A QUIET VOICE, A STILL SOUL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
As I have practiced it, photography produces pleasure by its simplicity. I see something special and show it to the camera. A picture is produced. The moment is held until someone sees it. Then it is theirs. -Sam Abell, STAY THIS MOMENT, 1990
THERE ARE PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT ARE SO AMAZINGLY ADVANCED that they make their images, wrought with love, ferocity, daring, and single-minded purpose, seem not merely visionary but inevitable. We see what they have brought us and exclaim, “of course”, as if theirs is the only way this message could possibly have been crafted, as if its truth is so self-evident that to have to formally recognize it is almost needless overkill. We confirm and validate that, for these pictures, the machine has truly been placed in the service of a soul, and one which writes fluently while we stumble with numb gestures.
One such soul resides in the work of Sam Abell.
If his name doesn’t roll off the top of your tongue alongside those of the obvious Jedi knights of photography, it’s because, for most of his forty-plus year career, he has kept a lower profile than Amelia Earhart, producing amazing work beneath the masthead of National Geographic magazine along with a host of other special commissions. When Sam came to to Geographic in 1967 as an intern, he already had four years of “hard” experience producing images for the University of Kentucky’s school of journalism to his credit, but the magazine’s photo editor, Robert Gilka, was hesitant to hire him, worried that his work was “too artistic”, too personal in its beauty to survive in the service of journalism.
With help, Sam Abell learned the balance for getting the facts for stories and getting the truth implied in their locales. Even when those stories’ words shouted with urgency, Sam’s notes were always on the soft pedal. Their poignancy fades in and builds, rises to your attention and then rivets it in place. Writing in his 1990 collection Stay This Moment, Abell declares that the test of great pictures is that “they cannot be memorized”. Small wonder that he began, early in life, to pursue a career on the cello. Smaller wonder yet is that the patience of that instrument is “heard” in the music of his pictures.
Even more muted than the images Sam creates is his technical approach to taking them. For much of his early career, he shot breathtaking landscapes with a simple 35mm camera, often a Leica reflex or rangefinder, mounted with standard or “normal” lenses ranging from 28 to 35mm, generating the least amount of distortion and rendering the most natural relationship of sizes and distances. For years, the most advanced tools in his bag were a sturdy Gitzmo tripod and the slowest, richest films he could find, frequently Kodachrome 25 and 64. The tripod delivered the stability needed to produce slow, sensual exposures; the ‘Chrome delivered texture and nuance beyond the power of hand-held shots. However, the most vital weapon in Abell’s arsenal is his astonishing patience, the wisdom, which flies in the face of traditional journalism photography, to wait for the story in a picture to slowly unfold, like the petals of a flower. Some of the best images Abell placed in National Geographic over the years took nearly a year to create. It happens when it happens, and once it does, God is it worth it.
The number of printed collections of Sam’s work are few and far between, given his enormous output, but diligence rewards the curious. Among the most available of them is the collaboration undertaken with historian Steven Ambrose, Lewis & Clark: Voyage of Discovery ( 2002), for which Sam created images of the surviving sections of the legendary explorers’ trail to the Pacific; Amazonia (2010), an essay on the kind of delicate ecosystems that are vanishing from the earth; and Life of a Photograph (2008), an examination of how his most famous pictures were built, stage by stage. And, of course, there is the luxuriant (and hopelessly out-of-print) Stay This Moment (1990), the companion book to his mid-career exhibition at New York’s International Center for Photography. Buy it in a used book shop, grab it on e-Bay, scour your local library, but find this book.
More importantly, find Sam’s work…any of it…and savor every detail. For copyright protection purposes, I have deliberately kept the illustrations in this article constrained to minimal resolutions. Find the real stuff, and see what Abell’s amazing sweep and scope can do at full-size. This blog is chiefly about how I, as a rank amateur, struggle with my own creative conundrums. But it is also about knowing what teachers to bend toward. Sam Abell, who literally teaches in mentor programs all over the country, has a powerful gift to impart. “What is right?”, he asked in 1990. “Simply put, it is any assignment in which the photographer has a significant emotional stake.” He also emphasized an important distinction (one of my favorites) in his remarks to a young photography student. Don’t say, he said, I took this picture.
Say instead, I made this picture.
- Sam Abell Interview (keronpsillas.com)
- The Life of a Photographer – Sam Abell (billives.typepad.com)