The big picture

The Independent revolutionised news photography, says Andreas Whittam Smith
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I look back on the early days of the Independent with pleasure but never more so than when I remember its photographs. Before our arrival in 1986, there had not really been good pictures in national newspapers because printing had become so poor. Many images looked as if they had been taken during a snow storm. Editors lost confidence in the role of newspaper photographs and began to crop them tightly and leave out what was considered to be inessential. The Independent's great advantage was to print outside Fleet Street on good quality presses. We could publish big pictures and hold the detail.

Before we were established, I remember a picture of a prostitute in the Daily Mail. She was reposing decorously on what must have been a bed, but I couldn't really tell; I was disappointed in seeing only her alone, for what I also wanted to examine was her whole room, what was on the mantelpiece as well as what she was wearing.

This, indeed, is the secret of the good newspaper picture. It is the telling detail which makes the difference. In Brian Harris' photograph of the vast crowds in Prague during the collapse of the communist regime, it was the statue of the knight on horseback looming over everything which drew the eye and set everything in its physical, historical and emotional context. When an Independent photographer was taking a picture of James Callaghan at home, a granddaughter came over to see what was going on and kneeled on a stool; the picture contained them both, the former prime minister and the little girl. It was the child gazing up at her grandfather which gave the picture its power. A photograph of Richard Branson sitting sadly on the steps of a house after losing the Camelot contract gained its interest from the house itself; Mr Branson was not in an office but outside a white stucco Victorian house in West London. This was not the normal business setting and said something about the man. In a photograph of extreme right activists celebrating a local election victory in East London, the photographer somehow focused on the gleaming white teeth in wide-open mouths and thus conveyed the brutality of skinheads.

Indeed, the wonder of photojournalism is that news photographers rarely have time to arrange their pictures unless they be portrait shots. More often, they are being jostled by rivals or being pressed by a fast moving event. They may even fear for their safety. Yet this immediacy has powerfully contributed to the qualities of the photograph. At their best, news photographers snatch shots which combine news value and aesthetic quality.

Such photographs deserve to be published at a handsome size. They carry emotional power, and can truly be worth a thousand words. This is more evident when they are shot in black and white rather than full colour. The tonal variations of the former are subtle. That is why the Independent's photographers have always found it important to develop their own black-and-white prints. This is the last stage in a process which starts out in the field. Great is the skill required and great is the thrill when everything clicks.

Andreas Whittam Smith was founding editor of the Independent