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Artsy-fartsy photojournalism

February 4, 2010
A cowboy poet gathers his thoughts

A local cowboy poet gathers his thoughts before taking the stage. Mark B. Gibson photo

I was introduced to the important newspaper term “artsy-fartsy” as a young photojournalist working my first newspaper job, darkroom technician at The Enterprise-Courier in Oregon City, Oregon.

I don’t remember what picture I had submitted, but I remember the crusty old editor complaining about the “artsy-fartsy crap” photographers insisted on submitting in lieu of real news.

They used the picture, and I made an extra $5 on top of my part-time, minimum wage.

That was then, this is now. Not much has changed. I get teased in the newsroom when I submit a bird or scenic photograph, editors scowl and mumble. They don’t call it “artsy-fartsy crap,” perhaps because their readers seem to enjoy it, but they don’t have to like it for all that.

It’s an interesting contradiction: Photographers strive to add the artistic to their work, hunt for the unusual angle or decisive moment. They seek out new meaning in the humdrum repetition of public life, strive to capture the obscure, the juxtaposition, the ironic, the ridiculous. Yet editors, as a rule, hate obscurity, seek out the instantly understandable, revel in the obvious.

Many of the photographs I am most proud of  never run in the newspaper. The above photo is a case in point. The assignment was to cover a local “cowboy gathering.” A cowboy gathering, I discovered, draws together western-style artists and craftsmen, musicians and poets. I explored the booths, admiring the leather work and braided hackamores.

When a pair of local musicians took the stage, I set about photographing them. Stage lighting is always a challenge, but I filled in the available light with a remote flash and it turned out well. As the performers neared the end of their set, a local cowboy poet went behind the backstage curtain to prepare. I watched him pace, passing the window in silhouette, and I focused my camera on him. For a moment he paused at the window to gather himself, a mysterious shadow any performer can relate to. Moments later he was taking the stage, looking perfectly normal and everyday.

I’ve performed myself, and for me the picture of him gathering his thoughts has a lot of meaning, above and beyond the programmed events. It speaks on what it’s like to expose your art to an audience. Art is hard to create, hard to present. It’s risky, it’s scary, it’s fun.

I fearlessly submitted both photos for the next day’s paper, with the suggestion that they run as a package, the self-explanatory and the obscure together.

The musician ran, the poet didn’t.

I can fault the editor: Even I recognized the silhouette as one of those  “artsy-fartsy” pictures that photojournalists are forever trying to pass off as news photographs these days.

The times, they aren’t a-changing.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Eva J. Gibson permalink
    February 25, 2010 02:01

    Hi Mark! I love your artsy fartsy photo. I get tired of the same-o, same-o. Believe me, there are people out here who get tired of it too. Give us an artsy fartsy photo any day. Bring the hidden into the light.

  2. March 3, 2010 20:34

    Hurrah for artsy fartsy photos!!! I really liked this one–and your explanation rang true with me. I, too have stood behind the curtains gathering myself just as the cowboy in this photo.

    I love it. I would frame this one and hang it in my office.

  3. March 4, 2010 21:38

    Hi Mark,

    I just stopped by to check out your site on your dear sisters advice…good advice. Great photography very un-artsy fartsy…with the exception of your cowboy.
    Artsy fartsy is the name of my game so I just had to put a word in for those of us who inhabit the land between fantasy and black & white reality.
    Photographs are facts engaging the mind…artsy fartsy photos are feelings engaging the heart. You can take a photo of the Titanic sinking but until you have one of the terror in the eyes of the passengers or the sorry scene of a husband leaving his family at the at the lifeboat, you don’t know the whole story. Thanks for standing up for photos of the heart Cea would be proud of you.
    Keep up the good work!

    • March 10, 2010 23:54

      Thank you. You’re right, emotion does have a place in even hard news coverage. I personally make no effort to be impartial: I strive instead to be fair. Anything we can do to get beyond and behind “just the facts” is going to help our readers understand the situation.

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