The Chicago Sun-Times, Can Video Replace Iconic Photos?

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If the artist can never, in presence of ever-changing Nature, choose and use more than one single moment, and the painter in particular can use this single moment only from one point of vision; if, again, their works are made not merely to be seen, but to be considered, to be long and repeatedly contemplated, then it is certain that that single moment, and the single viewpoint of that moment, can never be chosen too significantly.
Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, Gotthold Lessing

The Chicago Sun-Times announced yesterday that it is laying off its entire photography staff of about thirty photographers and editors effective immediately. Sadly, this isn't entirely surprising, photography departments everywhere have been melting faster than the Greenland icecap. But one thing about the statement released by the Sun-Times stood out:

Our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements.

Video content?

It sounds like a simple swap—modernize still images with motion—but it's not. Replacing still images with video is a fundamental shift that will move the Sun-Times away from it's role as a promoter of historic, iconic images and closer to the ultra-forgettable: local broadcast news.

Maybe that's an overstatement, but ask yourself this: Can you think of a single iconic video or newsreel, one that epitomizes an historic event, that has burned itself into our collective unconscious and embodies the time and place it was recorded?

Some videos have, because of super saturation by the media, become memorable such the Challenger explosion and 9/11, but none are truly iconic. It's not because videographers are less talented; it's a fundamental difference between the way we consume spatial media, like painting and sculpture, and temporal media that stretch over time, like drama and film. Because the still image lends itself to iconic status in a way that video can't, it's easy to come up with a long list of photographs.

For example:

iconic images
Gus Pasquerella & Alfred Eisenstaedt

There is newsreel footage of both the Hindenburg disaster and VJ day. Neither has entered our collective consciousness and become tightly bound to the events in the way the photographs have. Iconic photographs are in a sense our cultural memory. Can you think of Tiananmen Square without seeing that single protestor in front of the tank? Can you think of Muhammad Ali without Neil Leifer's iconic image of him towering over Sonny Liston? Thanks to Youtube, you can watch that fight anytime you want, but unlike the photograph, the video is more or less forgettable.

Susan Sontag describes the underwhelming impact of video and points out how a single image by Nick Ut sent shock waves into the world that dwarfed the impact of film footage.

Photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. Television is a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again. Photographs like the one that made the front page of most newspapers in the world in 1972—a naked South Vietnamese child just sprayed by American napalm, running down a highway toward the camera, her arms open, screaming with pain—probably did more to increase the public revulsion against the war than a hundred hours of televised barbarities. —On Photography, Susan Sontag

You can find video of the scene Ut shot. As horrifying and deeply moving as it is, it doesn't distill the event into an historic emblem like the photograph.

Also, video doesn't create the same kind of synergy with the text as a still image. The spatial characteristics of a photo dovetail almost perfectly with the sequential nature of the written word. Video, on the other hand, creates a competing sequential line that asks you to choose between reading and watching. Lawrence Sipe points out that the combination of text and image creates the "impulse to be recursive and reflective in our reading" with the text driving us forward while the images "seduce us into to stopping to look".

Because of the the primarily spatial nature of the pictures and our drive to form "unified atemporal structures," our tendency is to gaze on, dwell upon, or contemplate them. In contrast, the primarily temporal nature of the verbal narrative creates in us a tendency to keep on reading, to keep going ahead in what C.S. Lewis termed "narrative lust." —How Picture Books Work, Lawrence Sipe

As hard as it is to imagine the Sun-Times audience clamoring for more video, it's even harder to imagine the Sun-Times editorial staff jettisoning their image makers, which included Pulitzer Prize winner John H. White, to give it to them. It's an enormous price to pay. It's not difficult, however, to imagine the Sun-Times advertising department asking for more video because with more video comes more pre-roll video advertising.

In No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, Robert Hariman and John Lucaites call iconic photos the "leading artifact of public culture." It appear this is something the Chicago Sun-Times will no longer be funding.