PPD Master Series: Photojournalist Eli Reed: Always Pushing the Envelope

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday February 3, 2016

Photojournalist Eli Reed is living proof that successful careers are often born of a healthy mix of talent, luck and steadfast perseverance in the face of adversity.

Luck has been a repeating (you might even say relentless) theme in Reed’s photographic life. Very early in his career, for example, a chance meeting on the street with New York photographer Donald Greenhaus led to his becoming Greenhaus’ very first student and protégé. Then in 1977, after his car broke down in upstate New York, another somewhat whimsical encounter led to his first full-time job as a photographer at the Middletown Times Herald Record. In 1983 yet another serendipitous moment resulted in Reed becoming the first photographer in the history of the Magnum Agency to be accepted as a nominee member directly from a newspaper.

But if luck has been his constant companion, so has a blatant wall of racial discrimination—something he encountered almost immediately after graduating from the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts. “I was looking for work as an illustrator at the time and I went to this one place that was looking for a courtroom illustrator,” he recalls. “The guy said he liked my work and thought it was very interesting stuff, but he closed the conversation with, ‘But you wouldn’t like it here.’ When you get hit with that at first you wonder, ‘What is he talking about?’ and then you realize immediately what he’s talking about, they don’t want you there because you’re black.

Though Reed repeatedly ran into similar racial barriers, he chose to push past them. “Being in a minority you recognize that you’re being tolerated at times and tested,” he says. “But I didn’t care because there’s a bigger world out there. You can’t let excuses get in the way, you really can’t. Life is too rich.”

And then, of course, there is his obvious abundance of talent. Since beginning his freelance career in 1970, Reed has gone on to collect an unparalleled body of awards and honors in photojournalism. In 1981, while working as a staffer at the San Francisco Examiner, he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In 1982 he was awarded a very prestigious Nieman Fellowship  at Harvard University. Then in 1992 he received a W. Eugene Smith Grant in Documentary Photography. And in 1988 he was the first black photographer to join Magnum as a full member. As a Magnum shooter his work has been published in National Geographic, Life, People, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Sports Illustrated and many other publications.

Reed has also published a number of highly acclaimed books including Beirut: City of Regrets (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1988), Black in America New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997) and his most recent book A Long Walk Home, published by the University of Texas Press in 2015. Reed is also a member of the exclusive Sony Artisans of Imagery program. You can follow him and other Sony photographers on Instagram@sonyalpha.

Reed recently talked with writer Jeff Wignall about his early struggles against racism, his many career accomplishments and his current work as a Clinical Professor  of Photojournalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

PPD:  When you were growing up in New Jersey, were you aware of the weekly picture magazines like Life and Look?

ER:  Yes, the weekly magazines were one of the things that gave me the idea that photography could take me to other places, places that I could not imagine before. They were pretty real for me, I guess that’s what helped me make the leap into this other reality, the fact that there was another life out there and places to be seen that I had not seen. Magazines like Life and Look contributed to me wanting to know about the rest of the world and to see it with my own eyes. You see places you’ve never seen and you wonder, what’s it like being there?

PPD: How did you get involved in photography?

ER: After high school I went to art school and I was studying illustration and in my last year I took photography as an elective. At that point I was further along than most of the other students because I had already created a home darkroom in a clothes closet beneath the stairs in the housing project where I lived with my family. I had an enlarger and trays just set up on TV trays in this closet. By the time I was in my last year of school I found a small studio where I was paying $40 a month rent in the center of town. I got it as a place to work on my school work because I had to do all kinds of projects. I really wanted to be an illustrator but for me photography was like a different kind of brush.

PPD: What do you think pushed you toward photojournalism?

ER: I was always a student of world history and that goes back to when I was in high school. Back then I had this teacher who explained world history, not just by the books, but in a more real way. All of this stuff was going into my head and it was preparing me to explore a world that exists that most people don’t think about. In a lot of ways I didn’t miss a trick when it came to learning about world history, maybe because I read so much and I had open ears.

PPD: Did you actively pursue a career in photojournalism after art school?

ER: It’s funny, I think I was ready to be a photojournalist but it took me a long time to actually get into that place largely because of racism. At the time I was trying to take my art portfolio around to different publishing houses and the guys looking at it didn't take me seriously. They would see something in my work that they thought was interesting and they would say, “Oh, that’s interesting—Matty could do something really interesting with that...” And they would talk like that right in front of me, as if I wasn’t sitting there.

