Remakes in film and photography

Having studied history of photography in college, I am perfectly comfortable with the idea that many (most) of my photographs, to this day, are shaped, consciously or unconsciously, by the work of photographers I have previously seen. On the other hand, photographers rarely, if ever, do conscious remakes of the work of the predecessors, unlike musicians who are known for “covering” or performing the work of their predecessors. Filmmakers are perfectly comfortable doing remakes. The new movie, True Grit, is just the latest example of artists revisiting a story and reinterpreting that in their own way. I recently encountered a couple prize-winning photo projects that were remakes of sorts, which resonated very strongly with a project I did twenty-eight years ago.

First, I would never suggest the photographers who did the projects in question were stealing my idea. My project was done in 1984, when one of the photographers I will be talking about was three years old and the other was 17 years old. They certainly were not stealing my idea. But, like me, they were revisiting a timeless theme, and then updating it based on their own interests and points of view.

One photographer I am talking about is Craig F. Walker of the Denver Post, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 2010. As it says on the web site of the Denver post:

For 27 months, Walker photographed Ian Fisher as he went from high school graduate to recruit to soldier. The series, “Ian Fisher: American Soldier,” was a powerful and transparent tale of one young man’s precarious struggle to transform his life. It was published in September 2009.

The Pulitzer award citation read “Awarded to Craig F. Walker of The Denver Post for his intimate portrait of a teenager who joins the Army at the height of insurgent violence in Iraq, poignantly searching for meaning and manhood.”

You can see that work starting at: (click on works.)

Greg Kahn of the Naples Daily News won the award for Photojournalist of the Year (in a smaller market,) in the 2010 Best of Photojournalism competition. His prize winning portfolio was anchored by two great photo stories, including one that also won 3rd place for Best Published Picture Story (in a smaller market,) in the same 2010 Best of Photojournalism competition.

His story, “Teen to Marine,” traces the journey of Elaine a pretty, teenager who is, according to the photographer:

“…boy crazy, shies away from responsibility and whose life, if you follow her lead, seems to be one big drama after another. A former, runner up in the Swamp Buggy pageant, Elaine seems content to continue on with a life of pleasant mediocrity, letting her middling grades lead to a middling life. Except that she’s not. Elaine Neal breaks stereotypes. After years of fumbling around searching for purpose, latching on to older male role models to help with her father issues, she made a bold decision to join the military. But not content to just to serve, she wanted to challenge herself. So she decided to become a Marine.”

You can see that work starting at: (click on overview.)

(In researching this blog entry I found a curious Rhode Island connection with both of the photographers. Craig Walker grew up in York, Pennsylvania but he attended the Rhode Island School of Photography (not its more famous sibling, the Rhode Island School of Design.) Greg Kahn started his photojournalism career with a stint at his hometown newspaper in Wakefield, Rhode Island. )

The work of both of these photographers are fascinating contemporary coming-of-age stories. I see Walker’s work as having the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts as a kind of subtext for his project. Kahn’s work, to me, has a “women in the military” subtext on top of the more obvious coming-of-age story.

When I saw these two projects, I was reminded of how I had produced a remarkably similar coming-of-age story back in 1984, while I was working at the Syracuse newspapers in Syracuse, NY. Photos from that project are interspersed throughout this blog entry. You can see more of images from that project on my web site at:

For me, the starting point for that project was a report I read that the Marines experienced a spike in enlistment after the October 23, 1983 bombing of the Marines barracks in Beirut, during the Lebanese Civil War. What I wanted to know was who were these young men (and back then it was all men,) who were going out of their way to get in harm’s way, and why?

I had seen earlier photo stories on basic training in the military, most notably the work of the war photographer and former Marine, David Douglas Duncan. While I liked the work, and I know it influenced me, I was interested in something different. When I started the project I did not know quite what that was, by the way.

What I did know was that logistically, staking my entire story on one young man was a risky proposition. What if he did not make it through the process and he dropped out, as about 50% of new Marine recruits do? So, I sought out, with the help of Marine recruiters in Syracuse, NY, four young men, two from the countryside and two from the city. Each pair went into the military in a program that encouraged friends to enlist together. With four subjects to tell my story, I anticipated that I would get a wide range of imagery of their different experiences.

I photographed the two different pairs of friends as they finished up high school, said goodbye to their families (and girlfriends) then flew off to Parris Island, SC. I took three trips to Parris Island to photograph them as they started basic training, including the infamous haircut on the first day. I returned midway through their basic training and again at the end, including their graduation. As expected, only two of the four made it through. Ironically it was one member of each of the two pairs of friends who survived and graduated.

The final piece explored some of the questions that I originally pondered but mostly it was a simple coming-of-age story of four young men from in and around Syracuse, NY. I have had some contact with one of the four men since then. After his time in the Marines, he became and still is, a policeman in upstate NY. The final photos were published in a special Veteran’s day section of the newspaper, which was very well received in the community.

I secured a hundred extra copies of that section and mailed them to every magazine picture editor I aspired to work for as a freelancer. Years later, I would meet editors who remembered the story and complemented me on the work. As nice as that was, what really mattered was that those same editors gave me assignments and pushed my career forward at the crucial point when I left the security of the newspaper world for the uncertainty of self-employment.

So now, 27 years later (and probably numerous times in between) prize-winning photographs have been created on a subject that I have previously explored (and others before me also explored.) Thankfully, this did not happen like it might in the film business where you have sequel after sequel. In an unconscious way, it happened more like a remake of a classic that recurs every generation or so. In film world, the last version is often used as a way of evaluating the latest version. In photography, I could only wish it were so.

Ten years from now, another young photographer will consider doing a story on basic training in the Marines. Maybe their story will be made with the subtext of gays serving openly in the military. Ideally they will go online to see what has been done before. They should easily find Walker and Kahn’s work. That has been posted on the web in connection with the prizes they won and on the sites of the outlets that published their prize-winning work.

That same photographer will not find my work, or that of others who photographed the same topic before the Internet’s arrival. I am not pointing a finger of blame at anyone. I am simply suggesting that our collective visual culture will be worse off for not having access to work that predates the Internet. Yes, Ansel Adams work from “before the Internet” will always be available on-line. But he is one of the “top 40” famous photographers. But the work of thousands of photographers will be relegated to the cob-webbed storage rooms of what now looks more and more like ancient history. Its rather sad to know that I am one of them.

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