- Buckaroo T. J. Symonds, IL cow camp, Nevada, 1979 (Photo: William Albert Allard)
You almost never hear stories like this anymore, if you ever did: In 1964, William Albert Allard was 26 years old, married with four children, and about to graduate with a dual photography-journalism degree from the University of Minnesota when he took a trip east to Washington, D.C., in search of a job. While at the U.S. Information Agency to discuss writing for Voice of America, he spotted the head of photography there and showed him his photos. The man liked what he saw and called up Bob Gilka, then the director of photography at National Geographic.
"You want a good people-photographer?" the man asked. There was a pause. "I wouldn't send him over if he wasn't any good."
The man sent Allard over. Gilka gave him an internship, but said it would only last through the summer. Allard insists he wasn't "really cocky," but nonetheless he told Gilka that Geographic might want to keep him around. "And that," Allard says, "is exactly how it worked out. I didn't put time in at any newspaper anywhere." After his groundbreaking photos of the Amish of Lancaster, Penn., were published, Allard was hired onto the staff.
Allard, 73, of Charlottesville, Va., helped turn Geographic into what it is today. As photographer David Alan Harvey said a few days ago, the magazine "was people wearing red sweaters in photos pointing to Niagara Falls. It was travel-postcard photography. [Allard] made the magazine look different. The magazine did not really exist — in the way it does now — until [Allard] got there." Allard's work was often described as being more intimate. In his photos, then as now, there's a startling directness. We feel we're seeing his subjects as they are, honestly and without self-consciousness, and yet never does Allard strip them of respect. There's a certain intimacy, yes, but perhaps "dignity" is the more appropriate word.
Allard describes himself as a "street shooter," which is to say he relies on patience and serendipity, and since joining the Geographic staff (a job he has left and returned to several times) he has shot Bollywood actresses, Southern bluesmen, Basque farmers, minor-league baseball players, Peruvian bullfighters, Parisian models, and American cowboys. They're the kinds of subjects that hold up well over time. In his foreword to a new career retrospective, William Albert Allard: Five Decades, William Kittredge writes, "Much art goes out of date and doesn't play so well after a while, but Bill Allard's photographs seem to be as valid and emotionally useful as ever. Most likely that's because, wherever in the world he might be, Allard focuses on the ways isolation and loneliness can cross with friendships and community and self-respect and lead to an adding up and what we end up calling character."
Despite all of his travels, Allard, who is speaking tomorrow night at National Geographic, has lived in rural Virginia since the early '70s, and the subject to which he most frequently returns is the American West. (His most recent project for the magazine took him to Montana.) But this is not to suggest he's opposed to change. For instance, he's been shooting with a digital camera for several years now — after his stockpile of discontinued Kodachrome film expired.
"Most of the very sophisticated, top-of-the-line cameras," he says, "they'll do everything but park your car." Allard doesn't use most the fancy features on his camera, mainly because he doesn't see the need. What's most challenging, he says, is digitally processing the images. "I've got every program you can imagine on my computer, and I don't know how to run any of them."
Allard says he needs some instruction in Photoshop. I don't say a word, but I'm thinking, I bet he could use an intern.