Next Tuesday is the release date for Sam Abell's latest book, The Life of the Photograph, published by Focal Point, an imprint of the National Geographic Society. You will see familiar works in this book, but much previously unpublished material as well. As usual with a Sam Abell book, the explication of his craft of imagemaking is much of the content of the book. For those of us who have had Sam as our teacher and mentor, we would expect no less from him. Here are excerpts from my recent interview with Sam.
Doug: Your book publicist did a really clever job getting all us photo bloggers to write about your book.
Sam: Well, I say to you what I've said to other people is that, I had a book come out 6 years ago, when there were no blogs. This is a mark to me about how the environment has changed.
D: The title on this one is an obvious take on the previous book, The Photographic Life. Tell me about that.
S: I was giving a lecture and I said, that's enough about The Photographic Life, meaning my biography, now let's talk about the life of a photograph. And in that one instant I got the title for a potential next book. Four years that book came out, and it's the book in your hands. It's less about my life and more about where the life of a photograph begins.
There are a lot of ways to talk about the life of a photograph. You can talk about the afterlife of a photograph, and in the end I talk about that, with the Richard Prince picture. But mainly, what I dedicated the book to being about was how photographs begin their life, and where they begin it. And they begin it with the photographer's imagination and instinct and experience. It's a little bit like talking about the life of writing. The life of writing may be about many things, but it always begins with the writer. With the kernel of an idea, or a character, or an idea or a theme, or even an outcome. But for documentary photographers, photographs begin at that intersection of the real world and the imaginative inner world. It's a book about that.
D: That pedagogic intent has been apparent in all the books of yours that I have.
S: Apparently I can't keep from doing that. I tried to restrain myself in this book. Upon reading it I see that it's there.
D: Well, it's there in a lovely way. You chose, often, many of the same pairs that appear in previous books. You even have a section that's titled the same as in The Photographic Life, “Seeking the Picture.”
S: That's right. At one point, the introduction, which is called Seeking the Picture, was to be the title of this book. It lasted a long time. And the reason is, that was the most well received section of TPL. That section of the book photographers spoke the most about, and valued the highest. So Leah (Sam's longtime editor) and I thought, let's do a book called that, and it will be about seeking the picture. The longer we lived with it the more we wanted something less about process and more about life. So we chose The Life as the title, but we retained Seeking the Picture as the core phrase as where photographs begin. So it's a book that's suggestive of process.
D: How much did your editorial life and your teaching life overlap?
S: I would say completely. I started teaching in '76 and I'd been a photographer at the Geographic for six years. But prior to being at the Geographic I was a teacher. Plus my parents were teachers and my brother and my grandparents. So it was the culture of our family to think about teaching, to talk about teaching, to talk about teachers. So teaching has never been far from my life. It's the most natural thing I do. Apparently, as I said, I cannot not do it.
D: So the didactic approach is deliberate and intentional in these books.
S: And I hope restrained.
It's a choice between two possible pictures. I wanted to put people, not only in the field, and thinking about the choices and decisions and outcomes in the field, I wanted to put them in the editor's chair and have them think about the consequential choices that happen there.
D: If you put it that way, then you're inviting a value judgment about which image is the “better” picture.
S: In this book, what Leah and I wanted was to make it more equal. That is, not play pictures one smaller than another, to suggest a choice has been made. We wanted to make it more open and available. We wanted to involve the reader. It's a sincere presentation of two ideas, two thoughts, two points of view, and two finished photographs.
D: Well, my favorite pair is not in this section, but near the end, where you have that ratty motel room and the towel and the bar of soap on the towel. It's like, between the first and second picture I can hear your footfalls. You, walking in that room, responding, then walking close. It's my favorite diptych in the book.
S: I've got a chill right now hearing you say that. When I think about the book, when Leah and I talk about the book, that is a core spread in the book because of its purity and modesty. I was wrecked when I walked in the door of that place. Aboriginal Australia is a tough place to work, rough and tough. And that day has been particularly exhausting. I walked into that room and it was a combination of the scene and the lighting, as you said. I had already put down my cameras and the tripod and all. I was ready to take a shower and call it a day. And I saw that scene and it woke me up. I forsook the path that I was on. I got out the tripod and I got myself completely involved with that picture. And I would say of all the diptychs in the book that one has the most equality of feeling and approach and outcome. For me it's a soulful scene, I don't know another way of putting it.
D: It also acknowledges, this situation is no less rigorous than any other in the book. I can imagine the physical rigor of rising to the occasion to document this image you just saw.
S: Rigor is the word. When I look at those pictures I refeel that. I refeel the tripod, the height of it, the particularity of working on that scene to live up to it. Because it was a radiant, humble scene. There's a great quote about Virginia Woolf, she had the same spiritual stake in her diaries as she had in her writing. That's a diary picture and I did have a spiritual stake in living up to it.
D: And ephemeral too, that light is changing fast.
S: Oh was it ever. Equatorial Australia. You're the only one who's drilled down and seen that scene. In equatorial Australia the sun sets, it dies vertically. Also there were trees outside, a door, there were obstacles, it wasn't a bed on the desert where you're going to have unobstructed light that you could count on. I'm so glad you mentioned that Doug, it really makes my day.
