Joe Elbert got the urgent message via voice mail at the Washington Post. He quickly dialed Columbia, Missouri, where the Pictures of the Year contest was in progress. "I just thought, 'Oh gee, we probably have another crisis,' " recalls the Post's assistant managing editor for photography.
The news Elbert, a former Pictures of the Year judge, heard that February afternoon from contest director Bill Kuykendall sent him right into Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.'s office.
From a field of 29,000 photos submitted by 1,722 newspapers and magazines, the Post captured 24 awards, believed to be the most ever won by a single newspaper, according to contest officials. The Denver Post, winner of 17 awards in one year, slipped into second place.
Nancy Andrews' pictures had earned her the coveted title "newspaper photographer of the year." In addition, three of her Post colleagues swept the rest of the prizes in the newspaper portfolio category, a feat unequaled in POY's 55-year history, Kuykendall says.
As Elbert listed the winners, Downie shrugged off a handshake in favor of a hug. "There we were, two men, kind of embarrassed, hugging each other," says Elbert. "It was great."
Elbert is used to excellence from his photo staff, which has won POY's top honors six times since 1990. But their precedent-setting performance in the POY contest more than impressed him. "I was totally shocked and thrilled," he says.
John Ahlhauser, a prize-winning photographer and professor emeritus in photojournalism at Indiana University, remembers when Post editors seemed to have less respect for images. "Their attitude toward photos was pretty bad," says Ahlhauser, who represented the National Press Photographers Association, a cosponsor of POY, at this year's judging. "But people look to winners. Now, they are setting the pace for the country."
Carol Guzy, a three-time photographer of the year and the first woman ever to receive the award for newspapers, was first runner-up to Andrews (see "A Photographer Who Makes a Difference," January/February). Michael Williamson was second, and Dudley M. Brooks was third.
There was more to the Post's landslide. In the White House News Photographers Association's contest, Guzy won the 1998 photographer of the year award. Andrews placed second and Williamson third. The Post, which has won the top prize in the White House contest every year since 1990, snared 43 of the 63 individual awards.
When photo experts speculate on the Post's recent photographic successes, the spotlight centers on Elbert and photo editor Michel duCille, both recruits from the Miami Herald. "Joe has the resources and the intelligence to use them well," says Kuykendall. "His photographers are highly motivated. There's also a team dynamic at work there that he has encouraged."
MaryAnne Golon, photo director at U.S. News & World Report and a POY judge this year, credits the Washington Post sweep "to the vision of an amazing guy. Joe wants to be the hottest photo newspaper, and he's going to get it," she says.
Some critics say that despite its stable of first-class shooters, the paper still does not make the best use of pictures. "If they could really exploit these great photographers and find a way to allow more space for pictures, they could be one of the great photo papers of all time," says Kuykendall.
But Elbert says he usually gets the space he wants. "The commitment of the Washington Post to wonderful journalism was there. The challenge was to broaden that vision and have photography be part of that excellence."
POY judge Keith Jenkins believes support from top editors has helped Post photographers overcome the insecurity of second-class citizenry, a common complaint among photojournalists who feel writers are more valued in the newsroom. "There is a feeling [at the Post] that photographers are appreciated, that they play an important part in the global scheme of making the newspaper a good product," says Jenkins, editorial design director for America Online. "Joe has put together the best collection of photographers of any newspaper in the country, and that is not an exaggeration."
Jenkins, a former Post photographer, also credits photo editor duCille, a Pulitzer Prize winner while at the Herald, for helping change the dynamics that have led to higher quality photos, better use of pictures and smarter hires.
But Elbert says the praise should go to the 25 full time staffers. Take, for example, Nancy Andrews, who joined the Post in 1990. Elbert calls her "the little choo choo that finally could."
"It [photography] is like therapy," Elbert says. "You take one step forward and one step back, knowing that eventually it will all click, and it did for Nancy."
Andrews, whose portfolio included pictures of the enrollment of women at Virginia Military Institute and of a single father raising daughters, calls Elbert and duCille "great guys to work for." But there's a caveat. "I'm not saying they're easy to work for — if you take a great picture, they walk around with their chests poked out saying, 'Look at this.' They are so proud, and you are a gift to the world.
"But, by the same token, if they need a great picture and you don't get one, they are pretty pissed," says Andrews, 34. "There are two sides. One side makes life harder, but it makes me a better photographer."
The Post dominates the Picture of the Year competition.