Sometimes You Have to Get Dirty – by Dorothy Brown
There comes a point in the study of photography when you realize that not only is it okay to have opinions about the work of the masters, it is important. Because the process of forming a strong opinion involves careful examination and analysis of the images in question, which in turn provides the information necessary to defend that opinion beyond the conversation-stopping “I know what I like”.
The opinion itself might even be secondary. The true benefit to us as aspiring artists comes from being able to talk about images in a considered way. Practicing that language deepens our experience of photography and can’t help but inform our own work.
It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
Comparison can be an effective way to sharpen this skill. Here are two images with the same subject matter – calf branding. Both were made by respected National Geographic photographers, Sam Abell and William Albert Allard, who each have decades-long bodies of work. Both photographers appreciate the importance of story. Both images are unquestionably successful, but their impacts are quite different.
Sam Abell made his image in Montana on assignment for National Geographic. This particular image has been singled out by his colleagues and many others as one of his very best. Abell is known for the image-building technique that he describes as “compose and wait”. “The world is highly chaotic in visual terms. It’s out of control, really, visually. I don’t know how you can take pictures without composing and waiting.”
Abell builds his photographs from the background forward. His low and close perspective here invites us to focus first on the action in the foreground where a cowboy with a scalpel in his mouth crouches before a calf. Then our eyes travel back and around to see the rest of the story being played out in the mid- and background. Abell’s achievement here is to capture a moment that is, as he puts it, “clarified but complex”.
Composition is the star of this image, and the subject matter exists in service to it. It is a clear, complex, complete representation of calf branding that is experienced as a fact. The viewer can appreciate the layers of the composition, and his mastery in choosing this moment. But it doesn’t make us wonder; it doesn’t inspire us to ask questions. What is felt most strongly is the presence of Abell as the infinitely patient observer, waiting for the perfect, clarified moment to appear within his scene.
William Albert Allard also made his calf-branding image in Montana for National Geographic. This image is also made from a low perspective, and Allard also uses openings in the foreground to allow the viewer to see deeper into the scene. But that is where the similarities end. The mood is completely different here. It is dark and dusty and chaotic. This is an emotional image that engages the imagination and the senses. The needle gun is menacing; the dust and sweat are palpable; fatigue and determination are evident in the posture of the two cowboys in the middle ground. This scene is captured through the eyes of a participant, not a witness.
Allard has done a lot of retrospective writing about his work. When he writes about this particular assignment in the book Five Decades, he remembers saddling up with the cowboys, eating with them at the chuck wagon, and sitting around the campfire every night swapping stories. He remembers every character’s name. Allard is an emotional man. In one videotaped interview he says, “You have to care. You can’t do superior work if you’re indifferent.” His favorite way to work? “I want to live right in the middle of my story.” We can feel that in this image.
Though there is brightness, color, and even blood in it, Abell’s image is still quieter and calmer than Allard’s dark and dusty moment. In literary terms, Abell tells this story in the third person, and Allard uses the first person. Abell tells us what happened. Allard shows us what it felt like to be there. Some subject matter might lend itself very well to impartial observation. But calf branding is hectic and fast-paced and a little bit dangerous. An image with impact can’t come from calm and quiet observation of the scene. It requires risk and commitment to the task at hand. It requires a participant.
Dorothy Brown is an Alumni of the Artist Round Table (ART) and a member of the Rear Curtain editorial staff. She lives in Albany, California. Her photographs and stories have appeared locally in Albany Patch and Berkeleyside, as well as on Rear Curtain. She is currently working on a long-term project about Zydeco music in the San Francisco Bay Area.