Thomas J. O'Halloran: a Legacy of Always Being in the Right Place

Thomas J. O'Halloran: a Legacy of Always Being in the Right Place

What does it take to create a body of work that provides a lasting legacy? As Thomas J. O'Halloran shows, it's about always being in the right place at the right time.

In my article on what makes a photo outstanding or extraordinary, I outlined three areas I thought achieved this. Something historic (as a photo ages our intrinsic interest in the past increases it's value), something beautiful (beginning with the notion of fine art, but allowing for a suitably wide interpretation), and finally something that is new, unique, or hitherto unseen. It's the first and last categories that O'Halloran's work falls in to because he was a press photographer. By definition everything he photographed was new, hence the notion of news photography, yet the archive is now historic. With press photography we have potential interest because it records an event that has only just happened and with this collection of work it is now historic. There is a tension in the way we view it — historic yet at the same time current. For me, press archives are perhaps some of the most interesting work we can view in photography. That of course doesn't make it an extraordinary photo. It takes skill and a certain amount of luck for that to happen, but it's a great starting point.

As common parlance goes, "f/8 and be there". And it really is all about the being there — you can't capture that extraordinary moment without being able to personally witness it. Hence the reason newspapers invested so heavily in press photographers.

So who was Thomas J. O'Halloran? Well, other than his photos, he left a very small internet footprint indeed. The Library of Congress has a collection of photos many of which are also in Wikimedia. More than that and I was struggling to find out more about him which makes the Washington Post obituary a rich vein of information. He worked for 35 years as a press photographer with US News and World Report, eventually rising to Chief Photographer (it ranked alongside Time and Newsweek for those, like me, who don't know!). Whilst online now, it was a weekly summary of US and international news with a circulation in the 1970s of over 2M. This was it's heyday (along with many other print media) and when O'Halloran really hit his stride. He eventually retired in 1986. Born in 1922, he served with the Army Air Force rigging aerial cameras before joining a portrait studio in Washington after the war, then US News and World Report in 1951. He never looked back.

So what of his photography? The gallery below should give you a taster of the work.

O'Halloran lived through tumultuous times when the press photographer was a valued commodity. He covered topics such as civil rights and race relations (Afro-American students enter Clinton High School in the 1950s, a Black Panther convention in the 1970s, and Jesse Jackson) where his base in Washington was a boon, alongside international politics such as Eisenhower in Kabul (1950s) and conflict in Beirut. His archive must be extensive and in the Library of Congress they number hundreds as part of the US News and World Report collection.

On a technical level there is more limited information to be gleaned, but by the 1970s (and looking at the Black Panther frame) he must have been consistently shooting 35mm black and white, although when he started out it was more likely a medium format such as the Speed Graphic which accepted 4x5" sheet film. When you see some of the frames dating from the 1950s, the tonality of medium format is delicate in a way we just don't see with 35mm or digital for that matter.

I imagine O'Halloran was fairly dexterous at working a scene, probably intuitively knowing where the action was going to happen, where the most expressive shots could be achieved. The shot from Clinton High School, for me, is a masterclass in position and capture. You have the Afro-American students walking in, through the frame, the front student cropped, all implying movement, transition from the old order to the new. Caucasian students look on, some at the camera, some not. The photographer is not invisible, but a witness to events. The third student has a casual hand-in-pocket, but the stare is pensive. You can almost sense the tenseness hanging in the air.

Switch to the frame of the Black Panther, wonderfully captured with Lincoln in the background. They are almost the same size, implying equality. He looks down, immaculately dressed with belt and badge, the fashion saying as much to me through the intervening decades. He holds a pole, but we are unsure why, staring at the ground lost in a tranquil moment of thought. What is running through his mind? How did his day end? What is he doing now? Which makes the follow-on shot of the scene all the more illuminating: we see our subject now standing on the right, supporting the banner, all eyes focused on him and his colleagues.

O'Halloran's photos are wonderful to dip into but it is the lone Black Panther that is beautifully captured and evocative of the moment. Both personal and impersonal at the same time. Take a moment to look at half a dozen and consider what you would have done in the same situation, consider the work that goes into being a press photographer and the commitment to always being there that you need in order to capture that extraordinary moment. Because your boss, your readers, the world, demands it. Now consider that with the smartphone and citizen journalism, these ranks are decimated. Or perhaps the smartphone has presented opportunities for the media and photographers that they never had. As a final takeaway, for your next photography project make the commitment to photograph one newsworthy event and feel what it is like to be there. One thing is for sure, it's unlikely that there will be many, or indeed any, more O'Hallorans.

Images in the public domain via the Library of Congress

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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1 Comment

Please realise and learn the difference between “its” and “it’s”; it is (which contracts to “it’s”) most important!