Passage to Vietnam

a review by Philip Greenspun; created 1998

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Passage to Vietnam by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt (1994 Against All Odds Productions, you can order just the book from , or the book/CD-ROM , or just the CD-ROM .)

"This is better than Forrest Gump," John whispered in my ear. The Academy Awards had just been announced and Rick Smolan was up there on stage saying that he'd been inspired by Forrest Gump so that it would have been a perfectly reasonably thing to say if only John had actually seen Forrest Gump.

John, a mathematician friend last seen on this Web server poking around Berlin, and I had just come away from two hours wandering the exhibits at the Seybold Seminars in Boston. Vendors of the most sophisticated imaging hardware and software in the world were there trying to seduce publishers into buying $200,000 printers, $100,000 scanners, and $12,000 graphics cards (yes, $12k for just the card) for Macintoshes.

The demonstration images for this seduction were almost pornographic: glossy high-resolution ink-jet output sized like sheets of plywood, delicate prints on watercolor paper, large-format transparencies with beautiful saturation and depth. We were impressed. You don't see this kind of thing every day, not even at the MIT Media Lab and certainly not in the frumpy computer science department here or at John's institute in Germany.

Rick Smolan surpassed them all by a mile. He did it with a Macintosh, a mouse, and a single CD-ROM: Passage to Vietnam.

Against All Odds assembled 70 of the world's best photojournalists from 14 countries and flew them to Vietnam for a week, collected the resulting 200,000 photographs (5555 rolls of film or 80 per photographer) and interviewed each photographer on video about the most important photos and experiences. Photo editors then picked out 180 shots for the book and 350 for the CD-ROM.

The book is great, 210 pages of Hong Kong's best color printing on heavy stock. The CD-ROM is a revolution. It succeeds as art. It succeeds as biography (of the photographers). It succeeds as an education in photo editing and photojournalism. It succeeds as entertainment. The disk contains 8 hours of material of which Smolan only showed us about one.

Passage to Vietnam breaks new ground in user interface. There are no stupid-looking buttons. There is a mouse-sensitive cube at the bottom right of the screen at all times. Different faces of the cube have different controls and if you are having trouble driving it, an animated Smolan crawls out of the cube and shows you how.

Passage to Vietnam shows you the story behind the pictures. If you are curious about a photo, the photographer will actually walk out onto the photograph and talk about it, pointing at critical elements to illustrate the lecture. This is the first CD-ROM I've seen where there is no stupid little box for video clips. The moving character comes out and interacts with static elements on the screen. It is a brilliant effect. (When what you want to see is a little video of the photographer making the shot, a little inset box appears.)

Passage to Vietnam shows you how photo editors filter the images that you see. You can watch videos of people winnowing the 200,000 down to 180 and gain a better understanding of why Newsweek looks the way it does every week.

Passage to Vietnam takes you into the lives of the photojournalists, complete with examples of their best work going back decades. The greatest coup in this area is an extensive series of interviews with Elliot Erwitt, one of my personal heroes. Erwitt is famous for whimsical portraits of humanity but also for getting a dog's eye view of the world of both humans and dogs.

If you have ever wanted to show someone why hypertext is better than linear text, this is the work.

Interesting Thoughts on Photojournalism

Rick Smolan, a photojournalist for TIME magazine at the age of 24, said some interesting things about his years in the industry. (He's a very good speaker and if you are interested in multimedia and have a chance to hear him talk, grab it.)

"When I would go back and look at the story in the magazine, I'd find that they hadn't used my best picture. If I had a picture that showed Malaysia as it really was, they'd overlook it in favor of a picture that looked like the pictures of Malaysia they'd run in the past," Smolan noted. "Even worse, you don't get the story behind the photo. When you see a picture of a guy getting killed in Tienanmen Square the caption reads `student shot'. You want to know what happened to the photographer. Did they try to take his film? Why was he there in the first place? You can't get that with a magazine concerned primarily with maintaining a consistent style, but you can get that with a CD-ROM."

Smolan shared many of the same frustrations that I felt in working for magazines but he has addressed them in a very different way. He became a print and CD-ROM publisher and gets to tell stories his way but judging from videos that showed his new life, it appears that he spends an awful lot of time negotiating with sponsors and contributors. He spoke of 500 people working on Passage to Vietnam.

I became a Web publisher and get to tell stories my own way. I don't get any money or help in producing works like Travels with Samantha, but on the other hand my expenses are much lower so I don't really need the help or money. My final product is a lot less impressive than Smolan's, but I don't need to court rejection at the doors of sponsors.

Maybe all this proves is that there is no easy way to have success and self-expression at the same time. I remember an artist complaining to my friend Paul that museums didn't want to pay $2000/image so that her work could be enlarged to wall size and framed. He said "Well, I'd like to have Hollywood make a feature-length movie about my life but I don't complain if they don't do it."

Note: Screen shots courtesy Against All Odds Productions. All images Copyright AAOP or the individual photographers. Please do not redistribute without their permission.

Top photo: Elliot Erwitt talking about a NYC dog photograph from 1974.