For Sam Abell
In his first Geographic story, Sam Abell made a photograph of his mud-splattered car as a response to the inspiration of Christopher Pratt, one of Canada’s most important modern artists. In the same spirit, while in the rain-soaked, mud-sodden region of eastern Wyoming in 2015, resulting in much the same pattern on my car, I made a photo as a tribute to Sam Abell’s importance to modern photography.
Join Me Learning Fine Art Digital Printmaking in Santa Fe!
My mother tells a story that goes something like this: When I was 15, I was engrossed in a typical pastime at my grandmother’s house–looking at pictures in old copies of National Geographic. I ran upstairs, holding out a picture of two fishermen in Newfoundland, saying, “This is what I want to do!” The picture was by Sam Abell, who years later in an unbelievable turn of fate became my friend, mentor, and classroom colleague. No words can ever express the honor and joy I’ve experienced through working with Sam.
Similarly, I used to look at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops catalogue, awestruck by the photographers who had earned places there as instructors. How amazing, I thought, to take a class in Santa Fe from such people. Had you told me then that I would teach there instead, I’d have laughed in disbelief.
But no more.
The coming summer marks the first (and hopefully not last) course I will teach at the Workshops, The American West: Crafting Fine Digital Prints, from June 30-July 4. I’m eternally grateful to Reid Callanan, the SFPW director, for the opportunity, and I hope to see many of you in the digital lab this summer!
Jay Em No. 6
My wife asked me once why I almost always titled images in only three ways: location, number, or untitled. It was a question I’d never confronted in terms of justification; why didn’t I use cool names or commentary as a title for an image?
I had to think for a while.
I eventually surmised it came down to feelings. Somehow, the locations and images were telling me these were the proper names, the ways in which they’d like to considered. Cindy Sherman once wrote, “The work was so intuitive for me, I didn’t know where it was coming from.” Sam Abell notes the images are smarter than we are–they may take years to come to life. If so many great photographers acknowledge the image has its own voice, that is only using me to vocalize that essence, than who am I to place judgment upon those ideas through the imposition of a frivolous title?
Thus, Jay Em No. 6.
Sam Abell’s photographs are featured at Time magazine.
One of the great honors of my life is that I have been fortunate enough to have Sam Abell as a close friend and mentor. A veteran of 40 stunning years of making photographs, including for National Geographic, Sam recently published the first volume in The Sam Abell Library, a four volume set detailing his life’s work. After such an illustrious career, one would think little honors were left–but not so. Time magazine has just published a full feature on the first volume of the library, including 25 photographs from the first volume. You can see the feature here.
You’ve just made a series of photographs that really make you proud. What’s more, a gallery contacts you to offer a show of your latest project, including a full-color catalog and other marketing materials. The night of your opening, you notice a man making photos of your displayed work; you optimistically assume he’s another gallery owner taking notes in advance of a pending offer to you for another show.
Eight months later, you attend a reception at a high-profile gallery on the East Coast, and are shocked to see the exhibition is of your photos, barely changed, the subjects of the mystery guest’s acclaimed project. What’s more, all of the works are priced in the tens of thousands of dollars, and many have already sold. You’re outraged, and that anger only intensifies when your upcoming show of the original images is cancelled, the gallery committee reasoning your work is “too similar” to the more prominent artist’s show of his photos of your displayed images.
Total fiction, right? Wrong.
Interested in learning more? Head over to my site blog for the nitty gritty on appropriated art and the legal issues surrounding it.
The Cut, Kreman Ranch
One of the most well-known National Geographic images is Sam Abell’s “Branding, Ken Rosman Ranch, Montana.” It’s so good that it recently made the magazine’s top 50 photos of all time, and photographic legend and Magnum full member Alex Webb has said of it, “This is what we’re all trying to do.” My style has been influenced immensely by this photo, as well as one of Abell’s other works, “Fisherman Hauling in a Net, Canada.” Yet, imitation is a fool’s hope of originality, so while I can continue to admire the image and learn from its teachings, I can’t, and shouldn’t, try to make another just like it.
But on a Saturday morning branding at the Kreman ranch, I found a chance to reverse the composition as much as possible. Thanks for the lessons, Mr. Abell.
Cowboy and Daughter, Chadron
I once heard National Geographic photographer Sam Abell say, during a presentation, that many people thought the way he created his stunning photographs was by booking a very comfortable hotel room, having a nice breakfast, and simply looking out the window one day to capture the photo. The audience laughed. I laughed. “Couldn’t ever happen that way,” I said to myself.
Then, in Chadron on March 21, it did.
Walking out of my hotel room at 12:30 p.m., I saw this cowboy and his daughter eating lunch in the courtyard, so very displaced from the stereotypical environment we expect to find such people. The arches, the sea of stucco, cement and sterility all struck me as a classic statement of “modern Nebraska history,” as a very good friend of mine called it. This scene was then complimented by the ready-made frame of the window, and my photo was prepared for me.
Right out my door after I had a nice lunch.