                 Camera: Sony a7 with a Sony FE 70-200mm f/4.0 G OSS Lens. Exposure was 1/1000 second at f/5.0, ISO 50. Exposure compensation: -0.7 stops.

                Camera: Sony a7 with a Sony FE 24-70mm F4.0 ZA OSS lens. Exposure: 1/60 second at f/4.5, ISO 100. Exposure compensation: -0.7 stops.

PPD: Do you recall your first magazine assignment?

ER:  Yes, believe it or not, it was a portrait for Vogue magazine. I had met a man whose wife worked at Vogue magazine. He and his wife were going to start a newspaper to compete with the Village Voice. One day his wife asked me to bring over some of my pictures to show her and she laid all of my photos on the floor and kind of arranged them for me. She was the one who helped put my photos into a portfolio for the first time. She asked if she could show that portfolio to her boss at Vogue and her boss looked at the pictures and said, “Give the kid a job.” I got an assignment to do a portrait of an ambassador’s wife. They liked the photo and they ran it and I got a nice compliment in a note from the head honcho at the magazine.

Somebody that knew better could have made that a big career start right from there, but I’m glad it didn’t start from there. It showed me what could be done if you had someone that believe in you and got you published, but also if I had done that, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten to the places that I’ve been to with my photography. Sometimes you settle because you’re trying to deliver exactly what the people who hired you want and that isn’t always the best thing to do because you won’t always know what you’re really capable of doing. It was an interesting bit of luck that I didn’t know any better, but it all worked out.

                  Camera: Sony Alpha a7 II with a Sony FE 24-70mm F4.0 ZA OSS. Exposure was 1/80 second at f/4, ISO 100. Exposure compensation: -0.3 stops.

PPD: You’ve credited photographer Donald Greenhaus with being your mentor. How did you meet him?

ER: Yes, after that Vogue assignment I ran into Donald, around 1970, and he became my mentor. I was working on a rock magazine at the time and it wasn’t even really a job, I wasn't getting paid for it, it was more like a volunteer thing. I just ran into him on the street and I asked him which way to the Port Authority. He noticed a camera around my neck and I was carrying some contact sheets and he asked me if I was a professional photographer and I told him what I’d been doing and we started talking.

He asked me if I wanted to check out his studio, so I went with him and he showed me his work. He showed me some pictures that he’d done of an 18-wheel trucker and also some work he had done at a nursing home. It was very powerful work. I became his protégé and he mentored me and I was his first student. He taught at the New School for 13 or 14 years, but I was his first student. Donald was tough and he didn’t put up with crap but he saw that I had the fire in the belly. I listened ears wide open because how many times do you get an opportunity like that, to join up with somebody like that? That was a beginning of sorts for me. There was so much to learn and to be the student witness.

PPD: Were you trying to get assignments at that time as well?

ER:  I was working in a hospital at the time and I really wasn’t getting anywhere with publications and there were publications that nearly laughed in my face. All that said to me was that these were places that I didn’t want to work for anyway. I just kept working and Donald kept reminding me that the work was the thing, you just do the best that you can. You work on whatever you can and you don’t turn down things if you get an opportunity, you just do it.

PPD: You ended up working at several newspapers, how did that happen?

ER: Again, it was really luck. Around that time I was volunteering one day a week to teach photography at a prison in upstate New York. One night I was driving home and my car broke down, so I went to the bus station to get back to New Jersey. The bus wasn’t due for a while, so I walked around the town and I saw a guy closing up his restaurant and I decided to take a picture through the window. Just as I hit the shutter I saw a face appear in the reflection like a Cheshire Cat smiling back at me and so I took the picture and I turned around and this guy says to me, “I can see by your camera you’re a man of distinction.” I was shooting with a Leica camera at the time.

He introduced himself as a reporter who does features for the Middletown Times Herald-Record. We started talking and he asked if I’d like to see the newspaper. I thought it was going to be some kind of small storefront type thing but it was a big newspaper. And he introduced me to the executive editor and he told me to come back and show him some of my work. I did go back and he told me that there weren’t any openings but he told me to keep in touch. It took a year, but I ended up replacing one of their photographers and that was my first newspaper job and so I moved up to Monticello, New York. That was my beginning as actually working for as a paid staffer and I was there for one year and then from there I got recruited by the Detroit News and later the San Francisco Examiner.