D: There's a choice between how much you let the formal relationships between the images speak for themselves, and how much you explain and tell stories. How do you establish a balance between those?
S: I was at a stage of thinking about photography books, as was Leah, where we wanted less, not more, with the storytelling. Whatever was written had to be suggestive, even symbolic, and had to carry through a number of spreads. How little can be written with as great an effect as possible. To some extent it was creating thoughts and carrying a mood about the spreads so that whatever was said on one spread lasted 3 or 4 spreads before new text was encountered. So tempo, pacing, likeness of topic, these were our thoughts and decisions.
D: That you have the same image in multiple books, how does that extend the life of the photograph? What is the meaning do you assign to it because of where in a sequence it occurs?
S: You've touched on one of the most testing ideas as we approached and created this book. And that was the presence in this book of old, known photographs versus new, unpublished photographs. We wanted the weight of the book to be new photographs. We had a test for the old photographs. The test was, we would present them in a new way. For example, Azzurra in Seattle. It's a well known picture, it's been in two books already. So, could we have it again, and the answer was yes, because we paired it with a photograph of her 14 years later on the same fabric. In the case of the branding photograph, which has been in three books of mine, we paired it with the photograph of the overall branding scene. Now that's been seen before in TPL, but small. Here we same sized it.
The approaching owl, the woman on the plaza, and the branding, I will call out those three as ones that I have a private campaign to make well known. Especially the branding. The branding was overlooked for publication when I did it. It was not chosen, and never published by National Geographic. I made a silent commitment to myself that I, single handedly, make that picture well known. Its presence in this book is part of that campaign. And I feel the same way about the plaza and approaching owl, and maybe one or two other photos in the book. So they're there as part of a life long publishing commitment to those photographs.
D: Another life of the branding photograph is in your workshop where you use that as a demonstration of how to structure a photograph in terms of layering and anticipation. That's the life of that photograph that I remember most keenly, because it changed how I handled dynamic environments.
S: I'm glad to hear that. It's a perfect teaching picture I think, because, if you cover up the lower half of the picture, the top half is vivid and dynamic and varied. And if you flip your hand and look only at the bottom half it's just as full an image. So is the left when the right is covered, and vice versa. Then there's the picture itself that operates back to front as so many of my photographs do, the landscape and the sky are a theatrical setting for the tableau of the cowboys. So it operates back to front, right to left, top to bottom.
D: The picture of the truck passing you on the interstate in South Carolina. You're not driving, were you?
S: Yes. I was driving with my knees. On a positive note, on safety, I've got a 50mm lens there, not a 35mm.
D: In the Portraits, my sense of that is, none of those are a portrait without the environment also being a subject of the photograph.
S: That's right, and that's typical of my photography, where I take on the totality of a scene. I take it on as a worthy thing, but also as a test.
D: And the four shots of Gerald Mack, that's a lovely treatment of that. I know you had another sequence of that in another book, but this is the nicest version of the cinematic sense of that.
S: It's my favorite of the cinema style layouts. One thing I like about it is the caption: The Approach and Departure of Gerald Mack.
D: So were you left to freeze to death on the prairie then?
S: No, I was with the rancher, in his nice warm truck.
D: You had one line with the rodeo picture which sums up a lot about process. It's about when you figured out that day that the rodeo was taking your photographs, not the other way around. It's insightful—can you talk about how one finds one's place in a complex environment?
S: I have this awareness that the more dynamic the situation is, the more on guard I need to be that the dynamic isn't controlling the situation. I found that myself in the Galapagos. For the first time in my life I was around very exotic animals, colorful, beautiful, and immediately present, all around. Birds, turtles, iguanas, seals. I was being seduced by their exoticism and immediacy into thinking that, therefore, I was taking pictures. When I saw the film I had to say, so when did light stop mattering? When did moment cease to matter? The pictures weren't well lit, there was no moment in play, there was no depth to the pictures. I was just gawking with my camera at something I'd never seen before. And a rodeo can be like that. Typically I see it with photographers who go to a place like India or Nepal, and everything's so colorful and exotic and they think, therefore, a picture's been taken.
D: Seduced by novelty.
S: Exotic novelty. My statement to them is always, well, set this picture in your home town, is it still an interesting picture? Or is it just exotic? Would I care about this same picture minus its exoticism?
D:The last section, Life of the Photograph, when did that section come together in reference to your famous interview about Richard Prince's appropriation of your photograph?
S: It precedes that.
D: This chapter is like your answer to him.
S: First of all, I appropriate photographs. That's what this section highlights, that much of photography is an act of appropriation all the time. In presenting the Richard Prince photograph I tried to be as neutral as I could be. I put down the fact of it. I wanted it to be the same thing he wanted it to be, an open ended invitation to think about authorship, and who owns a created work. So I pair it with my appropriated picture. It's meant to be thought provoking and like every other spread in the book, meant to be involving. Not something you can flip through and not think about.
D: It's the concluding chapter.
S: It reprises the title, but it steps away from all the preceding chapters. A very big part of the life of a photograph is the afterlife.