Tag Archives: Olympics

Picture post

17 Aug

I’m not sure I’d ever make a photo editor, but if you lay out news pages you have to know which pictures you like and which you don’t, and for some reason I was struck by this one.

It’s a picture of Laura Kenny of the Great Britain cycling team by Alex Whitehead of SWPix. And it’s so well framed, with the Olympic rings up on the banking above her, that it looks almost like a portrait or an old-fashioned photoshoot: “Ride slowly around the track, and don’t look at the camera.”

But there’s a strangely charged quality to it that you can’t put your finger on, until you read the caption and realise that it was taken, not during a photocall, but shortly after a huge crash in the women’s omnium that took down half the field, including Kenny, and left two riders and an official unable to continue. Then the picture reformulates in front of your eyes: suddenly you see the faraway look in Kenny’s eyes that you had noticed without noticing, and realise that the only reason you can see her eyes at all is because the visor on her helmet was broken off in the impact. It’s not a picture of an Olympian fulfilling a media obligation, but of one trying to pull herself together.

As reinterpretations go, it’s not as disorientating as the critic Walter Pater’s famous suggestion that the Mona Lisa might be underwater (“in that cirque of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea”). But the meaning of the image is sufficiently hidden that it doesn’t make a good news photo. It need a caption to explain it, whereas there are any number of agency pictures of riders flying through the air that would tell the story on their own. News pics need to be a kind of search engine optimisation for the eyes: clear explanatory visuals to go with a clear explanatory headline. If you want to publish photographs that reveal their truth slowly, you probably need to get your art critic involved, as the Guardian did for several years.

All this is quite rarefied photographic air, of course: often the material you’re dealing with is, shall we say, less charismatic. Last week’s business section in the Tribune carried a full double-page spread on the rise of air source heat pumps. We sent out a photographer who has immortalised Malala Yousafzai and Leonard Cohen in stunning monochrome, and he still came back with a picture of a smiling couple standing next to a beige box. As the production editor, who was laying out the spread, grumbled, “even Robert Capa would struggle to make this one interesting”.