I’ve found myself reading a lot of M.F.K. Fisher in recent days. I guess I first read her book “Consider the Oyster” maybe a couple decades ago. I don’t recall how or why I found that book but I love to cook and I’m sure it was more related to my foodie instincts than to a literary quest. Fisher wrote that book in 1941 and in a period from 1937 to 1980, produced about sixteen books of beautiful prose relating her life and experiences in the pursuit of excellence in food and friends and the places she lived, abroad as well as in California, the state of her birth. Her life was not always easy, she had difficult struggles with love and life and wrote sensuously about both.
Over the past several decades I’d discoverer one of Fisher’s works I hadn’t read, sometimes because I was drawn to a cuisine subject that I thought perhaps might school me in certain ways, but with time and experience I’ve picked up Fisher’s books more to enjoy and appreciate truly fine writing. Fisher writes sentences that make me want to return to them before finishing the paragraph that encapsulates them, wondering, how did she think to phrase it just that way? And almost never does it seem forced, but simply fluid and in a sense, musical. There is much in the writing of M.F.K. Fisher that is worth rereading.
And that is what brings me to think about writing as it relates to those who wish to be fine documentary photographers, especially those young ones who perhaps want to be National Geographic photographers. There are so many young, ambitious and talented photographers out there today, far more, I believe, than when I stumbled into a summer photographic internship at National Geographic on the wings of some talent and a lot of passion, almost 53 years ago. But I did have a hole card, so to speak: I felt that I could write. I’d wanted to be a writer before wanting to be a photographer and thought, somewhat naively, if I can’t get a job as a magazine photographer (I didn’t want to be a newspaper photographer because I didn’t think they’d give me the time to do the kind of stories I wanted to do and the reproduction quality available in a good magazine) I’d be a writer. Maybe for a newspaper but I didn’t want to be a newspaper photographer. It didn’t seem so at the time, but in reality, I was hoping for a lot. I realized later how high I’d set the bar of my expectancies considering I had absolutely no professional photography experience. Hell, I’d only had about three years of photography study in the J school and Art department at the University of Minnesota. I studied under Jerome Liebling in the Art Department and I had a mentor and teacher of the finest kind in R. Smith “Smitty” Schuneman, in photojournalism. I also took all the writing courses offered in journalism school.
In my junior year Schuneman pushed me to take a trip to New York City to talk to other photographers, show my work, not looking for a job, just to get responses. And in my senior year I went east again. Upon graduation I was 26, married with four kids, and I certainly needed a job and I wanted that job to be photographing for a magazine. This time on my trip looking for work I lucked out, getting a summer photographic internship at National Geographic Magazine in Washington, D.C. It was rather accidental but it’s too long an explanation for this blog. You can read about it in one of my books.
So there I was, at National Geographic, not thinking about writing anymore, just concentrating on making images in color, something I’d never done before but Geographic was an all-color magazine and I was soon to fall in a life long love affair with the medium. After becoming a staff photographer for about two years following my summer internship, I left my staff position to enter the freelance world. But I relatively soon found myself writing again as the result of turning in a report regarding the possibility of a story on a religious group in Montana called Hutterites. Over the course of a half century contributing to National Geographic I received a number of assignments that were the result of story proposals I wrote for essay subjects I wanted to do. That’s how I enjoyed so much of the 1970s working in Montana, on cowboy outfits, and all that drew me out to the American West. I wrote story proposals so I could get there. I’ve authored a number of National Geographic essays as well as stories I’d proposed for other magazines. At one point I had become in effect, a writer/photographer. But I have never wanted to be a general assignment writer because to me good writing is too hard and the pay has never been that great. I really only want to write what I truly want to write. I need to feel that I have to do it.
But let’s cut to the chase and say just why being able to write well is important to all those young, ambitious photographers out there who are just starting, who want the job I used to have. And I preach about this every time I’m asked to speak to young photographers in high school or in journalism schools at colleges and universities. When talking to such groups I always ask this question, hoping for honesty in their answers: ”How many of you can write?” I’m not asking for aspirations of writing the great American novel or a Hollywood screen play. What I’m asking is for something that runs contrary to what I’ve heard over recent decades: that U.S. public schools are turning out a lot of young people who cannot write simple declarative sentences and put them together into well structured paragraphs. Why am I asking for this? Need I explain?
If a young, talented and energetic photographer has an idea for a story for a magazine, say, National Geographic, and this talented photographer has researched to determine that the magazine has not recently done something quite similar, can this photographer write a proposal in a page, page-and-a-half max, that will persuade an editor or whomever might read the proposal, that this idea might be worth pursuing? It is not enough in these days of such an abundance of photographic talent seeking work in an ever dauntingly competition to simply be able to make great pictures. I have no idea what the process is currently in terms of getting a story proposal into someone at National Geographic but one needs to be able to communicate with words as well as pictures. Being able to get a start toward doing something special may well start with words on a page about an idea for which one has a passion. The right words, well spoken, that make pictures of their own. And for those who are fortunate enough to discover through hard, creative work, the joy of bringing their words and their pictures together, it’s kind of like great music, when you hear it all brought together well, it’s kind of magical.