Sam Abell

A photography heavyweight looks back

Written by      

Andrew Shurtleff

Sam Abell, who had a career with National Geographic for over 30 years, was inspired to a photographic life through to the work of Dorothea Lange’s black and white images from the Depression. “When I saw her book I saw two things: page after page of photographs that simply stopped you and held you; and the life behind those photographs, the life of an intrepid woman who made a living somehow taking these kinds of photographs. I thought the path forward for me, to live a version of her life, was to go to National Geographic—I would be an intrepid traveller for the high calling of taking meaningful photographs.”

When I was a boy we had a stereo viewer at home. I think that 3D image I saw gave me an ideal for the still image that I aspired to make. The whole technique of my photography is based on my aspiration to create dimensionality in a flat photograph and the way to do that is to become devoted to the layers in the picture and the separation of those layers.

You have to create the power of involvement. If I’m not involved as a viewer then the photograph won’t have a life. I won’t linger on it. I won’t remember it. I think a picture of this for me is a photograph of a tree in a window in Japan. Maybe it is a tree, maybe it is not a tree, maybe a stained-glass window or a painting. I would pass by it every day, twice a day and it would puzzle me. It’s a still life of a tree seen through a window but photographed in such a way that the elements all have a visual vibration.

I had great teachers, beginning with my dad. He took lessons from a newspaper photographer in town and he’d share what he learned with me, “Compose the picture Sammy, compose the picture and wait.”

I was a bold boy without a camera, but with a camera in my hands I was brazen and intrepid. With photography as a licence, I would go places and do things that I just wouldn’t have done on my own without a camera. Like getting on top of buildings in our town just to see what it looked like to take a picture of Main Street from the church steeple. And that continued in my life, which is why National Geographic was perfect for me. It was all a big photography adventure, but it was also a personal expression of freedom, and photography not only fit well with it, but also enabled it.

I strongly resisted digital. I resented it for killing film. Leaving National Geographic, the death of my father and the death of film all happened at about the same time and I stopped photographing for about three years. At that point I was disaffected with photography. I think that it was teaching that brought me back to photography. My students’ excitement about photography and their work and their belief in me brought me back.

Now I am more demanding. I want my photographs to be more complex, more layered, more nuanced, more suggestive, to have more implications. But, I am looking for and finding images in 1975 that, while not masterpieces, are suggestive of the photographer I was to become. You photograph ahead of yourself. Like the single frame in ten rolls, which I overlooked in the first three edits of images I made during a seal hunt in Newfoundland. It is a photograph of a hold full of seal pelts and that photograph previews who I am going to become: it’s quiet, it’s a still life but it has a life, and that has been a life-long aspiration of mine, to give still life a life.

Sam Abell’s latest book The Sam Abell Library: Life and Still Life is a 16-volume collection of which the first installment is available at Radius Books