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Longtime Life photo editor reflects on Gordon Parks

Saturday, October 6, 2012

FORT SCOTT, Kan. -- Barbara Baker-Burrows said she never intended to get into the photography field. She just wanted to dance.

Burrows, this year's recipient of the Gordon Parks Choice of Weapons Award, shared some thoughts on Parks and photography, and discussed her career as photo editor at Life magazine during "A Conversation with Bobbi Baker-Burrows" Friday morning at the Danny and Willa Ellis Family Fine Arts Center on the Fort Scott Community College campus.

The event was one of several activities offered during the first day of the ninth annual Gordon Parks Celebration of Culture and Diversity at FSCC, which honors the late Fort Scott native, who was a noted filmmaker, author and musician.

"I never intended to get into it," Baker-Burrows said during the discussion, led by FSCC Director of Development Gary Palmer, a photographer himself. "I wanted to be a dancer and an actress."

While working as a waitress in New York City, Baker-Burrows said she landed a job in photography editing at Life magazine after talking to human resources personnel at the magazine about a job. She said personnel asked her if she had any journalism experience and if she could type or take shorthand. The answer to both questions was "no."

"'Well, what do you do?'" they asked me," she recalled. "I dance."

Baker-Burrows said the staffer told her she was hired.

"That's how it was then," she said. "They thought I would be a perfect fit for Life magazine."

During that time, Baker-Burrows said, "there wasn't pressure on what you had to do. People embraced you. And they were willing to train you in those days.

"We were all working toward one goal -- to make the best magazine we could make," she said.

Baker-Burrows said that although she is not a photographer, she has taken hundreds of pictures and "loves photography." She has worked with "hundreds of great photographers."

"Gordon Parks was one of them," she said.

"Uncle" Gordon, as Baker-Burrows called Parks, was "like family." They often discussed photography and shared thoughts and ideas.

"I adored him ... I adored him," she said. "He was like a father."

Palmer and Baker-Burrows discussed how Parks took photos that were "real," meaning they were never distorted or altered and always conveyed the truth. Baker-Burrows added Parks was also a man of "integrity and trust."

"Gordon was trustworthy," she said. "If you gain trust, people want you back. He was a truly remarkable human being."

Baker-Burrows said Life staff would sometimes airbrush or crop photos, but they were never doctored, which can change the integrity of the image.

"You want to make sure it's the truth," she said. "If you change the picture, you change the truth."

All the photographers at Life had different personalities and editors had to know those personalities to make it easier to choose someone for a particular assignment, Baker-Burrows said.

Gaining the subject's trust and caring about the subject, maintaining integrity and versatility, being respectful and always showing humanity are important tips for photographers to remember. It is also important to be kind to the competition and always help competitors, Baker-Burrows said.

"Parks had all of these things," she said.

Good photographers share certain qualities, Baker-Burrows said.

"They're not always there to get a scoop, but to tell a story, one that's factual," she said.

Baker-Burrows described a typical day on the job while working at Life magazine. She said editors and photographers at the magazine often worked as a team on layout of the magazine. Work assignments were usually planned according to how the day's events developed.

"We were a news magazine; we didn't know what we were going to do that day," she said. "Some stories were planned ahead. The photographers had ideas and we had some."

She faced some challenges in her job, such as assigning and coordinating photography for major events from Life's coverage of the Apollo space program to political conventions and the Olympics.

Baker-Burrows said she always looked forward to going to work each day because of the relationships she had with her coworkers and the "exciting" environment.

"That's the joy of it," she said. "The unpredictability of it."

Baker-Burrows said it is also important for editors to establish relationships with photographers and support each other.

"We thought alike at Life magazine," she said. "In most cases, editors and photographers came together."

Palmer asked Baker-Burrows about her thoughts on the "digital age" and its impact on the photography business.

"I prefer real film," she said. "The saturation of digital is too overwhelming. On the other hand, it's also a complete miracle," as photographers on assignment once had to ship their film to several different locations, which often took a couple of weeks. "They're just e-mailing photos today."

Baker-Burrows urged students and budding photographers in the audience to "have the commitment, find a mentor; someone to take care of you and teach you. Follow your heart and you'll be fine."

She also offered some advice on what makes a good photo. Baker-Burrows said it "depends on the story," but intimacy and candidness are both important. She told students in the audience that she would always make herself available if they needed mentoring, just as Parks did.

Baker-Burrows also talked briefly about the time Life magazine ceased weekly publication in 1972.

"Basically, TV invaded our territory and postal rates also went way up and they decided to close the magazine," she said. "It was a very, very sad time for us. There was a grieving period because we were like a family. We worked and played together. Sometimes I would have to pinch myself and say 'I work for Life magazine.'"

The weekend celebration continues today and concludes with a Celebration Tribute Dinner at 7 p.m. in the lobby of the fine arts center.

The gathering includes the presentation of the Choice of Weapons award to Baker-Burrows. Named after Parks' autobiography, the award was established in recognition of Parks and is presented annually at the celebration.

Baker-Burrows is director of photography for Life books and has been associated with the magazine for more than 45 years.

She has worked in Time Inc.'s magazine development group and was part of the team that created People magazine. She has curated numerous photography exhibits, judged many national and international contests, and occasionally writes about photography.

She has participated in several Gordon Parks celebrations over the years and has also judged the annual Gordon Parks photography contest.

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