's picture of a man staring up at one of the smoking World Trade Center towers perfectly renders the initial astonishment before it turned to horror. Letizia Battaglia, who risked her life to photograph the Mafia in Sicily, is treated with no less respect than exemplary war photographer Robert Capa. Gideon Mendel, who has doggedly tracked aids around the world, has equal billing with Martin Parr, England's foremost photographic satirist of class and consumerism. In his wicked portrait of a couple seated in a restaurant, the romance of married life seems to belong in the barely remembered past.
The book nonetheless reinforces certain clichés about the profession. Golden must know that war photographers aren't all selflessly heroic, and he fails to mention the crushing might of the industry's superpowers, Getty Images and Corbis, which have gobbled up independent agencies and driven down the price that unaffiliated news photographers can earn for their work. It is television that generally dictates what becomes a memorable image these days by endlessly repeating video clips of the Challenger exploding or Diana, Princess of Wales, in the revolving door at the Ritz. This book gives a select group of photographers a chance to try to even the score.