“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. Follow Barbara on Twitter.
A major force at National Geographic and mainstream photography for 50 years, William Albert Allard has contributed to National Geographic Society magazine stories and books as a photographer and writer since 1964. Considered one of color photography’s most celebrated pioneers, Allard is a former contributor to Magnum Photos and his prints appear in private and museum collections. Allard has published more than forty articles in the magazine. Allard has also been published in most major U.S. and European publications. He has photographed in 30 countries. Producing images with a painterly quality—nuanced detail, rich color palettes, and intricate composition—William Albert Allard is as much an artist as he is a photographer and writer.
Photograph by Anthony Allard
William Albert Allard is the author of six highly acclaimed books, including the award-winning Vanishing Breed, a collection of his photographs and writing about the American West and the cowboy. Nominated for The American Book Award, the Associated Press said, “The magnificent photographs of cowboys and the West, sensitive, lonely, beautiful and real, are superbly matched with short anecdotal material that makes wonderful reading. This is a classic.”
His latest book, WILLIAM ALBERT ALLARD: Five Decades, a retrospective and memoir explores his long career in both words and pictures. Among his worldwide exhibits, his one-man show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran, Iran, in 2002, was the first exhibit of an American artist in Iran since 1979.
The son of a Swedish immigrant, Allard was born in Minneapolis in 1937 and studied at the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts and the University of Minnesota from which he graduated in 1964. In 1994 Allard received the Outstanding Achievement by an Alumni Award from the regents of the University of Minnesota. Allard lives outside Charlottesville, Virginia with his wife, Ani, and two dogs, Buster and Lizzy.
Q: In your book “Five Decades,” you write about how books and listening to the radio early on nurtured your imagination. How did your love of photography and writing evolve out of your childhood experiences?
A: As a child, I loved to draw. I was a child in pre-television years and I spent many hours at a table or on the floor drawing pictures while listening to programs on the radio. Those were the old radio drama shows, like “The Lone Ranger,” “Green Hornet,” that kind of thing. My mother evidently thought I’d grow up to be another Norman Rockwell, the very popular illustrator whose work so often showed up on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post magazine we received each week. My writing ambitions actually came before my interest in photography. While a first-year student at the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts, I had to take an English composition course and my teacher encouraged me when I’d turn in my writing. I had no burning desire to become a painter and I knew I didn’t want to become one of a hundred acres of commercial artists doing greeting cards or something like that. And I was reading voraciously, absorbing all the usual subjects: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, O’Hare, Steinbeck. I wanted to write so I transferred to the University of Minnesota and pursued journalism and soon discovered the world of photojournalism, which cultivated my love of making pictures with words as well as film.
Q: For the last 50 years, you have been working for National Geographic magazine. How did you land your first assignment in 1964 and how did it go?
A: I had been given a summer photographic internship at the magazine. I was married and had four children ages 1 to 4 and needed a job. Bob Gilka, director of photography at the Geographic, told me not to expect to take any long trips as an intern, but he did send me to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to photograph a Dutch festival for a week and told me to see if I could get any Amish pictures while there. I sent in some film right away and ended up spending a good part of the summer working in the Amish country. That was in 1964. When the story was published a year later, it became very popular with the readers and it has been said that that photograph essay on the Amish was a turning point in the magazine’s history. It had an intimacy, I guess, that was very different from what was usually seen in the National Geographic. That story kind of jump-started my career. It was my first professional job as a photographer. You could say I kind of came in at the top.
Q: You have said that many of your photographs were not “taken” but “given.” How do you approach a story?
A: I approach a story the same way today as I did with my first assignment on the Amish: I simply say who I am, who I’m representing, what my hopes are for my story and why I think it’s important to do it. In stories involving subcultures such as the Amish and the Hutterites, I state that I’m trying to show a way of life that many other Americans may be totally unaware of and that I want to show that subculture life as honestly as I can. I don’t consider myself a great salesman, but I think one has to somehow project a sincerity and a caring about the subject. To project that, one has no intention of making anyone look foolish. Acceptance is what it always comes down to. If I am accepted to be part of the scene, whatever and whomever is my subject area, and I’m allowed to be part of it, pictures will come. In a sense, they will be given every bit as much as taken.
Paula Kimbrough in her Easter dress, Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint, Holly Springs, Mississippi, 1986.
Q: Your images are both intimate and timeless. What drives your work to the level you want it to be?
A: Nothing can substitute for hard work or, even more importantly, caring about one’s subject. Also, and this becomes probably more difficult as one ages and perhaps experiences less energy to be called upon when needed, one wants to try to be just a little bit better today than yesterday or last week, or last year. It’s not one’s peers one needs to think about in terms of improving, it’s simply trying to be a little better than one was or has been. It’s not easy and it’s not in anyway guaranteed to happen. But it’s a goal one needs to pursue. It’s really competing with one’s self and being honest, to know if the work is up to par or maybe not.
