Seeing life through a lens

Posted 9/23/10

“My father photographed all of that as an amateur,” Abell said. “Then I went to the circus that afternoon, and it was a letdown ... The big show had been in the morning.”

“I knew right there that the place I wanted …

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Seeing life through a lens


{gallery}09_16_10/samabell{/gallery} National Geographic photographer Sam Abell (left) visits with Matthew Idler of Cheyenne at Northwest College Friday. Idler is a 2002 graduate of the NWC photography program. Behind them are NWC photographer Dave Vaughn (left) and photography student Daniel Cirbo. Tribune photo by Ilene Olson National Geographic photographer Sam Abell describes his career and his life during NWC visitWhen he was 10 years old, Sam Abell watched as his father took photographs as the Ringling Brothers Circus arrived on a train in Toledo, Ohio. His father documented the process through pictures as circus crews unloaded all the animals and paraphernalia. Then Sam watched, spellbound, as handlers guided powerful elephants to set up the big top circus tent.

“My father photographed all of that as an amateur,” Abell said. “Then I went to the circus that afternoon, and it was a letdown ... The big show had been in the morning.”

“I knew right there that the place I wanted to be was in life. Life was something you didn't buy a ticket to,” he said. “I made the association through my father's photography that one way to be in life was to take pictures.”

That was one of the three influences that led Abell to begin his photography hobby, later leading to a legendary career as a photographer for National Geographic magazine.

Another was “the magic of the photo that was seeing a print develop in a dark room. That had a powerful effect on me as a boy.”

And, finally, “Seeing my work published with my name underneath. It was better than money,” he said. “They were humble publications, such as a student newspaper, but they were important to me and represented an enlargement of my life. I spent the rest of my life in print publications.”

Abell talked about his career and his passion for photography during a Tribune interview at Northwest College on Friday. Abell shared slides and details of his career and life to a packed house at the Nelson Performing Arts Auditorium Friday night.

Assignments for the National Geographic magazine could last as long as a year or more, Abell said.

Abell's 30-year career as a National Geographic photographer has demanded sacrifices, including the decision he and his wife, Denise, made to not have children.

“It was the right decision for us,” he said. “(Having children) was incompatible with the life of travel that we had chosen to live.

And I think my wife agrees. She was more of a natural traveler than I was at the time. The fit of what we did and who we were was a close and a good one.”

His career came with trials as well, some serious. They included nearly losing a hand when a door slammed on a boat in rough seas; contracting a serious case of malaria in South America; having his cameras and film stolen in Gardiner, Mont., during an assignment at Yellowstone; breaking his back badly in a hang-gliding accident during an assignment about hang gliding; and being mugged and robbed of his cameras and gear by skinheads.

Abell said he feared for his life twice on assignments, both in Australia and both in similar circumstances.

“I was on assignment on the northwest coast, in the Kimberley region. I wanted to get a photograph of a cyclone; it influences life there in a dramatic and important way.”

But, as fate or luck would have it, he was there during one of the driest rainy seasons on record.

“I went looking for a cyclone in a small plane,” he said. “We got trapped in it. We survived, but we didn't think we would.

“I swore that would never happen again, but it did, five years later, and it was worse.

“My two friends who were with me and I still remember the day we landed safely. We didn't think we would, and we all knew we shouldn't have.

“In both cases, I was seeking the picture.”

That was the subject of his talk Friday night.

After years filled with thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of photos and the stories that went with them, Abell said one photographic moment stands out.

That also occurred in Australia.

“It seemed like Australia had the extremes of what an assignment can be — exhilarating highs and dark and dangerous lows,” he said.

On this occasion, in 1996, Abell was working on a story in Cape York Peninsula.

“It was nominally a geography story, and it included the lifestyle of the area,” he said. “But it was also a center of thriving Aboriginal life, and the Aborigines were advocating for their claims for their territory.

“I was sympathetic to their situation, but they were highly resistant to being photographed. I understood this, and I didn't press.

“It came to pass, then, that I spent a week on a remote cattle station that had both Aborigines and Europeans — black fellas and white fellas, in their terminology.

“After a week, there was a degree of acceptance of me, and I was invited to go on an outing with Aborigines under the condition that there would be no photographs of what they were doing — illegally netting crayfish from a pond out of season.

“Despite this restriction, I went along with them. After the netting, they began to swim and play in the pond, and I felt free to photograph.

“One young man, who was named Trumaine, began to coat his arms and chest and face with mud from the pond bottom. I took a photograph of him, and he and his mates made fun of that, and he submerged.

“When he reappeared, I switched ... from a wide-angle lens to a portrait lens, which isolated his head against the water, which looked strangely like mercury, like liquid chrome.

“I stepped toward him, and I said, ‘Trumaine, be serious.' And he was.

“I brought the camera to my eye, and it was the most powerful portrait I'd ever seen in the viewfinder of a camera. I felt that I was seeing racial memory and time as well as a face. It wasn't my racial memory. It was his, but I knew it when I saw it.”

Retelling the story appeared to transport Abell back in time; he closed his eyes, reliving the event as it unfolded in his memory.

“I needed Trumaine to stay serious, to hold his expression for a few moments, until the water stilled and the light quality of mercury intensified. If the sun had come out from behind a cloud or he had grown impatient, I would never have succeeded.

“But he did stay serious, and the water stilled long enough before the sun came out and he swam off.

“The last, stillest image made it all the way from the edge of that pond to the cover of National Geographic.

“It was a powerful portrait that had a life. Over the long life of a single issue of National Geographic, more than 100 million people were calculated to see that photograph.”