Jul 13, 2012

Influence, inspiration, admiration & props

This post is a long time coming, in many ways. Eighteen years ago I first picked up a camera. Fourteen years ago I got my first "real" photojournalism job. Ten years ago I began what would become my defining job here at the Observer. Six years ago I began this blog. And while it was two weeks ago I began compiling this post, the photographs and people that comprise it have been with me at some point or another throughout these last 18 years. Some are friends, some I've watched from afar. Some changed the way I see the world, and others I'm just learning about. I'm sure I've left some out, and others are just going to be no-brainers and perhaps cliche, but I think it's past time that I recognize those that have meant so much to me.

Henri Cartier-Bresson
There are a few pictures I'm featuring here that I consider perfect — or as damn close as a photograph can be to perfect — and the photo above is one of them. This was the photo that first turned me onto HCB in the first place and started me on a quest to see and study everything I could of his. I feel like I started seeing photographically in three dimensions after viewing much if his work. And timing, oh, the timing. Remarkable. I just love his stuff so very much.
I've never photographed conflict, famine or other  hard-hitting societal issues. But I think the work of HCB shows that you don't have to, and that being a photo documentarian of what is around you can have just as much value. I have bought his book The Mind's Eye three different times, because I keep giving it to other photographers. That reminds me, I really need to get another copy again...

 Many photojournalists have been conflicted over Eugene Smith for a long time, mostly because of his methods in the darkroom, where he would work prints so much that sometimes the photographed scene itself would change. Me, I don't really care about that. I care about the almost unfathomable amount of work this guy produced, so very much of it is so very good. I definitely admire the cavalier attitude he took toward the publishing establishment and how he operated on his own terms. So much so that he dropped out of it  and spent years photographing from his NY loft window (AT RIGHT and bottom photo). And what ratchets up his cool factor for me personally is that during this period he also completely wired up the entire building with audio equipment so he could record the all night jazz jam sessions that would take place there, featuring some of the greatest jazz musicians ever, including the likes of Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, Ronnie Free and Sonny Rollins. A wonderful website and book called the Jazz Loft Project has attempted to bring much of this music to light after being boxed up for years. Below you'll find a very small helping of some of my favorite Smith images (especially the first one).  

Robert Frank
I was a late comer to Robert Frank and his excellent book, The Americans. I think it first came to my attention after reading that one my favorite photographers, Alan Berner (more on him later) said that every photographer should own a copy of the book. I now own two copies of the book, one of which being the Expanded Edition. Perhaps the biggest lesson in this book is that photography isn't perfect. It can be haphazard, strange, imperfect — but yet that is what makes it perfect. The picture below of the tuba player is one of my favorite images ever.

One of the biggest influences on my work has been the photography in the National Geographic. To be more specific, the people photography in the magazine. The following three photographers have created some of the best photographs ever, in my opinion, and did so for the Geographic.

Where to begin? I love everything this guy does. His greatest strength, to me, is how wonderfully complicated his compositions are. There is just so much going on, yet there is an order to the chaos. The photos below from Cuba are some of my favorites and are something I aspire to for all their qualities. 

William Albert Allard
For some reason I just realized recently how Allard's work has meant to me. He's another who can do no wrong in my book. And one of the qualities I loved most is how he doesn't bank on "perfect" situations to make great images. He doesn't always have the best light, etc., but makes great images with what he has in front of him — a kind of perfect imperfections. I can thank Harvey and Allard for any skills I may have in seeing color.
Please note, that shooting to the left of Allard with a red filter on his Leica is David Alan Harvey, who had wrote a wonderful piece on his blog about Allard. Do a search on him and you will find a wealth of information from him in the form of blogs, videos, podcasts, etc. Allard is by far one of the most insightful and outspoken photographers you could hope to hear. The top photo below, one of the greatest ever.

I haven't followed Abell so much over the years, but I have to include him for if no other reason than the fact that he took two of my all time favorite images. The first one below is quite possibly the most perfect photograph ever made. It is just so right in so many ways.

Now we get a little less formal

I'm kinda new to David Burnett, but I really love what he does. He is funny and strange and wonderful. I love that he shoots sports loose and in unusual ways. He's not afraid to try new, or old things — or anything for that matter. He shot the 2008 Olympics with a Speed Graphic (that's a 70-year old 4x5 film camera to you and me). He's shot presidents with Holga's (that's a $20 plastic medium format camera to you and me). Watch this video of his trip to China for the Olympics to really understand.
Another photographer who I admire for the same reasons is Tom Boyd from the Oregonian, who never met a camera or image making device he didn't like and always makes it work for him.

These guys get mentioned together because I think of them when I think of a great newspaper photographer, and of someone who wasn't afraid to go beyond the confines of that world and seek something else.
I have been a fan of Berner (top two images below) since almost day one, as he consistently makes wonderful (I'm using that word a lot, but really don't have a better one) quirky images while working for a metro daily paper, The Seattle Times. I've had the pleasure of talking with Alan a number of times over the years and he is really a cool guy.

Speaking of cool, how cool is it to have a job at one of the largest papers on the west coast (when jobs in this field are hard to come by) and decide it's just not you thing anymore and decide instead to follow your passion and photograph only the weirdest sporting events on the planet? That's pretty cool, and that's Sol. In 2000 I replaced Sol at the News-Register newspaper in McMinnville, Ore., a job I had a love/hate relationship with for two years. Sol has always given me quality advice and feedback and is possibly one of the most giving people in this biz. The photo below came early in his quest for weirdness, and it was when I realized he had figured it all out.

Eugene Richards is known as a serious guy. Everything he shoots is very serious. Well, except for this image, which I absolutely love.

A serendipitous moment shot by Elliott Erwitt

A photo from the RFK Funeral Train series by Paul Fusco, one of the most beautiful and original ideas of photojournalism ever, IMO.

When he worked a the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Brian Plonka made some of the the best small town documentary images I have ever seen, including this one below.

In 2000 I met Rob Finch at a photo conference in Utah. He reviewed my meager portfolio at the time and said he liked it. Coming from someone who had just won the NPOY that meant a lot. I was lucky enough to have him offer me advice and encouragement over the following few years. What a great gift.

Last, but most definitely not least, Torsten Kjellstrand's winning portfolio in the 1995 POY was possibly the most influential on my work and career aspirations. Kjellstrand worked at a small paper in the middle of nowhere USA and yet made just wonderful images depicting life there.
That is what I wanted to do, that's what I wanted to be. I had no interest in photographing world or national news, there are certainly many, many more photographers, better photographers handling that. But aren't the people of small town USA just as deserving of having their lives documented in a meaningful way? I thought so, and I still do. I love small towns, rural counties, the coast and the people who live there and the things that happen. And that's what I'm doing, or trying at least. 
Please do check out the links and photographs of all these people I've listed here, as it is an education to take in their work, and a joy to view.


** Copyrights above to Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith, David Alan Harvey, William Albert Allard, Sam Abell, David Burnett, Alan Berner, Sol Neelman, Eugene Richards, Elliott Erwitt, Paul Fusco, Brian Plonka, Rob Finch & Torsten Kjellstrand

1 comment:

Sara Frances said...

A very sweet little tribute. You'll find a link to this blog in a forthcoming article of mine at ProPhotoCoalition.com. Probably to post 4/30/14 Sara Frances