Michael Mancuso has been a photographer for almost as long as he can remember. He has also been a Times of Trenton photographer for what seems the same amount of time, a point that will more than meet the eye during his current solo exhibition, “Weather or Not: Photographs by Michael Mancuso,” on view at the Chapin School gallery starting Tuesday, October 1, and continuing to Friday, October 25.
Born and raised in Trenton, Mancuso learned photography from his father, who, Mancuso says, was a computer programmer, “kind of before computers were computers,” for the state; his mother was a homemaker.
The older Mancuso was a serious hobbyist, owned several Leica cameras, and had a darkroom in their house. By the time his son was eight years old, he had his own camera.
His early pictures, he says, were pretty much of whatever was around: family, friends, and the streets and neighborhood of his South Cook Avenue home. This laid the foundation for his life as a photographer, a connection indicated by the image on Mancuso’s press pass: a picture of him at age eight.
It was shortly after his first child was born that Michael remembered his father saying, “Mike, now that you have a kid, why don’t you get a real camera?”
He took his dad’s advice and kept a “real” camera with him on his job driving a mail truck for a contractor around Allentown. He then began taking and bringing pictures to the local Allentown newspaper, the Messenger Press. After some success there, he approached the Trenton Times, which began to use him as a part-time weekend photographer. After several years he was offered a full-time position.
Though intimidated by the professionalism of the other photographers, he decided to trust his boss’ obvious belief that he was up to the task, already proving himself during his years as a part-timer.
Working full time for the paper with long-time staff photographers placed Mancuso in a great environment for learning his craft. As in any job having a mix of veterans and newcomers, the work proved to be a very valuable and important way to gain experience. “When I started there,” Michael says, “the old timers, so to speak, were guys saying we used to use 4×5’s and Speed Grafixs and now I would tell people I used to use film.” He remembers how the veteran photographers — Herman Laesker (who hired him), John Pietras, Tom Herde, and Steve Zerby — were very helpful in mentoring him in his early days.
Mancuso maintains the legacy of the professionals who became his teachers and says, “a good newspaper photo communicates information to the viewer in a clean, concise way. It has depth. It’s nice if it has something visually compelling, or at least visually interesting about it, too, but if not, if it communicates, it’s effective.”
Now with 29 years on the job, Mancuso says being a professional news photographer is not without its challenges, especially getting a picture when people are experiencing personal tragedies. “When I’m there, I have to be there. I try to project being unobtrusive. I don’t get in the way. I just tell them how I feel without speaking, like I’m telling them I’m sorry I have to be there. I’m sorry for your suffering. I don’t have the attitude like I’m here to get a picture. I think everything about me projects that,” he says.
“The most difficult situation in recent memory,” Mancuso says, “was photographing the funeral at Jerusalem Baptist Church in Trenton for TreDevon Lane, a 19-year old young man who was killed pushing others to safety in a hail of gunfire on New Willow Street in Trenton in September of 2012. I put on a suit and tie and made discreet photographs mostly from behind the sanctuary and up in the balcony. I had later heard from Times writer Alex Zdan that TreDevon’s mom, Regina Thompson Jenkins, was pleased with the pictures. I felt relieved when I heard that. Then this past August after an anti-gun violence event on the statehouse steps, which she was a part of, she approached me and told me herself that she appreciated the photos from her son’s service. That’s a real high point in my career.”
Other high points include New Jersey Press Photographer and the National Press Photographer awards and two of his photographs placed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “That was always my dream, to get in the Football Hall of Fame. And since I couldn’t make it as a player; it’s nice to have a picture or two there.”
Mancuso has been a witness to change and remembers how the advent of digital photography has changed the industry. What once took hours is now almost instantaneous. “It was rough in the beginning because digital wasn’t really worth it when it first came out. And we didn’t adapt all that early at the Trenton Times. We had a little time to learn PhotoShop. Now with digital you can have a really fast turnaround, you can do high volume. No waiting time. But it’s really the same skills; you just transferred it to the computer from the darkroom.”
He says that as digital technology becomes more sophisticated, there are other advantages. “With the embrace of new technologies come more possibilities. The online presence of the paper, for a photojournalist, has at least one major upside. Before there was an online, we would shoot most assignments and turn in one or two storytelling photos because that’s all there would be room for in print. Anything that didn’t make the next day’s paper, no matter how relevant or compelling, would likely never be seen outside the newsroom. Now the photo reporting can be more in-depth because additional photos can be posted online,” he says.
Print journalism in general has a lot of competition. Twenty-four hour cable news, movies-on-demand, and the Internet have not only changed the way people receive information and created competition for its delivery, it has also changed the way that people perceive the creation of images. “Photography has gotten devalued because everybody can get a decent or pretty good or excellent camera, but you know that just because everyone has a computer doesn’t mean that everyone is a writer either. But right now it seems like such a proliferation, people aren’t looking so much for quality stuff; they just want a lot of pictures, just like if you write and you just wrote down everything you said. Well let’s work on that and make it coherent. So I’m looking forward to having a little bit more in the future. People will realize that I can’t look at every picture ever taken, let me just look at something that’s put in a form that’s similar to writing.”
As an example, this past summer the “Detroit Free Press” fired all of its photographers and gave journalists iPhones. This has sent shockwaves through the industry. While the idea has not been floated at the Times of Trenton, Mancuso sees Detroit as an “experiment” that he hopes doesn’t work. He says that you still need writers and editors to craft stories and get things a certain way, the same thing with visuals. He says that he heard about Detroit the same way one might hear about a bad weather story: saying “wow” and hoping that it would not hit the paper.
While once Mancuso routinely covered stories in New York or Philadelphia, northern and southern New Jersey (as attested by the photographs in the exhibition), the Times is now focused on Mercer County and carries state stories and photos from its larger affiliation, the Star Ledger.
Maintaining his busy photography pace, Mancuso also works as a wedding photographer (and as a matter of full disclosure, he shot this writer’s wedding nine years ago) and provides some limited freelance work. Most people who hire him know what they are getting as he says, “I do what I do.”
He also plays guitar with a classic rock band called “Big Chill.” You can catch the band playing in the Bucks County areas of Pipersville, Peddlers Village, or the Washington’s Crossing Inn.
Though he has covered almost every subject as a news photographer, Mancuso is using his exhibition to show something that would be accessible to everyone without getting too dark or too deep. “Weather or Not” comprises many weather-related photographs, some done on assignment with the paper and some not.
All proceeds from the sales of photographs from the exhibit will go directly to “The Times Annual Appeal.” In the past charities supported by the appeal included the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and the Rescue Mission. While a charity for this year’s appeal has yet to be named, an announcement is expected in the next several weeks.
“This is my first solo show,” says Mancuso. “It’s only because (Chapin curator Dallas Piotrowski) asked. I’m so tuned in to the daily newspaper way of doing things, I’m not inclined to take the time and effort to show work outside of the daily newspaper world. I hope seeing the show will inspire (the viewer) to appreciate the simple joy of seeing.”
Weather or Not: Photographs by Michael Mancuso, Gallery at Chapin, Chapin School, 4100 Princeton Pike, Princeton. Tuesday, October 1, to Friday, October 25. Opening reception Wednesday, October 2, 5 to 7 p.m. 609-924-7206.