PPD: How did you come to the attention of Magnum:

ER: In 1982 I was working for the San Francisco Examiner and lots of things were going on in Central America and I wanted to go to El Salvador and see what was happening for myself. I kept on trying to get the paper to send me, but my boss just laughed and said, “That’s not going to happen.” Eventually though I ended up going to El Salvador for them. They did a 15-part series and then created a 52-page reprint of that. A woman that I knew at the ICP saw that work and asked me if I would stop by the ICP offices in New York and show her some of my work. So just before the start of my Nieman year at Harvard I stopped and showed her some work and the 52-page reprint and she showed it to Cornell Capa. He was a bit discouraging, but told me to keep in touch and I left.

As I walked out the door of the ICP and I ran into a photographer named John Gallardo that I knew from San Francisco. He happened to know Rosemary Wheeler who was the bureau chief for Magnum in New York. I gave him a copy of the insert and asked him if he would show it to her. I knew she was tough and she didn’t play games and I just wanted to get some feedback from her, to ask her what I missed, what I could have done better, etc. I figured who better than someone like her who wasn’t going to mince words. And that’s all that I was looking for, I wasn’t trying to sneak into Magnum. John agreed to show it to her.

PPD: How soon did you hear from them?

ER:  Later that day I was visiting Donald Greenhaus and while I was there I got a call from Philip Jones Griffiths, the president of Magnum. The first thing he said was, “This is Philip Jones Griffiths and I’d like to seduce you into joining Magnum.” I thought it was a joke or something. I made an appointment to see him the next day. And it was interesting because from the moment that I walked in the door everyone was treating me like I was already a member. That’s not the normal thing I’ve experienced, either. They were very welcoming.

The way that you get into Magnum is to prepare a portfolio and that gets presented at a meeting and it takes 50-percent of votes from the members for you to get voted in. I didn't really expect to get voted in, but I was. I joined Magnum at the June meeting, just after I finished my year at Harvard. I’m the first and the last photographer ever to be taken into Magnum directly from a newspaper.

PPD: A lot of the situations that you’ve been in, El Salvador and Beirut to name a few, have put you in grave danger. How do you handle being in situations like that?

ER: Once you're there it’s focus, focus and more focus. You have to focus on everything that is around you, and you have to think about what you can get away with and then how you can make a certain situation make sense. You’re there because you wanted to say something, you wanted to see for yourself, so if anything happens to you, who are you going to blame? My feeling was that at least I’m not going to go out without trying. I had a contract on me once in Beirut for two weeks and the smartest thing would have been to leave immediately, but I don’t like leaving under circumstances like that and so I didn’t. It’s not like you plan it. You just get through one day, then the next day, and there are some real close calls. You have to be alert.

                  Camera: Sony a7 with a Sony FE 70-200mm f/4.0 G OSS Lens. Exposure was: 1/125 at f/4, ISO 1600

                   Camera: Sony a7 with a Sony FE 70-200mm f/4.0 G OSS Lens. Exposure was: 1/25 at f/4, ISO 2500. Exposure compensation: -1 stop.

PPD: Let’s talk about the gear that you’re working with today. Were you an instant convert to the mirrorless camera concept or was there something that attracted you to Sony cameras?

ER: I’d been using Sony cameras for quite a while, but when they came out with the A7 I was really curious about it. I’ve been getting more into filming and directing and the Sony cameras are a perfect vehicle because you’re able to shoot both stills and video.

When I first heard about mirrorless cameras I remember thinking to myself, “Yeah, like that’s going to happen.” But the technology works and Sony is kicking everyone’s butt with these cameras and everyone is turning to them. As a filmmaker I’m able to do still shots on movie sets with them and as a still photographer I now have the ability to shoot high-quality video footage, too. You can’t beat that. The ability to shoot both stills and film makes them a complete weapon. I’m sold on the technology in a big way.

PPD: Is the compact size and weight of mirrorless cameras a factor for you?

ER: Yes, the compact design of a mirrorless camera is a very freeing thing because it takes away a lot of the bulk that you get with an SLR camera. The thing is that I like to travel light, I like to travel so that I can do my work in a very quiet manner. I’m not interested in making an announcement that, “OK everybody, the big single-lens-reflex guy is here and he’s ready to shoot.” It’s funny, but I see all of these photographers holding up big cameras like they’re making their offerings to the gods. I just want to work quietly and I want versatile equipment that works. Also, I’m really rough on cameras and I haven’t been able to destroy a Sony camera yet. I drop things and bump things all the time. I need a camera to be tough.

