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THE GOODS : Photography in a Critical Situation


The old adage, "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all," is one that has been followed, to a fault, in CD-ROMs focusing on the arts.

Whether dealing with music, the visual arts, literature, film or theater, these CD-ROMs are often so Pollyannishly promotional, that they seem to have been created by public relations experts. This is not an unusual situation for a medium in its early years--commentators on radio and television were far less likely to be critical in decades past.

Still, it would be nice if arts CD-ROMs had a bit more edge to them, and that's why the short "editing sessions" on the new photography CD-ROM "Passage to Vietnam" are so refreshing.

This CD-ROM--developed by Rick Smolan, who is best known for founding the wonderful "Day in the Life" photography book series in the early 1980s--shows the work of 70 photographers who took pictures throughout Vietnam during a one-week period in the spring of 1994.

Out of 200,000 images shot by the photographers, only about 350 were chosen and only 170 were included in the book version of the project. A team of photo editors from leading photography and news magazines had the unenviable task of making the tough decisions about which photographs would be included. The "editing section" of the CD-ROM gives you an idea of the process they went through.

Clicking on that section gives you a look at five slides that were under consideration for the "River Life" segment. All five look terrific to an amateur, until hearing the on-screen commentary from two members of the editing team: Michele McNally, the director of photography at Fortune magazine, and Mike Davis, picture editor at National Geographic.

When considering a lyrical sunset shot by London-based photographer Michael Freedman, Davis gives a half-hearted thumbs-up to the abstract effect generated by the groupings of the silhouetted figures in boats. "The quality of light is OK, not perfect," he says.

McNally, however, pulls no punches. She calls the use of silhouettes a "cheap shot" and an "easy way out" for photographers trying for a mysterious effect. "I find these kind of pictures offensive," she says.

They then turn to a picture by Seattle photographer Natalie Forbes of a grouping of small round boats on a river. Davis says it's a nice but unexceptional photo in which "there is no moment" captured.

But they can also be generous. Also from Forbes came a shot of boats tied up at a dock and it brought forth a "Now, this is a beautiful picture" from McNally, who added, when talking about the colors, "The pallet is reminiscent of a fresco."

For these two editors, this kind of evaluating is everyday work, but for someone like me who looks upon photos with a far less critical eye, it was a welcome education.

Unfortunately, the all-too-short "editing" section of "Passage to Vietnam" is the only outstanding feature of the CD-ROM. The photographs, divided into "River Life," "Street Life," "History and the War," "Cultural Heritage," "Industry" and "Youth" are wonderful, but you can see the best of them in the book, which offers better resolution than can be achieved on a computer screen. Also, it's simply easier and more pleasurable to leaf through a book of these amazing images.

But I'm grateful that when I do sit down with a book of great photographs, I'll be able to appreciate them all the more because of the comments of Davis and McNally.

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