As a kid, I had a variety of heroes. Many of those heroes – Evel Knievel, the Six Million Dollar Man, Roger Staubach – were predictable considering my age. But most of my classmates and friends had never heard the names of some of my heroes. They were legends, bigger than life, amazingly talented, and — to a 12- or 13-year old me – everything a kid could aspire to be.
They were photojournalists. Not just photojournalists, they were the world’s greatest photojournalists, and to me their job was the stuff of dreams. My lifelong love for photography was magnified by 100 when mixed with the exotic travel, dangerous situations, and adrenaline-fueled life of an award-winning photojournalist.
I literally devoured everything I could get my hands on about guys like Peter Turnley and David Hume Kennerly. I scoured every magazine for their photo credits, purchased every book that mentioned them, and (of course) had all of the amazing books they had published.
Although I worked as a journalist for a short time (even won a few awards myself), I never worked behind a camera. Now my job allows me to work with photojournalists virtually on a daily basis – and I’m finding more amazing talent that I’m sure I would have been in awe of as a teen (since I’m in awe of it today). Guys like Saul Young of the Knoxville News Sentinel can see things in the most mundane environment that are simply invisible to mere mortals like us, and turn them into art. (Please note that I know countless amazing photojournalists who wield video cameras, too — but here I’m talking about still photography, and I know too many fantastic videographers to name.)
They say a picture is worth a thousand words … but in the case of these photographers, the saying is selling them short. Way too short. Their work can overshadow a story and stay with a reader years after he or she has forgotten all about what the actual story said. That is what artists do — they leave a lifelong impression on someone.
Here is one of my favorite Peter Turnley photos. This morning on Facebook, he shed some light on the image, the story behind it, and what it means to him. His words are as amazing as the image itself.
Le Tango, rue au Maire, Paris, 1981 (image and words by Peter Turnley)
“When I first arrived in Paris in 1975, I lived in a chamber de bonne on the Ile de la Cite, next to Notre Dame. I had saved money working highway construction, and I paid less than $100 a month for a room with no hot water, no telephone, a bathroom in the hallway, and I would take showers at the public showers on the Ile St. Louis. But, I was in heaven-I would wake up in the mornings to the bells of the Notre Dame Cathedral and I had a balcony with a view of the cathedral. Mornings I would take French classes at the Sorbonne, and in the afternoon, for a period of eight months, I would photograph the life of the old cafes/bistrots of the Le Marais, which was very different then, much more working class, popular, with wonderful scenes of authentic cafe life of a community.
The only way that I could photograph people was to speak to them, and I found with the combination of a daily afternoon of significant doses of red wine people would offer me, and conversation, I was learning French a hundred times faster than my other classmates. Within 3 months I was conversing well and saying things I didn’t even understand what they meant. A few years later, in 1981, I wandered into a dance hall called, Le Tango, one afternoon. It was a very low lit, totally unpretentious dance hall, full of men and women who came to dance and meet each other in the afternoon. I was told to be careful photographing because there were many relationships that were formed there in the afternoons while people’s husbands and wives were at work. I loved this place and came many times.
One afternoon, I saw the couple dancing in this photograph. They weren’t particularly young or handsome, but when they danced together they were regal, majestic! This has always been one of my favorite photographs-it may be because it reminds me of something I have always kept with me-one Saturday night at a polka dance hall in northern Michigan where I went often with my family to dance polka and drink beer-my mother pointed out to me an elder couple dancing, wearing work clothes, but gliding like a king and queen together-my mother pointed towards them and with tears in her eyes, she whispered into my ear, “Peter, don’t ever forget, in this life, you don’t have to be beautiful to be beautiful!”
Story and photo directly above are © Peter Turnley. All Rights Reserved. Paris, 1981.