The Chicago Sun-Times just announced that they are laying off the entire photography staff of the paper. One of those photojournalists is John H. White; a Pulitzer prize winner. As a businessman, I won’t speculate on the hard decisions that a company has to make in order to control costs.
But I do have to question the wisdom of anyone who lays off John H. White.
Along with hundreds of other photojournalists, I knew him as my teacher.
Back when I was getting my Bachelor Of Arts degree at Columbia College, photojournalism was a required course for my major. I signed up for it “knowing” that I was going to hate it. After all, photojournalism was for shooters who had “no finesse,” “no technique,” and “who took tons of images hoping that they would get a good picture.”
In my arrogance and ignorance, that’s what I thought. So as I sat down with other photographers at Columbia, I received my first hint of what was to come. I asked the 4th year students what they thought about my future instructor, John H. White.
They started to smile. And laugh.
“Bring your camera”
“Yeah. Bring your camera to class”
“Is he that bad?” I asked.
“No,” they responded. “He’s that good.”
And that was all that they would tell me. Over the next semester, I found out just how amazing he was. He not only convinced me that Photojournalism is art, but he made me understand what being a teacher and a leader is all about. With that in mind, I’d like to share three of my favorite experiences with John H. White.
It was towards the end of the semester. I was late to class, but it didn’t matter. John H. White often came straight from work where he was held up because of an assignment. We never complained, because John always stayed late. It wasn’t unusual for class to end an hour late. Students rarely left early. Why would you? You were getting the wisdom of a Pulitzer prize winning photographer.
John always greeted his students one-by-one to check-in with us. “How are you doing, Mr. Abbott?” he asked me.
I could only shake my head in reply.
I was miserable. In truth, I was over-reacting. It was a woman. We dated a couple of times. Things were going great, and then she didn’t want to see me again. That wasn’t the tough part. She wouldn’t tell me why, and it was playing havoc on every insecurity I had.
I normally wasn’t this somber, and John took note. “Is it anything that you want to talk about?”
I looked around at the rest of the class. No, I didn’t want to discuss my insecurities in front of the rest of the class. “Not now…” I answered truthfully.
I gladly accepted and waited the 4 hours or so for the class to end. Students were still milling around when John waved me over. Again, he asked me what was wrong. I asked him if we could wait until everyone had left. He nodded, and then suggested that maybe we could go out for a quick drink.
He walked me across the street to a restaurant and we sat down. He told me to order some food, on him. Then he mentioned that he had to make a phone call. Since this was before cell phones were common, that meant he had to leave the table to find a phone. He came back and we talked for over an hour.
It didn’t strike me until way, way later. I don’t remember how I pieced it together. But John’s phone call had been to tell an important person in his life that he would be late. That he was helping a student with a problem.
There are teachers that you remember for their brilliance, and teachers that you remember for their caring. Then there’s John H. White… who has shared both with me.
My second story involves another person, so I’m calling her Jenna.
She was a huge fan of John H. White, as one of his students. Towards the end of the semester, disaster struck. She had left a box full of her negative and prints on a bus. It was literally everything that she had worked on that semester. In the final days, she had to shoot as much as she could, and Jenna managed to quickly make 3 prints from those negatives. She was supposed to have 20 of them. Because she was in such a rush, the 3 prints were poorly printed.
With her heart in her stomach she bought them to class.
During finals, John H. White has his students lay their matted prints on the ground in rows. The class walks around them – as a group – for several minutes. After everyone has had a chance to see them, John starts to critique them. He begins with the problems of the images, and then he tells the student what he likes.
Jenna waited last. You could tell from the look on her face that she wanted to disappear. The man that she strongly admired was about to see some of the worst prints that she had ever produced… and there were only 3 of them. And this was her final.
John knew she was last, and said something to the effect of “let’s see your prints.”
She sheepishly put them on the ground.
There wasn’t a lot to see. We all gathered around, and within a minute, everyone had a chance to look at all 3 of them. Heck… my stomach was in my throat. With one strong word from John, Jenna might crumble into a ball and start crying.
But what John did next will always stick with me.
He started out by explaining to the class that she had lost her negatives, and that this was a couple of days of work that we were looking at. He looked at her, and said, “We’re not even going to talk about the print quality. Because you know how I feel about that…”
And then he started talking about what she did better then anyone else in the class: How Jenna captured faces. How she managed to capture expressions and emotions.
You could see it in those 3 images. It was true. But John went beyond that. He then described other images that she had taken, ones that she had since lost.
In the time that he talked about her images, he lifted Jenna’s soul. He made her feel whole again. He let her know that he’d been paying attention, all semester, to what she did well. While I don’t remember Jenna leaving the final laughing, he managed to prevent her from having a meltdown. Which was huge.
My final story takes place a long time after I was in his class.
John had sent out a notice to all of his students that he wouldn’t be in touch for a while. He was going on a trip to South Africa with Jesse Jackson. The next thing that I know, I’m watching television as Jesse is speaking from the doorway of Nelson Mandela’s house. Nelson had just been released from prison. As Jesse introduces Nelson to the press, he says something about “and this is the press from Chicago.”
Jesse reaches towards his friend, John H. White. I hear a number of shutters in a row, and I know that its John shooting a picture at that moment, as Jesse escorts him into Nelson’s home.
John once told the class that being a photographer is having a front seat to history. I can’t even fathom what he was feeling that day. But in that split moment where his friend was inviting him into Nelson Mandela’s home, his very first instinct was to get the picture… before going inside. Its also worth also noting that once he was inside, he respected the privacy of the man who had just been released from prison… and largely kept his camera to himself.
The image that I have of the seagull, above, is recognizable to anyone who has taken John’s class. John regularly takes photos at sunrise, near the lake. When he sees a seagull, he tries to catch it with its wingtips up. His motto is “Keep In Flight,” and he often signs a note by adding the shape of the wings, as above.
Whenever I see a seagull, I do the same thing.
You may notice that the image has my watermark. My complete name is John Henry Abbott. Up until meeting John H. White, I had kept my middle name mostly to myself.
However, my pride in having met the man and having been taught by him is so extreme, that I even find pride that we have the same first name and middle initial.
You’ll note that I’ve included a couple of pictures here that seem unrelated.
They are not.
I wouldn’t have taken either of them if it wasn’t for John H. White.
I wouldn’t have dared taken on a documentary project on my own volition.
I wouldn’t have captured Bill Clinton on the day that he clinched the Democratic nomination for president.
I wouldn’t be the improv photographer that I am, and I certainly wouldn’t be the teacher that I am. I wouldn’t have been an extra on the set of the television show “Boss,” as a photojournalist. (The wardrobe person wouldn’t have looked at me, approved of the way I looked, and said, “Yeah… you’re a photojournalist.”)
I know that John H. White will continue to shoot, and that someone will hire him to take photos of events. You’d be stupid not to. I know that I’ll be at an event, and I’ll run into him again. (I keep on doing that. He’ll see me and wink.) Most importantly, I know that he’ll continue to teach and inspire.
Because that’s what he does.
To Mr. John H. White; I just wanted you to know, I’m still “keeping in flight.”