A new angle on a historic event, what it says about us and why we should have paid for it

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With a single image, the New York Times made news Thursday---a day not lacking in the eventful, given President Obama's speech in Cairo.

 

We all know the photos of the defiant "tank man" standing in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 5, 1989. Now, The Times has stumbled upon a previously-unseen photo of him and given the world a different, and more complex, perspective on an iconic confrontation. We knew less than we realized.

 

 

The evocative image came in the paper's "Lens" blog, one of the nifty desserts in its daily online buffet. Terril Jones, a then-Associated Press reporter who took the shot, contacted the paper after reading four photographers' take on Tiananmen the day before on the same photojournalism blog. Belatedly, he now goes public with his handiwork: a photo giving a distinctly frenzied, street-level context for the confrontation, with "tank man" and two tanks way in the background and some anxious fellows up front, scurrying to get the hell away.

 

Michele Bogart, an art historian at New York's Stony Brook University who writes a lot about culture and images, concedes that it's curious how the reporter didn't think at the time that the shot was significant enough to "scoop" other, instantly-famous pictures. And, at the time, it perhaps wasn't.

 

But it's also pretty interesting how, two decades later, it alters our potent sense of that moment.

 

"Historians of visual culture believe that all images potentially have importance as historical documents, and that they have potential to take on greater meaning when viewed in hindsight," says Bogart. Repeating the drift of one of the commentators the Times uses in the blog, she say, "the picture also highlights changes in fashion, etc., and shows how profound something that seems so mundane and happenstance can be."

 

Jones regrets not having taken more photos "despite the gunshots...so that I might have realized what was unfolding before my eyes." 

 

But he didn't need any more shots to preserve the eloquent evidence we see here, says Mary Panzer, whose essays on photography and modern culture have appeared in Aperture, Vanity Fair and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.

 

Photographers Charlie Cole, Stuart Franklin and Jeff Widener took long-familiar images from windows high in the Beijing Hotel.  "From their viewpoint, the Tank Man's protest appears to a performance, designed for an enormous audience," emailed Panzer, former curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington.

 

"The success of these famous photographs suggests that the Tank Man chose this spot precisely because he knew the photographers would be watching," Panzer wrote me. "But from Jones, we learn how few other witnesses there were, how very solitary he was, and how truly futile his protest would have been had the media not broadcast his action to the world."

 

"This could be a lesson in the nature of journalism: More pictures offer more information," Panzer wrote late Thursday.  "It takes a journalist to gather evidence, analyze it all, and report the story. The story is only important if and when it reaches an audience.  But perhaps the most important message here is also the one that most people will find least useful: save your film."

 

 

Moving from art to business, I found her mention of needing a journalist "to gather evidence, analyze it all, and report the story" to be simple and notable.

 

The newly-released Jones photo just might suggest why newspapers should charge for at least some online content. This wasn't just some mope posting a Polaroid on a website, perhaps with rambling and unedited comments appended. A real journalist did the initial work, while solid, creative and rapid thought by decently-compensated professionals went into the newspaper's presentation of that work.

 

By and large, you can't do that very often with cheap or inexperienced labor; or at least you can't do it consistently if the qualitative bar is set high. In the long run, websites with ambitions to be respected may have to offer more than just a megaphone.

 

 Consumers should pay something, too. The Times' chances for long-term health deserves to be more than (Carlos) Slim-to-none. Start getting people to pay for great stuff like this.

 


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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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