Thursday, June 2, 2011

Turning Points: William Albert Allard, Part 2

Yesterday I posted the first part of a recent interview with National Geographic's William Albert Allard. There, he told of an inspiring meeting with Dennis Stock, the famed Magnum photographer, that proved to be a turning point in his early career. Today he tells the story of how he became a summer intern at National Geographic and the assignment that changed his life--and the look of the magazine.

Part 2: Among the Amish

Allard shooting his first National Geographic assignment, Lancaster, PA, 1964
I went back to Minnesota and finished my senior year. In the spring of my senior year I went back to New York. I got an appointment to see John Morris at the New York Times, and I saw Howard Chapnick at the Black Star agency. They were all encouraging. Then I saw Betty Leavitt at Look—I think Arthur Rothstein had left by then—and she sent me to Yoichi Okamoto, who was then director of photography for the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, D.C. He would of course go on to become the first official White House photographer under President Johnson.

So I went to Washington and asked if Mr. Okamoto would look at my pictures. And yes, he would. I remember him sitting there with his glasses perched up on the top of this head, and his sleeves rolled up, and he looked at the pictures and picked up the phone and called Robert Gilka, the director of photography at National Geographic.

I later wrote down on an envelope the half of the conversation I could overhear. Okamoto saying to him, “You want to see a good people photographer? … Well God damm it I wouldn’t send him if he wasn’t any good … Tomorrow 1:00? Okay, let’s have lunch sometime ….”

And that phone call pretty much changed my life.

Allard's first Geographic Cover, 1970
The next day I went to see Gilka at Geographic, and of course he acted like he had no damned idea why I was there. But he looked at my portfolio and looked at my resume, saw that I was married and that I’d had all these jobs, and he said, “I can give you a summer internship, but it doesn’t pay much money, so if you can get anything else, take it.”

I wasn’t cocky or anything, but this just came out: I said, “Well, I’ve been broke for three years, another few months won’t kill me, and you may want to keep me.”

My first assignment was to shoot the Amish. Gilka told me to go up to Pennsylvania and get some pictures. He didn’t tell me that they’d already sent a staff photographer who’d come back empty handed. They had a finished manuscript, and they needed pictures, so they sent me.

Allard in Nevada, 1971
Allard in northern Minnesota, 1965
The staff photographer had failed because he started by going to an Amish bishop and asking for permission to shoot, and the bishop did what bishops do—he said no. I went up there and I didn’t even know there was a damned bishop.

As soon as I arrived I went to the bar of the motel where I was staying and met a few young people. The father of one of them owned a rock quarry, and he got some names for me and took me around and introduced me to people.

When I first got the internship from Gilka, he said, “This magazine is color. How do you feel about shooting color?” I told him, “It doesn’t bother me.” And I was being perfectly honest. How could it have bothered me? I’d never worked with color.

In Charlotteville, VA, in 2007, with daughter Terri
At school I’d shot in black and white only, and I liked to photograph in dim conditions with available light. I wanted that atmosphere, even though it meant that a lot of my negatives were on the thin side. When I went to do the Amish, the color film we had was Kodachrome 2, which had an ASA of 25—slow, of course, by modern standards, so most photographers used artificial light with it. I shot just like I always had, with available light.

The story, when it was published a year later, was different for Geographic. There are people who tell me that that story started turning the Geographic in a new direction. Up until then the magazine, as my colleague David Alan Harvey would say, was full of people in red sweaters gazing at Niagara Falls.

My work had an intimacy to it. But it wasn’t like I was thinking “I’ll change the magazine.” It was the only way I knew how to work.

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