The last word

40 years of journalism in 20 photos

By Kip Wotkyns

Publish Date: November 11, 2016

Henri Cartier-Bresson, long regarded as the father of modern photojournalism, believed that photography is the sum of peculiar experience that filters into a millisecond when the shutter fires. For photojournalist and MSU Denver Professor Kenn Bisio, each click shows the unvarnished truth of that moment in time. In order to capture the ‘critical moment’ that illuminates the human condition, students gotta get past the machine,” because powerful photographs can change the course of history.

His exhibit - 40 Years of Journalism in 20 Photos – included photos from Bisio’s 41-year career, each with an accompanying personal narrative.

Man With The Taped Eyes

The Soviet Union was collapsing. The Cold War was winding down. The United States was victorious. Kenn Bisio, on assignment for Time magazine, captured the image that told the story. He reports: I’m in Russia again. I was assigned by Time to go to St. Petersburg with David Aikman, senior foreign correspondent, along with reporter Lauralee Farrer. We were walking down Nevsky Prospekt, the main drag in St. Petersburg, looking for a place to have dinner.

We came to a big intersection and had to take a stairway down to an underground walkway to cross the intersection.

As we walked down the stairway, I saw the posters on the wall and just stopped. It was as if a voice said, Wait. I stood in front of a wall with posters and watched Lauralee and David walk toward the steps on the far side of the walkway.

It was dark. There was only one light bulb where I was standing. It was the end of the workday, and it was very crowded with people hustling to get home.

Off to my right I heard, among all the noise of the pedestrians, a clicking sound coming from the stairway. I couldn’t see what the noise was. But I knew it was coming toward me.

The clicking noise was the tap of a white cane, feeling each step on the stairway. Then, this man in a black trench coat stops in front of me. He turns slightly to his left. And there he is. His eyes are taped shut with white tape.

As he raised his left arm to fix the cuff on his coat, I bang off six frames on a new roll of film. I know I don’t have the picture because I use a Leica rangefinder and through the rangefinder you can see the moment, as you hear the click of the shutter. There are too

many people. There are at least 10 people in front of me blocking the man with the taped eyes.

Fortunately, I realize if I slow my shutter to one second and stop down the aperture, the slow shutter will blur the people walking between the man and me. I set the shutter at one second, stop down, suck in a deep breath to hold steady and fire the shutter. That one second was an eternity. The shutter closes, then the man walks away.”

Bisio says of all the images he has ever made, from all assignments he has ever taken, this is

his favorite. It’s a self-portrait,” he said. Until he made this image, he said, he was the man with the taped eyes.

Bisio, who teaches photojournalism and social documentary at MSU Denver, is a world- renowned photojournalist. In his classes, Bisio stresses a deep knowledge and understanding of the camera and its functions, before an aesthetic decision can be made.” When the moment arrives to professionally document an image, the journalist must act instantaneously and instinctively, Bisio said. It’s not just the pressing of a shutter or even being in the right place and time. It’s realizing when an image has the power to change the course of history.

Critics are apt to argue that in the age of Photoshop it’s easy to alter an image so it conveys more emotion. It can be improved so it conforms more with the photographer’s vision. That’s a lie, according to Bisio. The photojournalist, who studied with the great Ansel Adams, believes that Photoshop was made for cheaters.”

In his classes, students are allowed to set the blacks,” but not to crop or manipulate the image in any way. Otherwise they risk an F” or even expulsion. Bisio believes photojournalists must adhere to a strict foundation of ethics that places truth and honesty above all else.

He is currently serving his third term as faculty trustee on the MSU Denver Board of Trustees. He won the celebrated Colorado Society of Professional Journalists’ Educator of the Year award on May 15, 2015. His images have been published in Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Time magazine and The Denver Post. He has photos in the NFL Hall of Fame. His photographs have been displayed in exhibits in America, Europe, Russia and the Far East. He is represented by the Geraint Smith Gallery in Taos, New Mexico, where his exhibit – 40 Years of Journalism in 20 Photos – first debuted.

40 Years of Journalism in 20 Photos 

Gay Rally, Denver, 1978 

I was given a news assignment by the Denver Post’s City Editor, Hank McKee around 5 p.m. one evening in 1978. I had been a staff photographer for four years and had covered many protests staged by gay people. All of those photographs from those assignments never made it to print.

