Sunday, March 8, 2009

"Best photographers have a real heart for the land"

SHE has worked with legendary photographers and journalists like Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Larry Burrows, and all those great names in modern journalism. Armed with a degree in English from the Berkeley University, she was all set for an academic career, but destiny had better things in store for Helen Veret. In 1964 she met up with the Editor-in-Chief of the Life magazine, Hugh Moffet. Impressed by Veret's impressive credentials and her vivacious personality, he offered her the job of editorial assistant. More than 30 years on, Veret is still with Life. "You can see, I have been hooked by Life," she says with a broad smile. Now she is Life's picture-editor, operating from a small office in Paris. Her files are full of famous photographs that Life is famous for. Work begins at noon in her Paris office. Her only other colleague is an American journalist. Vivacious, full of life and also an authority on fashion, Helen is a woman with a contagious love for life. Helen Veret was in Chandigarh along with her architect husband and she gave a lecture here at the Alliance Frances. Kuldip Dhiman met her for an exclusive interview. Excerpts:

What exactly do you look for in a photograph?

A good photograph is a good photograph. An original photograph is one that surprises you; makes you ask questions. It is different. A good picture is a picture that you will always remember, that sticks in your mind. For example when you talk about the Vietnam war, the best pictures that come to your mind are those taken by Larry Burrows. There is a really classic picture shot by him that has a wounded black soldier trying to help a white GI, who is nearly dying. This picture is predominantly green. The green colour strongly accentuates death and misery of war. This photograph highlights the sorry plight of two soldiers who in peace time would not even say hello to each other. And here they are in hell trying to help each other. Oh my God! I get goose pimples when I think about it. That is my idea of a great picture. Then we have another one from Larry Burrows where you see a soldier in a helicopter. He is sitting next to the dead body of his best friend. So, monsieur a good photograph is a good photograph- cest tout!

Do you also suggest stories from Paris?

You see, I work part time. I come to the office at noon and look at all the papers to know what is happening around the world. I try to find potential news stories that have some sort of a link with the USA. We cannot suggest a story from Europe that does not have any connection with the USA. For example, our last story was about some homeless people of New York — very poor people. One was a scientist with no job! You see, these people had jobs, but are desperate now. So, what do they do? They decide to build a raft to cross the Atlantic! When we heard about them, we decided to do a story on them. We organised a helicopter and sent a photographer and a journalist. I, of course, did all the legwork — the organising and the coordinating part. That involved making phone calls to New York to check when the photographer was arriving and did he need an assistant or not. It was a six-page story; completely conceptualised in France, of course, with the okay from New York. If we feel fashion is extraordinary this year and there is a new designer who is different, we suggest it to one of the editors in New York, who goes to our managing editor, Isolate Motley, and discusses it with her. If she likes it, we get the okay.

Photographers visit our office all the time. I look at their work, and if they are good, I hire them for some future story. Then, New York, sometimes, asks me to dig out some old pictures — maybe of World War and a wounded soldier, famous generals, stuff like that. You always have to say 'Okay, don't worry, you will have it by tomorrow. They don't like to take a 'no' for an answer. It is a kind of game, and I really love it.

You have worked with some of the great names in photo journalism, haven't you?

Yes. When the circulation was ten million per week, we had a whole list of photographers who were the very best in the world. Cartier Bresson worked for us; so did all the other great names in photography: Robert Doisneau, Larry Burrows, Edward Newton and Harry Benson — the guy who did those marvellous portraits of the Beatles.

Wasn't it the golden age of Life?

Golden age, bien sure, from our point of view. It is terrible to say, but great pictures were there to be taken. We had the Vietnam war, the Biafra, and the six-day war in Israel. We lost one of our very talented young photographers there on the very first day.

When one thinks of Life, it is usually the big black and white images that come to one's mind — those stark and bold images.

Yes, of course. When I think about those great days of Life, it is always black and white. They do publish black and white now, but I am sad to admit, colour has invaded all the magazines... all the magazines. But remember colour is fragile, it fades,whereas a black and white print of Cartier Bresson's shot in 1939 is still magnificent.

From being a premier weekly selling ten million copies, Life stopped publication in 1972. It resumed publication again in 1978. But the magazine that set high standards for journalism, is finding it hard to justify its existence. What ails Life?

In the olden days, Life was full of news. And Life was the best magazine in the world. Then television invaded our drawing rooms, and you know the rest. Nowadays, a reporter risks his life and goes to, let's say, Bosnia — bombs are falling everywhere, he comes back with great pictures to his agency. Unfortunately, it is usually too late. Very few magazines in the West now publish gloomy pictures. All of them are turning into society-magazines. They want to speak about the Princesses, film stars, celebrities, models. On the cover you might see Princess Caroline of Monaco, or you might have poor Lady Di. You know, to have good news pictures accepted, you have to be very lucky these days. That's why news photographers, most of whom are so dedicated to show what is happening in the world, are a disappointed lot now. We at Life try our best to promote good photo journalism. We have a section called the Big Picture.

After having worked with legends like Bresson and Avendon, how does it feel to work with young photographers?

The new photographers are very active. It is difficult to make a comparison. But definitely, Henri Cartier Bresson will remain a historical fact. Why? Because he is a very cultured man, he is such an exceptional character, a very sensitive man. In my opinion, his best years were between 1936 to the end of the great war. He is incomparable. It is not easy to measure up to a genius like him. The young ones are also good, but they are too young. Mind you, Bression celebrated his 90th birthday last August! I must tell you he looks as fresh as a cucumber. You would think he is 65. He doesn't have anything nice to say about contemporary photographers. He does a lot of sketching now. He used to drawings when he was young, and he has gone back to it. He always criticises photography, but I know — since he is a very good friend of mine — that he loves photography.

Has the information explosion affected news journalism?

"Yes. But I am very old-fashioned, I dare say. I am not for all these image transfers that are done over the computers from one country to another. But it is very convenient. I think the job of the picture researcher is going to disappear. Even the job of the picture editor might become redundant. We might have only one picture editor in New York and why not? It's convenient, it's cost-effective, it's quick. But I don't think all this is going to glorify the quality of pictures: not at all. But I dare say, when I see a very good retrospective of a good photographer... oh what a joy to see some really good prints! Or to see great pictures in a book. I always say that I prefer to see a set of pictures in a book. What a joy! I have a theory, I know photographers are going to be very mad at me for saying this, but I believe that photography is not meant to be exhibited. Painting — yes: photography no. There is always a glare on the photographs when they are exhibited. Of course, to be known, you have to exhibit. I always prefer to look at a photograph in a book.

Do you have a say in the layout?

Unfortunately not. We make a selection, send it to New York, where it is again short-listed by the picture editor there. They then discuss the layout with the art director and the editors. The final layout is, most of the time, a surprise for me. I usually say I would not have done it that way.

How does one become a Life photographer?

The simplest thing is to come to us with a story, not different pictures: we are not interested in different pictures. We see how the photographer has treated the story. When a photographer comes to us and say that he/she has pictures from, let's say, India. I ask her for how long she was in India. If she says 24 hours, then I am not interested. You cannot capture the essence of a country in such a short time ... when you just zoom past a country — no. The best photographers are those who know the people, the customs; they have a real heart for the land. If you don't have your heart beating for what you are doing, the work is no good. Everything comes from the heart. Otherwise, you give a modern instamatic camera to a four-year-old girl, and voila, she can take a picture. What really makes a great photograph is — imagination!

This feature was published on January 31, 1998

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