Thursday, November 5, 2009


Shelly Liebovitz is a photographer/writer in Los Angeles. She began writing a blog ( concerning "guiding principles" and contemporary photography. Over the last month, she has been interviewing various members of the art community about the presence and role of guiding principles in creating enduring photography, with the intention to publish a book on the subject. Her interview with Monroe Gallery follows.

Monroe Gallery is one of over 250 galleries in Santa Fe. Sidney and Michelle Monroe specialize in classic black and white photography. Their gallery includes a significant number of select defining moment photojournalist images.

You might think that the viewpoint of representative owner differs markedly from that of artist
photographer. Sometimes it does, but in the case of Monroe Gallery, the opinions expressed by Sidney Monroe go to the very heart of the photographers with whom he deals.

In discussing his background in photography, Sid Monroe referenced how his relationships with photojournalists developed:

"…at the beginning of my career in the gallery world — to meet Alfred Eisenstaedt and work with him — set a spark, because I discovered I had this great admiration for the field of journalism and the pioneers who made picture journalism what it was, and what it became over the ensuing years. It was like joining a fraternity because almost all of these photographers were familiar with each other… [A]s we became known as specializing in photojournalistic works, one by one, more and more, came on board. So that’s really been our core focus, and particularly in the seven or eight years since we moved to Santa Fe."

In reflecting upon what particular photographers spoke about in the context of aesthetics, Monroe offered:

"It is a very interesting topic that you are exploring and it is very germane, particularly in the context of contemporary photography, and it got me to think that I have been very fortunate to know many of the photographers personally that we represent. They didn’t articulate it as guiding principles, but it was almost their own personal view on what their job was or what they were doing as a photographer…"

To Monroe, whether viewing classic images or contemporary journalistic works, it is important for photographers to “have a sense of what’s inside them” and to fully understand what is “driving them to make their images.” A body of work is not likely to succeed “if it requires a lot of explanation.” Strong images stand on their own merits. Continuing, Monroe said:

"…[T]he photographers I know were crafters of images. They knew if they could tell a story with their photographs, they would get published in Life or Look magazine, or whatever the vehicle might be… you could say that photographers competed against one another… [but] they were in the driver’s seat. It’s the reverse today… by the nature of luck or skill, certain photographers [then] got shots that got published and those have become the defining images of the events."

"…[I]t was just their own decision-making process that got them in the position to get the photograph."

Famous journalistic images have helped to crystalize our collective interpretation of the meaning of important events. But, they may even more clearly define the character of the photographer. Monroe said of certain legendary photojournalists:

"..the photographers that come to mind, like Bill Eppridge who took the defining moment of Robert Kennedy after he was assassinated, …the Villagers Fleeing a Napalm Strike, that’s Nick Ut, or Eddie Adams, who took the execution picture in Viet Nam—the character of those three men was such that they had the determination to tell the story and get there.

Eddie Adams… became legendary because unlike other photographers [in Viet Nam], he was an ex-Marine. When he would go on assignment he would go up to the commander, identify himself and say that he wanted to go with the first wave of men… So, he put himself out on the front line as opposed to holding back and trying to capture the story after an area had been secured.

But, they had these guiding principles… they didn’t necessarily come in with a point-of-view. They surely had their own political views and their own opinions, but they really went in with determination to get to a story and to get a picture."

In the field of photography generally, understanding the aesthetics, that is, the set of guiding principles that may be reflected in images, has been a slippery, and sometimes elusive, slope for me. In talking to Sid Monroe, what surfaced was a clarifying point: In trying to capture an image, photographers in the field are faced with so many variables, simply getting the image may be the single-most important driving principle in play.

I mentioned writer, Malcolm Gladwell, recently. In another one of his books, Blink, Gladwell suggests that emergency room doctors seemed to arrive at more accurate diagnoses when armed with less patient data than if they have more statistics at hand. It could be that when it comes to blended scenarios where cognitive and intuitive are allowed to flow openly, less is more. That is, our brains may operate at peak when we are more or less flying by the seat of our pants. I wonder then if photojournalists who find themselves in tremendously stressful situations are forced by necessity to function at much higher levels?

In a field where preparation is such a critical component to succeeding, the notion of flying at all cuts against the cultural grain. Context is everything. Preparation obviously takes on vastly different meaning in the field, as in battlefield, than in a studio setting. In the past year, I have read a number of times that very accomplished photographers on a well-prepared, lengthy shoots, found that the strongest and most successful images were taken as complete afterthoughts. Or, I should say, the strongest image resulted after the shoot had ended and when the photographer finally felt free to photograph.

The repeated sentiment by those professionals speaks loudly to how important our creative instincts are, and, importantly, how they are seemingly relegated to an inferior role in our formal professional processes. In fact, those professionals who took the extra last shot, which succeeded, may have intuitively recognized after their rational minds shut off that something was missing from the day’s work product.

We all need to find ways to allow ourselves to fly a little bit more. If you need moral support, review some of the images exhibited at Monroe Gallery. You might, as I did, take a renewed example from those courageous photojournalists, who when confronted with less time, means and opportunity, managed somehow to capture extraordinary images, which ultimately have served to define generations.

©Shelly Liebovitz

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