Destiny is sometimes just a phone call away. William Albert Allard, son of a Swedish immigrant, was twenty-six years old, married with four children, and broke, when he went to Washington D.C to show his pictures. He ended up at the US Information Agency with editor, Yoichi Okamoto, who would go on to become the first White House photographer, under LBJ. Okomato had nothing for him, but offered to call legendary director of photography at National Geographic, Bob Gilka.
Gilka agreed to take a look at the pictures and offered Allard an internship, warning that it paid little and would end after the summer. But his first story, on the Amish, which was shot while Allard was still an intern, both revolutionised the magazine’s photographic style; and secured him a long-term contract.
More than half a century later, Allard is one of the grand old men of photography: a master of light and portraiture, whose photographs have become iconic images known the world over. The author of numerous books, including the award winning, Vanishing Breed, he has done forty-two stories for National Geographic, both as photographer and writer. Now aged seventy-nine, he is still taking pictures with the same uncompromising directness, intimacy and painterly sense of composition.
Talking from his home in Virginia, where he lives with his wife, Ani, and two dogs, Buster and Lizzy, he explains why photos are not taken but given; why the best images are often found at the edges of situations; and how painters, rather than photographers, have been his deepest inspiration.
Q & A
You have had a long, distinguished career with National Geographic, dating back to 1964. Wind back the clock and tell us how you got into photography.
As a child in Minneapolis, I loved to draw and was pretty good at it. But I was an underachieved in high school. I cared more about music than classes. So when I left high school I didn’t go immediately to university. My high school grades were not good enough. Instead, I went out on the work force. Fortunately I had a sister who thought I could do better with my life. So I decided to leave my job as a construction lineman for the telephone company and submitted some drawings to The Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I was accepted and I spent a year there. But I had no burning ambition to be a painter and in the course of that year I had to take an English class as well. I was feeling that I wanted to be a writer and was encouraged by my English teacher. So I transferred to the University of Minnesota with the idea of going into journalism school. In my sophomore year, a young, very enthusiastic associate professor in photo- journalism came and lectured to my reporting class about words and pictures. That really rang a bell with me, so I decided to venture into that photojournalism class as a beginner. I didn’t have a dark room or a camera as a kid, which was fortunate because I didn’t bring any bad habits with me.
Photojournalism brought together my two loves for making images with words and pictures. That same professor, who became a mentor, encouraged me to go to New York with a portfolio of work. I was 26 years old and married with four kids, aged one to four [Laughs] I ended up in Washington DC at the US Information Agency. The man I spoke to was straight out of central casting: overweight, cigar smoking, and a ****ing bore. Luckily, someone in NY had told me to go and see Yoichi Okamoto, head of photography at the USIA, who later became the first official White House photographer, under LBJ.
Oki was a gruff Japanese fellow. He looked at my portfolio and said, “Are you going to see NG?” I said, “No, it hadn’t occurred to me.” All the young photographers like myself wanted to work for Life or Look. But he picked up the phone and called Bob Gilka, the director of photography at NG. Oki said, “You wanna see a good people photographer?” I could only hear one side of the conversation and after a pause Oki said, “Well, damn, I wouldn’t send him over if he wasn’t any good!”
That conversation basically changed my life. The next day I showed up at the NG building. Bob Gilka looked at my portfolio and said, “I could offer you a photography internship over the summer. But, if you can get anything else you ought to take it because it doesn’t pay very much – and at the end of the summer it’s all over.” I said, “I’ve been broke for five years, so another three months won’t kill me – and you might want to keep me.” [Laughs] That was in June 1964. And at the end of the summer they put me on contract.
It’s been said that your first major story, on the Amish, revolutionized the visual storytelling style of the magazine. Or is that just urban legend?
[Laughs] I didn’t think of it at that time, but that’s how it’s come down historically speaking. I wasn’t doing anything different. I don’t have a bag of tricks or anything. But at that time, NG readers were mostly used to seeing bare-breasted women in Africa or people in red sweaters standing under a waterfall [Laughs] What they saw in that story was something they were not used to seeing: intimacy.
The lede picture, which I think still holds up today, is very direct: a young boy in Amish dress, holding a guinea pig, which he insisted I go with him to the barn to see. The other pictures that followed also had an intimacy to them. Readers responded very positively and that created that shift. I’m very proud of it. But I certainly don’t consider myself a revolutionary [Laughs]
Your subsequent work also stands out for its intimacy. How do you get close to your subjects?
I teach workshops now and then and almost every time I have students who are there because they find photographing people challenging. There isn’t any formula. The camera is just a tool. And, God knows, these days you can buy a camera that will park your car and do everything except tell you what ramp level you’re on [Laughs] I’m a Leica man. Give me a simple camera, any day.
It also helps if you have an ability to accept rejection. I have worked with groups that I consider subcultures like the Amish or cowboys in the West. These people can see through you if you’re bullshitting [Laughs] My approach is the same as it’s always been: very direct. I tell the subject who I am, what I am doing and why I think it should be done. It’s up to them to accept it or not.
One time, I went to see the owner of a famous ranch out West, where I wanted to take pictures. He looked me up and down and said, “There’s a difference between you and I. You like people. I don’t. I got a team of mules and I know they’re going to try and kick me. But with people, you just don’t know.” [Laughs]
Another thing I ask my students is, “What’s the three most important things in real estate? Location, location, location. What are the most important things if you’re a documentary photographer? Access, access, access.” But there’s another thing that’s even more important. You can have access but what’s going to give you the pictures – and a lot of my best pictures were given to me – is acceptance. It’s one thing to be allowed into a space. It’s another thing, once you’re in there, to be accepted. But that’s when people start opening themselves up and giving you those pictures.
You once said, “The best pictures are often on the edges of a situation.” Explain what you mean by that.
What Degas works are we really familiar with? Not those where they’re performing but the ones where they’re out on the edges, in rehearsal or in the wings. Same with performance. I have a wonderful example from when I was photographing a blues story in Memphis, at the May Festival, which takes place in a series of big tents along the river. This one tent was called, Blues Tent. It was not huge but it had a stage, and a pit down in front. I told the stage crew, “Don’t make me stand down in the pit. I need to have access everywhere.”
They were very generous and on the last afternoon Clarence Gatemouth Brown closing the festival. After his last song, took his coat off and draped it on the chair behind him. When he saw me, he gave me this big gate-mouth smile, with all the people in the audience behind him. I could eat that picture with a spoon! But I couldn’t have got it if I hadn’t been allowed to work around the edges.
What inspires you in your work, Bill?
It has to be a subject I really care about. There was a time in my career where I was taking assignments other people didn’t want, because I needed the work. I gave 110%, regardless. But I reached a point when I thought I only want to do what I really want to do. That’s the way you keep the juices going.
Physically, I can’t do some things I could 10-15 years ago. I’ll be 79 in September, and spinal stenosis affects my mobility. But I still love making pictures. I’m inspired by the visual arts, by music and the subject matter. I’m a people photographer at heart. I’ve never been a cause photographer. I’ve never been to war. I always worry about my friends, like Eugene Richards or Jim Nachtwey. They bring their subjects home with him. It’s very emotional and stressful. Don McCullin doesn’t go to war anymore, but his landscapes all look like they’re touched by death.
National Geographic Creative Interview With William Albert Allard By Simon Worrall