I told Hank about my reticence to cover another protest of gay people because my photographs were never printed, which I believed then and now, because of the subject matter. Hank told me if I covered it like a news assignment, they’d run it as a news photograph. 

These men were protesting the denial of their basic human rights and the rally was scheduled a few months after Anita Bryant, former Miss America, started an anti-gay campaign in Florida.

These men were photographed, near 2 a.m. in 1978 in front of the Colorado State Capitol building at the corner of Lincoln and Colfax. The Post did not run the photograph because “we are a family newspaper and we will lose advertisers,” as I was told by Chuck Green, executive city editor. Hank McKee told me I just lost the Pulitzer Prize because of the Post’s refusal to run the photograph.

The Kiss, Denver, August 2008, The Democratic National Convention

Thirty years after I made the “Gay Rally” photograph, street evangelist, Rueben Israel, confronted me on the 16th Street Mall. He was screaming at me because I am a “left-leaning, (derogatory name for gays) –loving media slime.” So, I had to photograph him. He quickly forgot about me when a young woman, clad in a bikini top and shorts, planted herself in front of Israel and unsuccessfully began to scream louder than his bullhorn. Frustrated because she was drowned out by the bullhorn, she began to untie her bikini top to flash herself at Israel. I did not want to miss that, so I walked behind Israel for a better lens position. That’s when I saw the print on the t-shirt of one of Israel’s minions. Just as she was about to untie her bikini top, a woman walks into the frame from the left spins the woman around and they kiss.

Unlike 1978, this photograph ran in more than 3,700 newspapers and magazines around the globe.

High School Graduate, Denver, 1979

This young woman turned 20 and was still enrolled in a Denver Public Schools high school. Her principal expelled her from school because DPS had a policy that stated if a student was 20 years old, and had not graduated, that student would be removed from that school.

She is sitting in her wheelchair as the president of the DPS school board, after three meetings with the school board, made the announcement that she could stay in school for the last three weeks of the school year and graduate. Her friends came running to embrace her.

Ruthie, Denver, 1977

This was the day Elvis died. Bill Wunsch, director of photography, and Chuck Green, executive city editor of The Denver Post both thought they had assigned a picture to a staff shooter to run in the following afternoon’s paper (the Post was an afternoon paper in the 70s). Neither had requested the assignment.

It was nearing midnight, the end of my shift, when I got a call from Wunsch telling me he forgot to assign the photograph to go with the Elvis story. He told me he didn’t care how I did it, but to find the local Elvis Presley Fan Club president and go make a picture. I lucked out.

I went to the morgue (the Denver Post’s library) and found a recent article on Ruthie (her last name escapes me) who was reelected president of the fan club. The article had her address in Wheat Ridge.

I arrived at her house about midnight. The door of the house was open (warm August night) and there were about 100-lighted candles illuminating the front room. It was an old farmhouse and the front porch creaked. A woman came to the door. I did not want to go inside. It was too spooky. I told the woman who came to the door that I was a staff photographer for the Denver Post and I was looking for Ruthie because I wanted to put her picture on page one. I thought that would be the discouragement for this woman. I was wrong. She told me she was Ruthie and invited in.

I did not make any exposures for three hours until she went into her basement to do a load of laundry at 3 a.m. I asked her if I could make a few frames and this photograph is what she gave me.

Two Hungry Kids, Denver, 1980 

Carol Kreck, reporter for the Denver Post, and I interviewed this woman because even on government subsidy she still could not feed her two children. The huge fork and spoon on the wall was a gift from God.

Phillip Lull, Denver, 1979

Phillip Lull was the first man to ride the new RTD buses designed to transport handicapped people. This was the lead photograph of the picture story. Lull is shown crossing the busy intersection at Hampden and Clarkson on a Wednesday because he would take the bus to go have lunch with his retired parents on this day each week.

Bicycle, Switzerland, 1977

This was my first assignment for Time Magazine. They hired me to do a picture story of the inner cities of Venice, Florence and Rome. So, why was I in Switzerland? Because I was in Europe and I had never been to Switzerland.

Bicycle in Barbed Wire, Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1990

This was a Time magazine assignment on Protestant and Catholic kids of Belfast. This was the lead photo of that essay.

Throwing A Rock, Belfast, Northern Ireland, The Falls, 1990

This young boy was throwing a rock through the window of a Catholic boy’s house. Kids as young as nine are taught to build plastic explosive bombs, use a semiautomatic weapon, and to hate each other.

