Two views (or more) of VJs…

Newsreel Man (Charles Peden in front with sound equipment)

In the beginning there was the Newsreel Cameraman. Hauling around more gear than a pack mule, he (no shes back then) covered the news and view of the nine-teens and twenties, joined by an Audio Man in 1927.

That was the original VJ. Rough and tumble, but always got the story.

These NR guys held on tenaciously through the birth of television, only getting phased out in the 1960s when the majority of the public chose the boob-tube over the big screen for their daily dose of what’s happening.

In the meantime a new term sprang up on the broadcast side of news: OMB. One man band. A reinvention of the NRC, they (once again) hauled around a camera, audio gear and enough love of news and what’s happening to gather the news in their markets for a hungry audience. I’m guesstimating maybe late 1950s with film and optical audio through…hmmm, today’s digital workflow.

And now we have divergence.

Sometime in the 1990s print photographers discovered an entirely new unheard of medium. They called it multimedia. It was all new – if you could actually believe editing sound with your still photos and then playing it back. Wow.

Then these brave pioneers moved on to an even greater discovery. Something they called video. Imagine, if you can, moving images with audio embedded! Why the world had never seen the likes of it before. But what were they going to call themselves if they no longer shot stills?

Well there were a number of options. Out of the nation’s capitol came the term Backpack Journalist. Made sense because (theoretically) you could fit camera, computer…your entire office into a backpack. Visual Storyteller was another one. Multimedia Journalist or Storyteller was another choice. But most of them went for Video Journalist. And so they laid claim to this new territory as original and new and totally theirs.

Um…but what about those broadcast folks? Weren’t they shooting video too?

Not the way we are, chimed the (print) VJs. Our style of storytelling is unique. We’re not TV.

Looking at it from afar (and for a while from the middle of it) I’d say the two are pretty much doing the same thing.
Similarities?

1) Both use cameras
2) Both gather sound
3) Both work alone to gather and disseminate visuals stories to their audiences

Differences?

1) Broadcast VJs tend to use cameras meant for “run and gun” shooting with easy to access exterior controls, professional audio connectors, and good zoom lenses.
Print VJs opt for hybrid DSLRs that shoot both stills and video. While they have more control over depth of field with a wide variety of interchangeable lenses, they must also add-on audio accessories and other gadgets.
2) BVJs generally run on a tighter schedule with more packed into a day and more expected of them. Anything from a single package to a few VOs and VOSOTS to a combination of all of the above.
PVJs may have to shoot multiple stories daily also, but often seem to use video for more long form stories or VO/VOSOTS.
3) A good BJV can turn an exquisite daily story using a variety of options from a NATS pkg to pkg complete with narration and stand-up. Day after day, week after week.
A good PVJ can turn an exquisite story in a few days (from what I hear and see on the professional boards) generally a NATS pkg using the voice of the interview subject rather than narration.

You may have guessed two things by now. I tend to favor the BVJ…but there are some equally damned good PVJs out there. The good ones have more in common than not. They live and breathe visual storytelling. They see the kernels of truth, the compelling images, and understand the flow of time and words well enough to go beyond the basics. And more importantly, they learn from everything…from each other, from their subjects…each story is an opportunity to get better.

Why this posting? Just had to get it out of my system. Don’t want history written up improperly with the lineage of VJs lost to the most vocal shooters. Those quiet guys behind behemoth hand-cranked cameras deserve their place in the books too. (And don’t forget…many of them were former still photogs.)

Epiphany…

A sudden awareness of something wonderful! And it all came about because a former reporter asked where the reporters were in the photograph of newsreel cameramen that graces my facebook page. I responded that there were no reporters…just cameramen until the late 20s when soundmen appeared with all of their apparatus.

Epiphany.

No reporters for a visual storytelling media. Wow.

Well, of course – just ask Amanda Emily of newsphotog.com – there were writers back at the main headquarters, who took in the reels shot by the field cameramen and with the help of editors turned them into fodder for the masses.

But the sole responsibility of gathering information and visuals was done by newsreel cameramen, who were looked up to heros of the day.

In fact (I’m guessing here folks – and I know Amanda WILL correct me if I’m off base) there probably weren’t any real in-front-of-the-camera reporters until TV happened along.

So those of you lenslingers, shooters, camera carriers, BPJs, one-man-bands, videojournalists out there, laboring without any apparent support. YOU are who I salute today. You can trace your roots back to a noble profession that broke ground at the beginning of moving pictures.

Now quit wallowing in your glory and pick up that fifty pounds of gear and get back to work.

Farewell Les…

Newsreel Cameraman Les Thomsen has left us. The above video is from a 2006 SFBAPPA meeting at his house, where he and other old timers discussed the early history of the club. Afterwards he gave a tour of his house – the basement is a museum of equipment used in movies, early television, and newsreels and includes a 29 seat theater, where he showed some early newsreels.

Newsreel man (and his daughter)….

Newsreel Man (Charles Peden in front with sound equipment)

Newsreel Man (Charles Peden in front with sound equipment)

I’m sitting here at my kitchen table wading through history and war stories….perusing a book from another era: Newsreel Man by Charles Peden.

An old buddy (Al Bulloch) once told me he was gonna write a book called “War Stories.” The story behind the news…things news cameramen do. Stuff no one knows about except those in the fraternity.

Sorry to tell you this Al, but Charles beat you to it and by a good fifty years.

Peden was possibly the first of the new breed of newsreel men – the audio man – with Movietone News. He came to the job by way of an engineering degree from Yale and his first job for RKO radio.

Now I’ve both frightened and entertained my students (and occassional non-news bosses) by telling them I’ve shot five Presidents. (and thought I was awfully witty to come up with that original joke)

Charles tells of an early newsreel man, who on being reassigned to Washington, D.C., sent a telegraph to his home office stating, “Expect to shoot President this afternoon. Alexander.”

The reply: “Ship Hoover immediately after shooting. Doherty.”

You can imagine the consternation in the telegraph office…and poor Alexander was detained by the Secret Service until he could explain his way out of the mess.

The book (Doubleday, Doran, & Company, Inc/1931, 1932) is out of print…I managed to find a used copy (used to belong to a Dorothy Slater Smith of Beaver, PA and then a Marilynn Carson) and am enjoying a rainy day read. It has the feel of age and truth and is a refreshing look at the beginnings of a craft that both supported and entranced me for nearly thirty years.

I had the good luck – right after the book arrived – to be put in touch with Peden’s daughter, Marcia Miner, by Amanda Emily and spent an hour on the phone with her yesterday. She is one of a kind – and has the same sense of adventure and love of travel her father writes about in his book. And better yet, she had the luck to travel with him on some of his assignments!!!

Her memories are compelling…

Once I get the notes organized and spend some more time with her I’ll post something on the blog. So stay tuned…between her, her father’s book, some other contacts I’m working on, and more interviews I’ll get that durned chapter on history and ethics done yet. Yeah. That’s the big hangup. Finding the time to do the original research. Writing the process, the gear sections of The Basics of Videojournalism was a snap. Trying to find old-timers and get together with them is harder – those old guys never stay still. Ya’d think at their age they’d be in wheelchairs…or maybe those wheelchairs are all rocket-propelled….

Hmmmm….wonder what my kids will have to say about me when I’m gone?