Truly Abell

   Sam Abell, famed photographer, National Geographic icon, gentlemen, and one fun dude to hang with while road tripping with a camera,  turns 70 today.

   He’s a slight generation ahead of me, and as such, is partly responsible for helping me fall in love with film photography. While I was studying the craft as a teenager in art school, I can remember seeing his images unfold before me in new, slick magazines–mysterious cultures from distant lands, winking, beckoning me with each flip of the page, to bring my own camera and join-in on the adventure. I didn’t just find the images inspiring, beautiful, and bizarre–I wanted to make my own photographs. I guess that’s what’s known as passion. It’s a step beyond simple admiration for the work of others–it’s a desire to emulate, create our own signature within a frame, within the landscape we inhabit.

   I’ve always admired Sam’s clean, well crafted edge to edge, compositions. At times they seem completely sculpted, yet allowing for a fair amount of spontaneous, controlled magic to drizzle in–patiently allowing what may, to walk into the frame, adding a bit of surprise, humor, awe. His work taught me to be mindful of the way I construct an image too–paying as much attention to what falls outside the frame as I do to what falls inside of it. 

   Of course I don’t know what goes on in Sam’s head–save for what he admits to in his writings but, when I work, I find myself at times–whether photographing an American wedding reception; or walking into a third world village full of people who speak a different tongue than I–asking, What would Sam do? How would he approach this assignment? 

A young couple asks a stranger to take their photo with their camera, unaware that it’s world-renowned photographer Sam Abell whom they’ve approached. (Yellowstone National Park, 2010)
My friend Anthony laughs with sweet irony as Sam Abell accommodates the quick photo request. (©2010; Kodak Tri-X, circa 1982; Mamyia 6 film camera)

   Sometimes we make the photos happen; sometimes we wait for them to happen; and sometimes photos simply find us and induce us to go to work. I remember laughing along with a group of photographers while on a photo trip to Yellowstone when a young, unknowing couple, asked if one of us could take their photo for them. We all simply looked in amusement as Sam graciously accepted their humble point and shoot, composed an image of them and handed it back. No one explained they’d just received an original, Sam Abell portrait.

   I mean, it’s like having Cy Young toss you a few slow lobs while you’re working on your swing; or, getting the real Elvis to sing Love Me Tender, at your Vegas wedding.  

Once, I got to go shooting with the colorful, Jay Maisel–another icon from the era of film photography who’s many books shower a legacy of images at us from his eighty-something years of life experience. We were all having a sit-down meal with him at a small-town Wyoming diner, and he let me hold his digital Nikon while he went off to the washroom. I carefully composed a shot of some diffused light falling onto a greasy restaurant booth, something I’d flippantly hoped Jay might find mildly amusing (hell maybe he’d forget about it and someday through a twisted mix-up of fate, I’d see MY image with HIS name on it somewhere; and I’d have a fun, inside story to tell). But alas, I watched him delete it before my eyes while simultaneously saying how nice  the image was. Let’s face it, had it been him shooting frames on my camera, the photos would probably be hanging around my house somewhere. That’s when you know you’re a great photographer: when great photographers say so.

   So, a truly great treat for this young couple, despite not knowing who it was that took their photo. Maybe with this post they’ll find out.

   Both Sam and I come from the generation of photographers which made a living shooting just film. Most working photographers today, have adapted well to digital. We still see with our eyes and capture the light as we choose. But the art of film, the nuances that come with each click, each negative, each print, are a one-of-a-kind phenomenon which digital cannot claim. The billionth copy of a fine digital capture, is as pristine as the original capture. Not so with film. Duplicating a raw negative or slide, only degrades it. This fact has always made me reluctant to fall in love with digital. Fortunately on this day, I had a slightly expired roll of film–one that was literally 22-years-old.

American photographer Sam Abel. Happy Birthday Sam. Thanks for the lifetime of images you’ve made for the world to see; and for this image you’ve allowed me to make of you.

   I asked Sam if I could make a portrait of him and he agreed. I exposed two frames of Sam before I felt I was wasting his time, and later finished the rest of the roll on candid shots that day. A couple of weeks later, I finally got the courage to see what was on the film. There was no LCD screen to instantly be gratified by. So I old-school developed the roll in my kitchen sink, nursing the vastly outdated film, all the while not positive I’d even have a negative. But after safely applying the fix, I was able to open the light-tight container and voilà, the latent image appeared in reverse fashion; Sam’s smile readily visible even without magnification, on the 2 1/4 inch square frame.

I must have taken several hundred digital photos that day of Sam, of Yellowstone, my pals in the group–but the images on this one, 12-exposure roll of ancient film, are the ones which matter most from our time together. They are one of a kind, as is Sam.

   Just like the film we loved many decades ago, we’re all getting older, reaching that expiration date. I’m happy to see that Sam is still as vital, still as creative and still as enduring as he ever was.

   –Happy Birthday Sam Abell–