Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Turning Points Series: William Albert Allard

"Lone Rider, Texas, 1974"

I thought I would launch an irregular series of posts focused on turning points in the careers of major photographers. Maybe it’s the storytelling part of me—I’m always fascinated by narrative moments when fate steps in to take a hand, changing everything that follows. The form of this series may vary from post to post—interviews, Q&As, or, as in the case of this one, I might sometimes just step back and let the photographers tell their own stories.
William Albert Alard
It’s really the only way to go with someone like William Albert Allard, one of photography’s great storytellers. Allard has been a mainstay of National Geographic for more than 40 years, producing some 40 magazine articles and a number of books, the latest of which, a retrospective, is called William Albert Allard: Five Decades. It’s a heartfelt look back at an astonishing number of career high points and photographic destinations—from the American West to Sicily, from the Basque country to the film sets of Bollywood, from Hutterite colonies in Montana to minor league baseball diamonds in Arizona. “In a way, the stories are always about subcultures,” he told me recently. “That’s what I’m interested in.” While the far-flung landscapes form the backdrop for his work, it’s the people in his images that are the real focus—etched as compelling characters within frames that are filled with profound atmosphere.

Allard’s storytelling is not limited to pictures—he’s also written for Geographic, and he contributed some 55,000 words of text to his Five Decades book. “I wanted to be a writer before I became a photographer,” he says. “Writing is harder—good writing. You look at a picture and you either say, ‘Goddamnit, that’s nice,’ or it’s not, whereas with writing you think, “Will what I have to say mean anything to anybody? Why should they listen to this?’”

Here, Allard tells how he became a photographer—or, more precisely, how two events led him to become a professional: The first involved a famous photographer from the Magnum agency, who for no apparent good reason spent a couple of hours changing a young man’s life. The second, which I'll post later, involved a storied assignment that helped change the look and outlook of one of the world’s great photo magazines. As you’ll see, fate did indeed step in to alter Allard’s life—after he gave fate a little kick in the pants.

 Part 1: Drinks with Dennis Stock

I grew born Minneapolis,  Minnesota, in 1937, the son of Swedish immigrants. From 1959 through 1960 I attended the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts--my high school grades were a disaster and I barely graduated, but art was always my strong class. I liked to draw. I managed to pick up my grades at the School of Fine Arts, though, and decided to go to the University of Minnesota and study journalism, with the idea of writing. Then I took a class from a professor named R. Smith Schuneman.

He was teaching a course on photography and gave a lecture about the power of combining words and pictures. It wasn’t a new concept; Wilson Hicks, a famous editor of Look magazine, had written a book called Words and Pictures. He said that when they were combined they became something greater than the sum of the parts. That idea appealed to me, so I changed my focus to photojournalism.

"Surprise Creek Hutterite Colony, Montana, 2005"

"Girls Running Home, Behoneguy, France 1967"

"Minor League Training Camp, Phoenix, Arizona, 1990"
I was older than most of the other students. I was 26 when I graduated, married with four kids, ages one to four. We certainly didn’t have much money. I’d had jobs driving cabs and beer trucks all the way through school. I donated a lot of blood to pay for books. I have RH-Negative Group O blood— there are advantages to being a universal donor. During my school years I’d built up a portfolio that was also a little different from the work of the other students. I tried to do subjects that forced me to reach out psychologically. People were my interest. The human face intrigued me. I had one story about an interracial marriage—you didn’t see much of that at the time, especially in Minneapolis, where there were very few African Americans at all—and another story about a little girl with cancer who was being cared for in a home for elderly people.

Between my junior and senior years, I took the portfolio to New York. I got an appointment to see Arthur Rothstein—the Little General, the director of photography at Look magazine. He was also pretty famous for is own pictures from the 1930s Dust Bowl.

He looked at my pictures and said, “These are pretty good pictures. I just had a guy in here from a newspaper in Texas, and these are almost as good as his.” And I said, “Well then, I’ll just have to work very hard this coming year.” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, I’ll have to work hard because in a year I will be better than that guy.”

And then he said, “There are only so many jobs out there…even if you got as good as Dennis Stock.

I felt like I was just digging myself a hole. So I packed my stuff up and said “Thank you Mr. Rothstein, but next year if I’m as good as Dennis Stock I think someone will give me a job.”

Look was at 488 Madison Avenue, and I went down to the corner and into a phone booth and looked in the directory—there were complete directories in phone booths in New York City in 1963—and I looked up the name Dennis Stock. I knew his work. I’d bought a book of his pictures called Jazz Street some time before—got it on remainder at a bookstore in Minneapolis for $1.29.

I picked out one of the Dennis Stocks in the phone directory and called the number. A voice answered, and I said, “Is this Dennis Stock?” The voice said, “Yes it is.” I said, “Is this Dennis Stock the Magnum photographer?”

“Yes it is,” he said. I told him who I was, and why he didn’t know me. Then I said, “Would you have any time to look at some pictures?”

"Calving Time, Padlock Ranch, Montana, 1975"

"Benedetta Buccullato, Actress, Sicily, 1994"

"Basque Men Listening to a Poet, Sare, France 1967"
He said, “Well, we’re moving to Europe tomorrow. But come on over.” He was in the middle of moving, one of the most traumatic experiences a person can have. And he wasn’t moving across town—was moving to Europe. The next day. And he said he’d see me.

I got a cab. He was in a walk up in the Village—a good looking guy with a shock of black hair, and he was wearing moccasins and blue jeans, a white shirt with sleeves rolled up, and there were packed boxes lining the walls His wife was in the kitchen making a pie. Why the hell she’d be making a pie they day before they moved to Europe I don’t know, but she was.

He mixed a couple of screwdrivers, and we spread my pictures out on the floor and he got very excited. He looked at one of the pictures and said, “Oh yeah, that’s the way Cartier Bresson would do it.”

That trip to New York was worth every ounce of energy and every nickel I’d put into it, not because I got a job, but because I’d had that exchange. Sometimes I wonder, “Have I ever been a Dennis Stock to some young kid photographer?” I certainly hope so.

Tomorrow: An intern shapes up an entire magazine

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