As with last month’s (and continuing) protests, images from last week’s flooding and wind damage from Tropical Storm Isaias was captured by hundreds, if not thousands, of smart phones. The scenes were also photographed by professional visual journalists working as freelancers, for the wire services, and for newspapers and websites.
It’s easy to take photography for granted these days. And it’s hard to sort out the images that best connect us all as residents of the Philadelphia region.
Take a look through two galleries of Inquirer photos.
Thousands of local newspapers have closed in recent years, and many others have even decided they can do without professional staff photographers. In big cities like Chicago, Atlanta, and New York and locally in Bucks and Burlington Counties. And in small towns like Middletown, N.Y., where the Times Herald-Record also laid off its entire photography staff.
It was in Middletown that researchers at the Universities of South Carolina and Oklahoma looked into whether readers even noticed (spoiler alert: they did). The American Press Institute reported the findings a few years ago that “professional photojournalists matter, even in the age of smartphones. When newsrooms eliminate their photojournalism staff, it seems, they also eliminate a compelling component of news.”
A few years ago, the National Press Photographers Association funded a project to determine the value readers place on photojournalism. The study combined tracking eye movements of viewers with surveys and found participants were able to tell professional photos apart 90 percent of the time. They also produced a video.
At one time, just knowing how to physically operate the hardware was enough to get you into photojournalism. Being able to properly adjust the camera’s settings to make a picture that was not blurry, or too dark or too bright or too far away was really important. Then, if you could get a decent negative, you had to go into the darkroom to make a print. There were smelly chemicals, and well, working in the dark.
Now we have the 11th generation of a smartphone the manufacturer says is “now powerful enough to be called Pro.”
So, how does a newspaper photojournalist stay relevant when anyone (willing to spend $1,449) for a “transformative triple‑camera system that adds tons of capability without complexity… that doubles down on machine learning and pushes the boundaries of what a smartphone can do.”
The way we always have, by making creative, deliberate, informative, emotional, and aesthetically interesting images possible. On deadline.
So, this brings me back to coverage of Isaias last week. I had been driving – from Camden County to Montgomery County, looking for people affected by the storm.
The greatest increase in water levels was on the Schuylkill, and as you can see in the galleries above, my colleagues had throughout the day photographed the flooding in many areas along the river and its tributaries.
As the day was ending, I had decided to try to capture that surge of water and thought of the river’s most iconic sections, along Boathouse Row.
While I could see the houses while passing on the expressway, and knew that the docks had been taken in before the storm arrived. But with Martin Luther King Drive closed to vehicular traffic during the pandemic, I couldn’t easily get to the traditional view of the rowing clubs. I went instead to the Fairmount Water Works, behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The fast-moving water passing over the dam was impressive, but it lacked the scale I was looking for, so as the sun continued to set, I walked back to higher ground.
But that still didn’t convey concisely enough what I was seeing. I wanted to get the people watching from the promenade, so I kept moving, dodging the trees and trying to clear the tops of buildings at the Water Works, all while the sun was just about gone.
I first made the photograph at the very top, with my 70-200mm lens, then zoomed in to catch the last bits of sunlight highlighting the water. With a record flood stage - the fifth highest crest of the river in recorded history - it’s a view we are unlikely to see again.
Our newspaper and website help create that emotional connection, with pictures that combine journalistic and visual aesthetics. That work, and the fact-based, in-depth local reporting done by the rest of our newsroom are crucial to our region. If you value this work, please support us by subscribing.
Since 1998, a black-and-white photo has appeared every Monday in staff photographer Tom Gralish’s photo column in The Inquirer’s local news section. Here are the most recent, in color: