Photojournalist Stanley Forman on his new book
The plastic yellow tape police put up at crime scenes is supposed to be a barrier. It usually says “Caution” or “Do Not Cross.” Before there was yellow tape (and even after it came along), photojournalist Stanley Forman seemed to have a knack for still getting his shot, including some of the most memorable photos in Boston history. His most famous are of the anti-busing demonstration on the steps of City Hall and of a young woman and little girl falling from a collapsed fire escape. Forman, 67, who won three Pulitzer prizes while shooting for the Boston Herald American, has a new book, “Before Yellow Tape,” and he spoke with the Globe about media access, stop-action photography, and what it was like before the days of yellow tape.
Q. Where does “Before Yellow Tape” come from?
A. It’s really about what it used to be like. Times have changed. I’m not going to sit here and criticize, but before yellow tape we had great access. The media was really public relations for police and firemen and there was a real interest in what we used to do [more so than today].
Q. How has access changed over the years?
A. I could be right there. Today, everybody’s got a camera and the access is not good. People ask how I got a photo [inside an ambulance] and I say, “Well, I opened the door and I took the photo.” You’d get shot nowadays. We [used to be] a welcome sight and it was great.
Q. Why did you choose this career?
A. I used to chase fire engines, police cars, sirens. My father gave me a camera and I started taking pictures. I thought I was going to be either a police officer or a firefighter and, as a news photographer, I was both. I was where everybody was.
Q. Do you remember the first time you were at a crime or emergency scene?
A. I grew up in Revere. When I was 8 years old, my father discovered that we could listen to Revere police with an old AM dial. I remember waking him up because there was a fire. There was a lot of action back when I was growing up, a lot of big fires, major tragedies. For 47 years I’ve been chasing everyone’s anguish. It’s what I do.
Q. Many people know you for your Pulitzer photos. What made you want to showcase others?
A. This book proves that I didn’t just hit two grand slams. This book is page after page of pictures that people have never seen. Of course, fire safety laws, smoke detectors, and things like that have made it so there are [fewer] fires, which is good. But, nowadays, people would like to have just some of those pictures. It’s just page after page of captivating images.
Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your 1975 Pulitzer photo, “Fire Escape Collapse’’?
A. You always have to remember one thing: It was a routine rescue that went bad. Everyone was going to get out. The building was obviously going to have fire damage but nobody was going to be hurt. And then, all of a sudden, everything just went to hell. I don’t have a crystal ball. You get there, you don’t want anything bad to happen. Most of the calls I anticipated, but I never thought I’d get a picture like that at a routine fire.
Q. And what about your second Pulitzer photo, “Soiling of Old Glory’’?
A. That was an anti-busing demonstration. Some kids were visiting the City Council’s Louise Day Hicks, who was known for her anti-busing sentiments. She had invited the kids into the council chambers for cookies and milk. I got there when they were coming out [and it just happened that] I was in the right place again.
Q. Why did you put this collection together?
A. I was out on injury in December and I always thought that, for a retirement project, I’d put a book together. I wanted to accomplish something while I couldn’t go out and work. I went through boxes and boxes of the fire negatives. It was unbelievable.
Q. With the limited access and social changes, has spot action photography evolved?
A. This book reflects a different time where you could be at a murder scene, shooting the body, and the cops would be posing. I don’t want to say we’ve become the enemy but we have. There’s plenty of compelling images, they just aren’t readily available to capture.
Q. Is there still a relationship between the media and law enforcement?
A. I still enjoy friendliness but it’s still more hands-off than it used to be. It’s sad. A good police department utilizes the good things we do for them. I don’t think we’re the enemy, I think we should be used to portray what they do.
Q. If anyone with an iPhone can go out and take a newsworthy photo, is there still a demand for photography?
A. It’s scary. How many photographers do you really need when you’ve got millions out there working for you, for nothing? Everybody’s got a camera or a phone. The quality might not be good but [it doesn’t matter]. You can’t win, you can’t be first anymore.