Critique – New York Times 2011 Year in Pictures


Photojournalists face the daunting challenge of capturing newsworthy moments, often in dangerous situations, in a manner that communicates the essence of the event or issue. In addition to delivering substance (the news content), they must also use design, lighting, exposure, and composition to communicate meaning. Tragically, some photographers lost their lives this year as they worked to bring us the images we see published.

Newspapers and magazines are full of photographs that only present us with the surface of the news, but each year there are exceptional images that transcend the moment and have more universal meaning. The New York Times 2011 Year in Pictures has many exceptional images that simultaneously capture news and use the language of photography to communicate. I have selected a few to review.

By Moises Saman for the New York Times

This image of Tunisian protesters uses design and composition as key factors to convey the energy and forcefulness of the protests. The colors are sparse and simply distributed between the red banners, the dark clothing, and the white building placing the visual emphasis on the individuals.  The photographer captures the image from a low angle that frames the men leaning out at an angle with their fists raised; this provides a powerful visual thrust on a diagonal that intersects the diagonal line of the building architecture. The intersecting diagonals create an “X” shape that unites a dynamic composition, but also serves as an analogy for a crossroads, which in effect is what was happening in Tunisia at the time. The country was at a crossroads in the process of determining which political direction to set off on.

The side lighting picks out the expressions of several men from the group, which helps to individualize the image. In the bottom right corner a protester stares candidly at the camera, and by extension, the audience for the image. Although the face in the corner is a small part of the image and can almost go unnoticed, since the majority of the visual energy leads away, it plays an important role in the meaning of the image. Tthe gaze of this man engages the audience and as if asking us a question – are we behind them or not?

Moises Sampan succeeded in capturing a newsworthy and significant moment that also represented the state of the country and the power of protest.

The following two images contrast grace, innocence, and femininity with the scars of war to convey the disruption of human conflict.

By Moises Saman for the New York Times

By Moises Saman for the New York Times

Photo Libyan Girl and Father

by Tyler Hicks for The New York Times

Moises Saman and Tyler Hicks captured situations from the conflict in Libya that speak to larger issues of family bonds and the violent residue of war. Saman captured the graceful gesture of a young girl, dressed simply in a red sweater and white scarf, gazing down, in front of a bullet riddled wall. Somehow the lantern above her head survived the attack unscathed. The beauty of the child, her demure gesture and downward gaze are in stark contrast to the dark pockmarks in the wall that surround her. The small scale of the girl in relation to the wall is an important part of the design of the image, as are the contrasting colors and lantern. The visual relationship between the lamp and the girl help anchor the image through the swirl of bullet holes. The child paired with the lamp is a symbol of hope for the future.

There is a similar contrast between harsh reality and beauty in the image by Tyler Hicks of a daughter, weeping, and leaning on her father as he prepares to put her on an evacuation ship. The father is rough-hewn in a military coat, unshaven, with a rifle across his chest and an expression of determination; we only are shown a partial view of his face. The gray, soft wool of the daughter’s sweater as she holds on to her father’s shoulder is in sharp relief to the metal of the gun barrel and the military uniform. The diagonal of her body is in parallel to the rifle – she represents life and caring, the rifle, violence and death. We do not know the history of the man or what side he is on, but it does not matter. What Hicks conveys so adeptly through design and a captured moment is a glimpse into the family intimacy surrounded by the chaos of war.

Egyptian Youth

By Ed Hou for The New York Times

In this image of Egyptian youth gathered around computers, Ed Hou, documented the use of social media and the Internet in the uprising, but he also used exposure,  lighting, and composition to convey the intensity and festiveness of youthful hope. The image is actually quite chaotic – nine people are pictured, each gazing in different directions and involved in different activities, the table is scatted with coffee cups, soda cans, cameras, and even a roll of toilet paper. But what locks down the composition is the young man in the center, illuminated by the intense blue light of the MacBook computer screen at which he is staring as if in a trance. In contrast, the rest of the people are smiling, talking, smoking….socializing – he appears to be alone in his thoughts. By using the contrast between the warm color temperature of tungsten light coming from above and the cool temperature of the LCD panel angled from below, Ou, guides the viewers eye directly to the focal point of the image. The rest of the people are visible, but they are in shadows. The image puts social media in the context of a social gathering and uses the light from the technology itself as an analogy for lighting the way forward.

A similar theme is sounded by Linsey Addario, in which a PDA stands out like a beacon of light in an evening gathering of women; the photographer connects the social media device to an actual social event.

Girl and PDA

By Linsey Addario for The New York Times

There are many outstanding examples of combining content and composition in the New York Times 2011 Year in Pictures. Some images from the New York Times review only work with surface stereotypes as a way of summarizing events. Others, such as the examples above, go beyond the moment itself to represent a humanly significant moment in a way that prompts reflection and understanding.

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About Douglas Barkey

Director of Teaching and Learning Effectiveness The Art Institutes
This entry was posted in Design of Photography, Photo Criticism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Critique – New York Times 2011 Year in Pictures

  1. gabietenberg says:

    I always maintained the view that The New York Times, and often The Christian Science Monitor, have photojournalists whose work is wonderfully artistic by any measure. I remember seeing the picture by Ed Hou one morning in the online cover of The Times. I kept looking at it for a long time.
    It was a combination of elements in a flawless vernacular that made the photograph so interesting at different levels of observation. You make the excellent point, while poetically describing, of how the bluish light is grounding the image. There, in that instant, that fellow felt connected–he was guiding, commanding, informing, via that electronic time machine in front of him. He is in another dimension absorbing information to disseminate to his fellow young activists, while they are in the here and now: sharing coffee and cigarettes, sensing they are taking part in a historical, perhaps even seminal event. The lighting in the rest of the picture is also grand, offering an almost chiaroscuro contrast to the scene. The wall lights, resembling a deer-head trophy; tissue paper, a camera, a soda… It gave one the sense that a new Egypt was about to be birthed.

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