The Sun-Times eliminates its staff photographers | Bleader

The Sun-Times eliminates its staff photographers


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


Pulitzer Prize winning photographer John White (pictured) was one of the 28 photographers laid off by Sun-Times Media yesterday.
  • Gary Middendorf/Sun-Times Media
  • Pulitzer Prize winning photographer John White (pictured) was one of the 28 photographers laid off by Sun-Times Media yesterday.
A place still remains for staff photography at Sun-Times Media. It graces the corridor walls of the company suite at 350 N. Orleans. Those splendid pictures, spanning decades, saw the company's current photo staff out the door Thursday when the Sun-Times laid off every last one of them.

The paper strained to find something far-sighted in the dismissals. "The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news," said a prepared statement. "We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers, and as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network."

But words like "great progress," "bolstering," and "continues to evolve" don't obscure what's brutal and desperate about these layoffs. Video has transformed the job description of the modern professional journalist—on Thursday afternoon all Sun-Times editorial employees were told they must undergo mandatory training in shooting and editing video, as well as in basic iPhone photo techniques—but newspapers haven't outgrown pictures. If the Sun-Times chooses not to keep professionals on staff to take them—for its constellation of daily and weekly titles—then it thinks it can't afford to. Times are tough indeed.

Twenty-eight photographers lost their jobs—leaving behind two photo editors to deal with the freelancers the Sun-Times must now count on to get by. The day the 28 were sent packing, the Sun-Times published a full-page obit for Bob Kotalik, a retired chief photographer who'd spent 47 years at the Sun-Times and its predecessor Chicago Sun. "He knew that you could never publish an excuse, so he always produced," staff photographer John White said in tribute to Kotalik.

White was among the photographers laid off Thursday. In 1982 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his "consistently excellent work" for the Sun-Times. I was so impressed by a John White picture the Sun-Times published in 1998 that I devoted a column to it. White told me then, "You see everything in an instant. You're comprehending things all in an instant. Our lives, our work, our profession is about capturing an instant that's forever. So we see more than just a fireball, more than just a building, more than just a person—you see all those things. I don't know how you do that, but it's done."

As the newspaper's walls suggest, the Sun-Times has long been associated with distinguished photography. The paper's Jack Dykinga won a Pulitzer for feature photography in 1971. Rich Cahan was the paper's photo editor when Land's End founder Gary Comer hired him away in 1999 to run Chicago in the Year 2000, a massive project that saw more than 200 photographers take more than 500,000 pictures of the city throughout the year. In 2004 Cahan published a photo collection, Real Chicago, drawn completely from Sun-Times files going back to 1940.

Another photographer the Sun-Times just let go is Al Podgorski. When he heard about it, David Royko—Mike Royko's son—e-mailed me. He sent me a link to his blog, to a story David Royko tells there about the time in 1981 when Podgorski, then a student of John White's at Columbia College, took some pictures of Mike Royko, White, and others, knocking back a few at the Billy Goat.

"Why do you want to try to work at a major newspaper as a photographer?" Mike Royko asked Podgorski. "Do you know how hard it is to get a job at the big newspapers? Your teacher [White] is a great guy, but he thinks the world is legit. It isn't. Be smart and be a carpenter or an electrician. Work as a tradesman. You'll be a lot happier."

Royko gave Podgorski a close look. "Well, your eyes are clear . . . you're not on drugs or drunk . . .," he said. "Who knows? Maybe you'll make it."

Whether it's legit or it isn't, the world can be a harsh place.

Some other Sun-Times Media titles subsumed under the Sun-Times brand also enjoyed their hour in the photojournalism sun. In a 2001 column I recalled "a golden era, a brief time when extraordinary photojournalism flourished." The heyday was Fox Valley Press in the 1990s, Fox Valley consisting of dailies in Aurora, Elgin, Waukegan, and Joliet and a string of free Sun weeklies—all owned by the Copley Press chain. But in 2000 Copley sold those papers to Conrad Black's Hollinger International—which already owned the Sun-Times—and Hollinger didn't want to pay what great photojournalism costs. "Photojournalism is expensive," I wrote, "especially the photo essays the Fox Valley papers specialized in." And it demands to be showcased.

Look at today's Sun-Times—at the size of its pages and number of its pages. Where's the room to showcase anything?

This 2010 Reader article by Leah Pietrusiak profiles another Sun-Times photographer from a better time, Howard Simmons. The Reader, by the way, was not affected by Thursday's layoffs, though Sun-Times Media owns us. But times have changed here too. We still have our one-person photo staff, Andrea Bauer, and a Rolodex of top freelancers. But the era when every issue was laced with top photography is behind us. We don't have the room and we don't have the budget.

Were there to be a Chicago in the Year 2014, it might have to be shot entirely with iPhones.

Comments (15)

Showing 1-15 of 15

Add a comment

Add a comment