For more than four decades Barbara "Bobbie" Baker Burrows has worked at LIFE magazine. She's director of photography and currently works on LIFE's special issues and book projects. Just released, "The Classic Collection" is a new kind of book of photography that includes 25 removable prints ready for framing, one of which is the 1960 shot by George Silk, "High Above Forbes Field." Mrs. Burrows is married to Russell Burrows, the son of LIFE photographer Larry Burrows, who is known for his Vietnam War photos. The elder Burrows died with other photojournalists when their helicopter was shot down over Laos in 1971.
She talks about her father-in-law, the digital age of photography and getting the shot.
Q: As picture editor you worked with and knew some of the most talented, accomplished photojournalists of their time. Was there any characteristic they all shared?
A: Yes, versatility. It was not a 9-to-5 job. It was a way of life for us. We, all of us who are still here, are the best of friends, and isn't that a privilege? Even though some of them preferred to do science or human interest or portraits, they were all capable of doing anything they were required to do. I think that is what set LIFE apart and made it the pinnacle of photography.
Q: What criteria do you use to choose a photo for publication, and how subjective is that process?
A: It depends. We were known for our photo essays. Our personality was so different from the other publications. Each story stood on its own. Sometimes it was a one-shot picture. Basically what we did to choose a photograph was how can you make a story out of it. It comes back to a picture is worth a thousand words, but in a photo essay you are telling a tale.
Q: Do you think photos on the Internet have the same impact as photos in print?
A: Well, from my perspective, I have to admit I come from the old school -- no. I have to say as an editor (I am the director of photography for all these books) and I have been at LIFE for 42 years and now photography has become an art, but we were journalists. We would make up hundreds of prints, these wonderful old gelatin prints, and we'd throw them around across the table and were moving them around as a layout and were pinning them on our walls. There are stick pins in some of the old pictures. I appreciated it at the time, but in retrospect I appreciate it so much more now.
Q: So, how has digitalized photography altered photojournalism?
A: First of all, is it the truth? You have to constantly be on guard. There are people out there with the digital age -- you don't know if they are going to add something or take something away. We used to crop in the old days, but it was done with integrity. We didn't alter a photograph to change the truth. I find that part of the digital age a little bit scary.
Q: Luck and timing are important, but the presence of mind to take the shot is a big factor in photojournalism.
A: The great photographers, like Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Eisie [Alfred Eisenstaedt], they always said the same thing -- "the camera was a tool." Luck obviously plays a big part, but anticipation, curiosity, really taking in everything around you and looking for something unique. These are photographers who not only thought about what they were doing but reacted quickly to a situation. Eisie would say it didn't even reach his brain -- it went from his eye to his fingers. All these people nowadays, everybody has a camera, they all think they're photographers. It's like an artist -- you can give anyone in the world a paintbrush, but are they all artists?
Q: I am thinking of the shot of the busboy holding Sen. Robert F. Kennedy just seconds after he was shot.
A: Yep, that was Bill Eppridge. All he had time to do was think, "This is his friend. Should he help him?" Within a split second he realized that he had to take that picture for history because everybody else was helping him. There was nothing that Bill could do to help save him at that point. He knew his job was to record it for history.
Q: You bring up the ethical question of should I help or shoot the picture?
A: I think the people who have been on our staff, the photographers, many of them went out because they wanted to cover the humanity. They would stop if they thought they could help somebody over taking that photograph -- they would help the person. My father-in-law, when he went to cover Vietnam, he didn't feel he had to show the gore of the war. He wanted to show it through their faces, the eyes of the people. You know, you can show a lot more just through the emotion the people are going through, the expression in their faces, their eyes alone. Most of the pictures that are so memorable do evoke emotion, whether it is sorrow or joy or hardship, whatever it is.
Patricia Sheridan can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2613.