PPD: Do you find the controls of the cameras easy to work with?

ER: The funny thing is, I carry two instruction manuals with me, for the a7R II and the a7S II, but I’ve yet to crack them open. I know that I should but that hasn’t gotten in the way, they just keep on working. I like to use the equipment that I don’t like having to read about it. I love that the camera works so easily without me having to open the manuals. The ultimate question for me is simply, “Does it work?”

PPD: What Sony gear are you carrying with you on assignments?

ER:  I constantly carry the Sony a7R II and the a7S II. The a7S II is absolutely amazing, in fact, it’s almost scary amazing. And I also have my original A7R and A7S waiting in the wings.

As far as lenses, I carry the Sony SEL35F14Z Distagon T FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA, Sony 24-70mm F4 Vario-Tessar T* FE OSS, the Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS and I have a Sony 55mm F1.8 Sonnar T* FE ZA which is a beautiful lens. I had a Sony 35mm F2.8 Sonnar T* FE ZA , but I actually gave that to my assistant with my first A7 because she helps me with so many things and she just fell in love with it immediately.

PPD: What do you think of the quality of working with full-frame bodies?

ER: I’m working on a lot of different projects from which I’m going to make big exhibition prints and the quality of the files is mind boggling. One of my favorite pictures that I shot in Korea was of a concert and I was shooting with a 70-200mm f/4 and I was shooting at ISO 2500 and the exposure was 1/25 at f/4 with the lens at 130mm and the images are perfectly sharp with incredible detail. That’s the proof in the pudding, you can’t beat that. And that’s what I’m interested in, the results. There was a time when everyone had to have a Leica or a Nikon, but this is the time of the Sony. It’s a new time for photography and Sony is leading that edge.

PPD: Do you consciously think about the potential political or social impact of your images when you're shooting?

ER:  You just try and try and try to do the right thing. And the right thing is different for different people. I think that my thing is to do the best that I can. I’d like to know that I could do something before I leave this planet that is something of worth. I know that the work that I do is not necessarily going to change anything, but there is the possibility that it will.

Most people don’t really understand that. You don’t choose the time when it’s going to work, all you can do is to take part in it. You do the best that you can and don’t sit crying the blues that nothing is changing. Things always change, you might not see the changes, but things change. I say this over and over again to students, it is not a sprint, it is a marathon. It’s not going to happen immediately just because it’s convenient for you. I’ve been lucky, there have been so many things that I’ve worked on that have impacted change.

PPD:  What is the concept of your latest book, “A Long Walk Home?”
ER: The book is about what it’s like to be a human being. It’s a complicated world out there and that’s what you're trying to make sense of with your work. You’re trying to understand it yourself, let alone show it to other people. Every photographer has something in them is compelled to try and figure it out and by figuring it out, whoever else is out there listening or interested in it benefits from it also.

That’s the honest to God truth. It’s all about your sense of wonder, or your sense of outrage, or that you think that what you’re seeing is so special that someone else should know about this. You go and try to do the best that you can do. It’s all about the work.

The book was published by the University of Texas Press, they are an amazing publisher, and it is doing extremely well. Putting the book together was fun, but it was also hell. For every picture that you put in a book like that, there is a picture that you have to leave out.

PPD: Do you have any advice for someone that wants to go into photography as a career?

ER: If you want to go into photography you should do one thing, and that’s follow your instincts. People will say they want to photograph this, or they want to photograph that, but the question is what do you really want to photograph? You have to listen to your own life and look at your own interests to see where you’re going to go with your photography. If you don’t do that then you’re just repeating what everyone else has done and why should anybody care? You have to be original and true to your own self. If you can do that, then you'll be in good shape.

You should always be pushing the envelope all that you can and if you do it for yourself the benefits going out to the people that you’re working for will be tremendous and somebody is going to notice. They are going to give you a chance to do things. It may take a while but I just can’t see not pushing when you're doing something that other people would kill to have the opportunity to do. Why would you not want to do that? You’ve got a camera and you’ve got a job and other people don’t get that chance too often.

                                 Camera: Sony a7S with a FE 55mm F1.8 ZA. Exposure was 1/60 at f2.0, ISO 100. Exposure compensation: -0.7 stops                            


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