Visual Storytelling in Today’s “All Access” Era

1985 Ken Regan (Weekly FM Japan June 3-16 1985) preview 300

Access. It’s the most valuable currency of celebrity journalism. Photojournalists Bob Gruen and Ken Regan built celebrated careers by getting access to coveted rock stars such as Madonna, whom Ken Regan photographed as she was about to become a star. Regan, who passed away in 2012, was welcomed into the homes of rock stars not only because he had undeniable talent, but he handled access with discretion. But in today’s era of stars granting “all access” to everyone through social media, what’s the role of the great professionals like Gruen, Regan and Annie Leibovitz? At a time when anyone with an iPhone can become a photojournalist, what sets apart great visual storytelling from pedestrian photography?

I asked that question and a few others as I re-acquainted myself with retrospectives on the careers of Gruen and Regan: Rock Seen, which covers some of the landmark moments of Gruen’s work, and All Access: The Rock & Roll Photography of Ken Regan.

Both of the books are vivid reminders that rock and roll is as much a visual medium as it is a musical one. Sometimes the rock stars just explode off the page, as in this photo of Jimi Hendrix taken by Ken Regan:


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Annie Leibovitz at Work

If you rely on the power of an image to tell a story — which is true for just about any marketer — then you owe it to yourself to read the recently published Annie Leibovitz at Work.  Leibovitz describes the stories behind noteworthy photographic shoots of her career, ranging from her astonishing American Express portraits to her coverage of the Rolling Stones’s 1975 tour.   Whether you’re a web designer, event producer, or art director, you can learn a lot from this book, such as:

* It’s better to be memorable than beautiful  “The camera is not enamored exclusively with people who are conventionally beautiful,” she writes.  “There are times when a person is powerful enough in some other way to make the photograph . . . William Burroughs was certainly not beautiful, but he was a photographer’s dream.  The camera loved that gaunt, sinister look.”

* Take what’s given to you.  Leibovitz recalls visiting Philip Johnson’s famous Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, relishing the opportunity to photograph this most iconic of homes.  At the time, Johnson lived in the home he’d designed, which presented some problems when she arrived for the shoot and discovered that he had no intention of leaving her alone.  “This was frustrating,” she writes.  “I knew that I should be sociable, but I wanted to study the house.”  Instead, Johnson followed her around the home attempting to make small chat and interrupting her work.  Finally she decided to include him in the photographic essay.  “In retrospect it was a rare opportunity to see someone living in a classic house,” she remembers.  “To see it being used.  It was fall and there were leaves all over.  Johnson’s dirty boots were thrown on the floor.  He was staring out at the rolling lawn and the maple trees, which were changing color.”  In other words, Johnson gave her photographs more character than would be found in photos of an empty house.  Rather than fight his presence, Leibovitz took what was given to her — and improved her work.

* Embrace limitations.  When Ogilvy and Mather hired Leibovitz to shoot celebrity portraits for American Express advertisements, Leibovitz was given two requirements: the photos had to be vertical in format and they needed to fill a page.  Basically she would need to learn how to shoot more formal looking portraits, which was not her style.  It was hard and unnatural to frame subjects in a vertical format.  Losing the horizontal image meant sacrificing background that could enrich the shot.  But she worked within the limitations — and then set out to challenge popular notions of how a portrait should look.  She created inventive, colorful portraits full of depth and intrigue, like the famous image of horse jockey Willie Shoemaker standing alongside basketball giant Wilt Chamberlain.  Placing them side by side on a Malibu beach was akin to a work of art.  (“I was thinking of circus pictures — Tom Thumb and the giant,” she writes.)

After you read Annie Leibovitz at Work, track down a copy of the Rolling Stone 1,000th issue special collectors’ edition (18 May-1 June 2006).  This issue tells the story behind the creation of Rolling Stone‘s most famous magazine covers – how the vision and style of the photographer meshed (and sometimes collided with) the expectations of the subject.  Patti Smith comments on the outcome of a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz:: “what I really feel about this photograph is that Annie captured something about me before I knew about myself.  Later, I finally grew into that person.”  Herb Ritts discusses how he improvised a photo of Cindy Crawford by impulsively using a translucent fabric  to capture her essence in a beach pose.

Want to be a better marketer, designer, or creative director?  Leave a little room for improvisation.  And don’t miss an opportunity that presents itself like a powerful moment longing to be photographed.