In my 30 years of documenting the Berkshires as a photojournalist, I have captured people during their best of times and, unfortunately, at their very worst.
From graduations and proms to high school sports championships, I have also had to document the tragedies of accidents, fires and other mishaps that are often part of the human condition. I have tried to do that with care, compassion, tact and understanding, channeling my own sensitive nature despite sometimes being accused of preying on the misfortune of others, as those in the media often are.
To take 30 years of documentary photos and come up with a curated exhibit that somehow represents that span of time is a daunting task. Access to some images dictated their ability to be included. But combing through hundreds of photos was a task that was tedious at times, but mostly it was nostalgic.
In 2012, I curated a 20-year exhibit of photographs from my career at The North Adams Transcript. It took me over a year to work on. I scanned negatives, from the archive that I had access to, looked through digital files, and finally made prints which I later framed for a month-long gallery exhibit at MCLA’s Gallery 51 in downtown North Adams. As a photojournalist whose work is mostly seen in newsprint, it was great to show images in a "fine art" format. All those scanned negatives are now part of my digital archive, from which the majority of this retrospective is drawn from.
Ten years later, much has changed. I’ve been a staff photographer at The Berkshire Eagle for eight of those years, following the closing of the North Adams Transcript in 2014. In addition to working for The Berkshire Eagle, I have also worked at The Bennington Banner in Vermont, and am a regular contributor to the Associated Press Photo Service. I've won an award or two. I illustrated the book, "B is for Berkshires," by Islandport Press, which contains some archive photos from The North Adams Transcript and The Berkshire Eagle.
My archive of photos is vast and incomplete. Many early digital images were lost due to grave computer system malfunctions and a lack of reliable storage. In the early days we backed up images on floppy discs, zip drives and compact discs before moving to more conventional, and reliable, back-up drives and online storage.
In 1992 when I began working as a journalist, I had been a college graduate for just about a year. My only experience in photojournalism was at my college newspaper, The Beacon, at North Adams State College, now the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. I had been the paper's photo editor in the fall of 1990. It was the toughest job I ever had up to that point, but I loved it. Even when I was no longer on the staff, and not getting college credit, I regularly submitted photos to the paper for publication.
In those days, I was shooting film which had to be developed. Color film and slide film had to go to the photo lab to be processed as I never learned to process color film, unlike my peers at The Berkshire Eagle. When it came to black-and-white film, I could process it myself in a darkroom. While I had graduated in 1991, my college professor, Fred Johns, continued to give me access to the college darkroom so that I could hone my craft and keep the passion alive as I worked a retail job.
It was sheer luck that when I finally dropped off my resume and clips to Transcript editor and publisher David Nahan, he had just lost his chief photographer.
I began in mid-June and worked part-time until August, when I was hired full-time with benefits for a modest $6 an hour. I learned how to half-tone photos and after the pages were pasted together. I would shoot them to make the negatives that would then be used to make the plates for the printing press. I gained respect for deadlines and understood that the job was not over after I submitted my prints.
The darkroom aspect of photography was a huge part of my job. I processed everyone's film, in addition to my own. Most mornings I would develop up to a half a dozen rolls of film. I was like a cook in the kitchen, a darkroom attendant, serving the developing and printing needs of the entire newsroom and advertising staff.
People often ask me if I miss shooting film. Honestly, I don't. I'm not a fine art photographer. I'm a journalist and digital is perfect for that. I also really love seeing my photos in a world as it truly is — in color. I can barely remember what it was like to shoot in strictly black and white.
Around the mid 1990s, I began scanning the black-and-white prints I developed into Adobe Photoshop. Later I scanned the negatives. It meant less time in the darkroom and more time sitting at a computer.
We started to use our first digital camera for news in about 1996. Because we were an afternoon paper with a late morning deadline, I could then shoot something that was razor close to our deadline. It was convenient, but in the early days, digital cameras were slow. I would choose the moment to capture, press the shutter and there would be a pause before the photo was taken. It was frustrating!
Digital cameras started to get a bit better and in the late 1990s we were issued the Nikon Coolpix 990 with its unique swivel design and two additional "screw on" mounted lenses — a telephoto and a wide angle. I had to look through the screen on the back. I could hold the camera above my head or on the ground and still see what I was photographing. It still wasn't as fast as my film single lens reflex camera, so it was sometimes necessary to use my film camera for the variety of lenses and speed. In September of 1999, the newspaper began printing in color. Black and white photos was reserved for inside pages only, but most were taken digitally.
I used my film camera to photograph an airshow at Harriman West Airport in North Adams in 1999. It was there that I witnessed a horrific accident in which two bi-planes doing maneuvers crashed in mid-air killing the pilots. I was on auto-pilot as a man on the tarmac told me to jump on the back of his motorcycle and we rode to the scene.
After I took the photographs, I drove to Ritz Camera store in The Berkshire Mall to have the color film developed and then I scanned the negatives at the office.
By the fall of 2000, we were issued the first professional digital single lens reflex with lenses. The Nikon D1 did everything my SLR did. It was a great digital camera and it started my journey out of the darkroom for good. While I still had to develop the film of reporters who used their film cameras, I was in the darkroom less and less. The digital age was upon us. Cell phones that took photos were still a few years away.
With independence from darkroom duties, I had more time, so I began shooting sports in about 2001. Since then I have shot every sport Berkshire County has to offer, in every season.
The darkroom disappeared in 2011, when The Transcript building on American Legion Drive was sold and our much smaller office moved into a downtown storefront on Main Street in North Adams. The Transcript was dissolved in 2014 and the North County Bureau of The Berkshire Eagle would move to Union Street for a short time, before settling in our present office at Mass MoCA.
This job has been a distinct privilege. For those considering a job like this, it is not a 9-to-5 job. In the early days of my career, the Transcript had no Associated Press Photo Service, so it was my responsibility to provide nearly all of the photos in the paper. It was all consuming.
A job as a photojournalist is a challenging one especially if you are looking to have a family, be able to support them and have a life outside of work. At least it was for me. As a woman there is a lot of sacrifice for a career in this field, but the rewards are beyond anything I could have imagined. After 30 years of doing this work, I can honestly say that I have no regrets. I hope to continue this work for as long as I am able to.
In 2001, when I was 31, The Transcript did a special section to celebrate Northern Berkshire County's 50 most influential people. To my surprise, I was named as one of those people.
"If a picture tells a thousand words, then the thousands of photos Gillian Jones, the chief photographer of the North Adams Transcript has taken are worth millions. Through her lens, Jones has captured the faces, places and major events of Northern Berkshire County for the past nine years. Gillian's work in photography shows the portraits of life that cannot be described in words," Transcript Managing Editor Kevin Moran said. "Her photos are a reflection of our daily lives here and inform us on a daily basis. They provide us with the opportunity to see our neighbors, our leaders, our successes and our tragedies — people and events that we're not present to see in person, but are available for all to experience, thanks to Gillian. In essence, what Gillian sees and photographs becomes a part of our local historical record that generations in the future will rely upon to provide context and definition about the world in which we live today."