Kids Set Trash On Fire, Belfast, Northern Ireland, The Shankill, 1990 

Kids are shown burning trash in The Shankill section of Belfast. Kids show a lot of aggression. This photograph captures that. This photograph was made very late in the evening and these kids should be at home with their parents. It is about 10 p.m. It stays quite light at that hour in the summer because Ireland is so far north. The oldest child in this photograph is eight. The youngest, the child with his hands in his pocket is five.

Milltown Cemetery, Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1990

A woman prays each Monday over the grave of her son who was killed in a car bomb attack in Enniskillen in 1968.

High Society, Denver, 1979 

Pat Collins, the Denver Post’s society editor, asked me to take a picture of this socialite woman and her son at a high society event in Denver. I told Pat that I thought that was a bad idea. The bad idea became an iconic image that sells out at all my exhibits. The man is definitely in a rented suit that does not fit. His ticket to the event is held in a clenched fist. His mother could not be more proud. 

John Connally, Austin, Texas, 1982

Former Texas Governor John Connally is shown at his press conference where he is explaining to the national media why he has filed for bankruptcy. I always go 90 degrees from the national media hoping to get something they won’t. I made this picture of his expressive reaction when a TV reporter asked him to compare the filing of his bankruptcy to that fateful day in 1963 when he was in President John F. Kennedy’s convertible limo. 

Jimmy Carter, Golden, Colo., 1977 

President Jimmy Carter came to Colorado for the opening of the National Renewable Research Institute. This was a moment when he was introduced to a crowd of thousands. When you’re the president you don’t have to stand to shake Governor Dick Lamm’s hand (nor squeeze it), and Senator Tim Wirth was caught with his tongue sticking out.

Jerry Ford, Washington, D.C., 1974 

This photograph was made in 1974 shortly after the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Though Ford only served two years as president, I had a long relationship with him that went into the 2000s. I photographed his home for him in Eagle Vail. He had a scaled down size of the Oval Office in his mountain home. He was a dear, sweet man. 

Funeral In Zagorsk, Russia, 1990

Zagorsk is a walled city in Russia, near Moscow, that has numerous churches. Some are basilica-sized and others are one-room spaces.

I wanted to photograph a scene where there was open casket and in it lay a man with a long white beard. At each end of the casket was an armed military man with a machine gun. This is the killer image that is still in my head but not on any exposed film. As I raised my camera to make the photograph of the bearded man my interpreter told me that she overheard the machine gun-toting guards that they would shoot me if I made a picture of them. So, I turned my back on them and I saw this moment. It is my take on Leonardo di Vinci’s “Last Supper.” 

Man With The Taped Eyes, St. Petersburg, 1989, end of the workday

I was on assignment for Time magazine to cover the new economic sanctions in Russia. I was with Lauralee Farrer, Time correspondent, and one evening we were walking to dinner with our interpreter. As we reached a busy intersection on the Nevsky Prospekt, the busiest street in St. Petersburg, we walked down a flight of stairs to travel under the intersection. I saw these two posters and decided to stop and wait for a picture I knew was going to happen.

I watched Lauralee and Sveta walk up the stairway to the other side of the street and as I saw them disappear I heard a clicking sound coming down the steps. As the clicking sound became louder I saw a dark figure descending the steps, tapping a white cane in front of his feet.

He walked into the right side of the frame and turned to adjust his sleeve of his coat. There were about a dozen people between the man and me. He then turned his head and I saw the white tape covering his eyes. I made five or six exposures and knew all the people between us were blocking him from my lens. I then slowed my shutter to one second and made the last exposure before he walked off.

The swish of light streaks going out of the right side of the frame was from a military man’s bright silver buttons. You can see the ghost of a person’s foot in the lower left corner of the frame. 

Plaza San Marco, Venice, Italy, 1977

This image was made with a 300mm lens from the elevated position next to the bronze horses that looks down upon the plaza.

Windows, Florence, Italy, 1977

A moment captured while eating yogurt for dinner. I looked across the narrow street and saw this woman in the window. By the time I grabbed my camera the man had entered the window, turned and lit his cigarette.

Wild Horse Race, Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1980 

A moment captured in the wild horse race at the Cheyenne Frontier Days. This was my last summer at the Denver Post. I resigned from the Post to go to Time magazine and the paper was still getting complaint letters from subscribers because this “picture shows rodeo is abusive to animals.” Well, yeah.