Cover Story Postscripts Now & Then

2001: A Retrospective
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Captured in moments, the year we knew

HOPE TAKES FLIGHT / Photo by Dean Rutz, Sept. 29

At Seattle Center, 1,500 souls raise red, white and blue poster boards to form an enormous flag over the playfield at Memorial Stadium as dozens of white doves are released. In the days following Sept. 11, the people of the Northwest gathered in parks and at churches, along shorelines and streets to express the range of grief and gratitude, anger and hope they were feeling. In downtown Seattle, they marched and chanted for peace; in Bellevue, they made a wall of names to remember firefighters and police lost in action; at Boeing Field, they formed an honor guard to welcome back local emergency teams dispatched to New York to try to help. The gatherings have continued; so have the feelings.

And, understanding.
Newspaper photography, done well, can elicit these things. And more. We know this. But why?

Certainly much can be made of light and composition, gesture and expression, the decisive moment. All good photos have some combination of these elements. But what separates the really good from the merely well-executed?

Interestingly, the newsroom lingo for a photograph is "art," left over from the time before photography when newspaper artists made woodcuts to illustrate stories. Newsroom "budgets" describing stories in progress carry a tagline indicating "art" or "no art" (though one editor occasionally amuses himself by changing the tagline for particularly dull pieces of writing from "no art" to "artless"). But the truth is, newspaper photographs are not Art. They're uncomfortable on the walls of galleries. They prefer hanging around on the cheap paper, having a little give and take with the words and the readers.

The way we experience good photos is something more than merely "reading" them. We experience them in an almost instantaneous and physical way, as though our understanding of them flows straight through the eyes into the bloodstream. And where that understanding settles can vary. Sometimes it lands in your head. Other times it hits your heart or your gut.

SHAKEN, BUT OK / Photo by Tom Reese, Feb. 28

On the last day of February, the biggest earthquake in the state in more than half a century shuddered through Western Washington, shattering windows, toppling bricks and rattling plenty of nerves. Near Seattle's Pioneer Square, Jim Dudney, left, and Tony Webb of Lynnwood celebrate the successful retrieval of a purse from inside their van, which was crushed by bricks falling from a building across from the Exhibition Center. The men were setting up for an RV show at the center, and the purse belonged to a co-worker. Astonishingly, not a single person died in the magnitude-6.8 quake. But dozens reported minor injuries and the estimated damage toll soared past $1 billion. What kept the tally from being much worse was the fact that the temblor was particularly deep beneath the Earth's surface - originating more than 30 miles below Anderson Island in South Puget Sound.

What gives a good newspaper photograph that punch is its ability to get at the essence of its subject, to isolate that subject out of a moment and project it. Getting at the meaning of an event, a relationship, a place, a personality is at the heart of what news photographers do.

Photographs bring life to the newspaper. Ironically, the photograph's power comes from the freezing of time, the very stillness of the picture being part of its strength. A television news image flits across the screen and is gone, replaced by other images in the endless stream. A good newspaper picture beckons patiently, inviting readers to take a second look. That is how a couple of guys celebrating the recovery of a coworker's purse can become our collective sigh of relief at surviving an earthquake, or the simple tearful expression on a young woman's face can connect our shared grief over Sept. 11.

This pursuit of the essence of a subject is a difficult business. In the purest sense, it may be, like the pursuit of "objective" reporting, a fool's mission. Consider the complications: An almost limitless variety of possible subjects may await photographers as they come to work each day. Complicating things further is the necessity to make the photograph when the photograph needs to be made. There is no rewind button in the life of a community. A picture is either made or it is missed. Somewhere near a million people will read this newspaper today. There is some pressure.

Most hours of the day some Seattle Times photographer is out in our community, pursuing the essence of a moment. Displayed here are some of the best of those efforts.

Fred Nelson is a Seattle Times picture editor.
2001: A Retrospective
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