LENS/THE NEW YORK TIMES June 21, 2010, 12:00 am ----THE IDIOSYNCRATIC EYE OF STEPHEN CROWLEY By JAMES ESTRIN: Stephen Crowley has spent most of his career masquerading as a newspaper photographer while producing idiosyncratic projects that push the boundaries of photojournalism and reveal unvarnished truths behind his most frequent subject: Washington politics.
Mr. Crowley, 57, a staff photographer for The New York Times, consistently takes risks in his photography. He was employing complex compositions in newspaper photography long before the style became trendy. In his political photographs, Mr. Crowley shows his Washington subjects warts and all.
In personal projects like URBAN ARCHAEOLOGY and CROWLEYGRAPHS, his black-and-white images are elegant and precise.
Sometimes, he combines the political and personal in diptychs and tetraptychs, adding a sharp sense of irony. "Washington is all artifice and show business even more so today than when I started," Mr. Crowley said. "There is a lot to be upset about these days, and there are a lot of people to hold accountable in media and politics. I think there is a thread of humor through my work, and humor is just a form of anger, if you think about it."
Mr. Crowley's work includes "IF I WERE YOUR KING " which shows presidents and presidential aspirants with little pomp and in deflating circumstances. Despite this satirical take, however, the photographer has considerable affection for the individuals and institutions of Washington.
"The fact is that we truly are represented by a cross section of the country," he said. "The worst politicians represent the worst, the best represent the best. We have a Senate, not a House of Lords; a House of Representatives, not a Central Committee. That's what "IF I WERE YOUR KING" captures: the spirit of union between the people and their government."
Mr. Crowley's childhood in Florida shaped his approach to power. "I was this poor kid who grew up in a small village" he said. "It made me more sensitive to the impact the people who control culture have on the population."
He's probably the best one to describe an ascent that was something less than meteoric. "I began working as an-all around gopher at The Beacon News, a small community newspaper, in 1972," Mr. Crowley wrote. "It had been my dream to be a reporter, and after several months of sweeping floors, constructing ads and answering phones, I was given my first assignment: interview the new high school football coach." "He sat next to me and fed me quotes about his life. If I ever asked a single question, I don't remember it. I had always been shy, but up until that point I never realized the depth of my affliction. My twin brother had always been the front man of the operation and I stood quietly by his side most of my life. It was declared that I had no future in newspapers, so I took up my broom and eventually picked up a camera. I have been hiding behind one ever since."
"In 1978, two years after completing the photography program at Daytona State, I was hired as a lab tech at The Palm Beach Post, which funded my personal work." These personal projects included photographs taken in Florida in the 1970s and 80s that showed people struggling with difficult economic times and uncertainty. In some ways, they seem autobiographical. Mr. Crowley joined the staff of The Palm Beach Post a year later, then moved to The Miami Herald and then to The Washington Times.
in 1992," he wrote, "after being turned down for jobs multiple times at every newspaper and magazine in Washington, I was hired as a lab tech at The New York Times, where I happily pushed a broom and mixed chemistry while pursuing my personal projects" He became a staff photographer in 1994.
As Mr. Crowley sees it, America's problems and Washington's dysfunction are intertwined. The ruling class is too far removed from the rest of the population. Politicians and pundits form opinions from paneled offices and cushioned salons. Seldom do politicians venture beyond tailor-made responses. When they do, however, the moment can be memorable. Mr. Crowley recalls Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts discussing what the voters were trying to say in the 1994 midterm elections.
"He started with a boilerplate answer to the reporter's question," Mr. Crowley said. "Then he said: 'Let me tell you something. The voters are no bargain, either.'"
On Feb. 5, 2002, Mr. Crowley was cited as "Photographer of the Year" by the White House News Photographers' Association for a portfolio that included his essays "Voices of Afghanistan" and "A Day in the Life of President Bush." In 2002 the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography was awarded to Crowley and four other photographers at The New York Times for work produced during the war in Afghanistan. That same year he received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington, D.C. In 2005 American Photo Magazine included Crowley on its list of the 100 Most Important People in Photography. His personal photography has been exhibited in shows at the Library of Congress, The National Geographic Society, and the Corcoran Art Museum.