Q: As a street photographer, do you think serendipity plays a role in the images you make?
A: To a street photographer, serendipity is extremely important. To me it’s almost everything. I can find a street, an alley, a storefront, a rest stop along a highway, almost anywhere I go, there can be a wonderful picture that might show itself. I have to be ready for it and I’m not always. I’ve seen some wonderful pictures I wasn’t able to get on film or on a digital file, but seeing them was great.
Q: What was it about the American West and the cowboy that inspired you to document the culture for over a decade?
A: I think I fell in love with the spaciousness of the American West, especially the mountainous regions of Montana, Wyoming and Nevada. I grew up in the prairie country of Minnesota. When I first saw those Rocky Mountains beckoning in the distance while driving across the West in my early years of working, it was extremely inspiring as a visual motif. And true westerners have a work ethic and certain cultural ways I was drawn to.
Hutterites – “Of all the stories from all the assignments I’ve had over my career, one became a part of my life that carried beyond either journalism or art.
Q: You share a close relationship with the Hutterities of Montana whom you began photographing in 1969. How did your friendship evolve?
A: I spent a lot of time with my Hutterite friends beginning in 1969 at a small colony near Stanford, Mont., in the central part of the state. This is the one assignment of my 50 years working that has continued to this day. Actually, it became stronger with the passing years. After my first Hutterite story was published in 1970, I didn’t see them for a few years, but my love for Montana drew me back and also to my Hutterite friends and as the years went by, I’d go out to Montana to hunt and to live with my colony friends. Then in 2005 when my best friends among the Hutterites were going to branch off and start a new colony some 300 miles away in the northeast part of Montana, I suggested to the Geographic that we do another story about them. As with the first story, I wrote the words as well as made the pictures. Because of the loss of Scott, my oldest child, to melanoma that summer while I was working on the colony and couldn’t get back to Minnesota to be at his side at his death, it became the most personal story I’ve ever done for publication. And the support of my Hutterite friends at that time was critical to my emotional well-being.
Q: You have had a grand adventure working for National Geographic magazine all these years, but that lifestyle comes at a price. Has it taken a toll on you and your family at times? (You don’t have to answer this one if you don’t want to.)
A: While many young photographers may think that working for National Geographic magazine is the all-time “dream job,” like most other seemingly ideal pursuits, it has a downside. Traveling around the world, embedding oneself into foreign cultures, living with one’s focus centered on a story about some other place and some other people, while those with whom you share your personal life are going along the best they can without you, is not an ideal way of life. Of course it takes its toll.
Q: Why is Paris your favorite city and how did Peru change your life?
A: To me, being in Paris is like walking through a series of one-act plays, with a constantly changing cast of characters, and the sets are beautiful. Perhaps it’s the romantic in me, but I’ve always loved the feeling of being in Paris. I consider it the best walking-around city in the world, at least the best of the cities I’ve experienced. My first assignment in Peru changed my life both personally and professionally. I fell in love and married a woman I met in Peru. We’ve been married 30 years. I came back from my first assignment in Peru in a very intense state and eventually that intensity led to me becoming kind of self-destructive and I ended up not being able to work for National Geographic for about 3 1/2 years. It’s too long a story, but it’s all in my last book, “William Albert Allard: Five Decades.”
Street artists, Paris, 1986
Q: You are truly a Renaissance man, Bill — you write, you photograph and you are also a musician. If you could do it all over again, do you think a career in music might be the path you would take or are you satisfied that your daughter is living the dream?
A: In another life, I could very well be happy making music, more than anything else. I think making music has a kind of purity to it that is hard to match. Much of that purity is probably very often involved in making music that goes out into the air and is heard only by those who might for some reason be present, not necessarily something that will be recorded for posterity. I’m not a musician. I can play a little bit of trumpet or flugelhorn, but I have no chops and certainly wouldn’t claim to be a musician in the true sense of the word. But I can sing and have enjoyed the opportunities I’ve had to perform with my singer/songwriter daughter, Terri, on local gigs with she and her band. Probably because of my age, I’m very much into the Great American Songbook with all those wonderful songs written from the 1920s through the war years and into the beginning of rock ’n’ roll. Songs with great melodic structure and wonderful lyrics. It’s not just that they aren’t writing those kinds of songs anymore, I think it’s more a fact that the audience for those kinds of songs has changed, as one would expect. Music has always been a reflection of the times and that’s every bit as true today. But if I could have another go-round at life, I think I’d be happy making music.
William Albert Allard is speaking Thursday Feb. 13 at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.
Links for William Albert Allard: Website Books