Meeting Sam Abell
On February 22, I had the extreme pleasure of meeting the renowned National Geographic photographer, Sam Abell.
Hearing his life story in person was enchanting. He grew up with his father teaching him the ways of photography, working with him in a darkroom in their house. Now he has landed two photos in the “Top 50 National Geographic Photos of All Time”.
In his presentation, he focused greatly on layering. He was very particular about how he positioned everything, so nothing was overlapping. When taking this photo, he had to decide in a split-second whether to include the red bucket or not. As shown, even during this brief window of opportunity when the man was walking through the frame, he made sure it wasn’t blocking anything else in the photograph. He strongly believes that this easily corrupts the layering, wiping out the depth of the photo.
For this photo, he showed his many attempts before he achieved this. He tried getting closer, taking the curtain down, or showing people on the street, but none of them clicked in his head. For this photo in particular, another point greatly accentuated in his speaking was waiting for the perfect moment. He said that this was his off-day, “but photographers don’t ever have an off-day.”
One thing Sam said that intrigued me was when he was talking about his favorite photos. He simply stated that the ones he loved the most were the ones he couldn’t memorize. He had taken two photos of a snake. One was a snake on a wooden paddle. The other was an unpublished photo of a snake slithering into a lake. As much as magazines liked the first one, he expressed his love for the latter, for the emotion and scenery could never be fully engraved in his mind. Another example was when he talked about losing his single lens reflex (SLR) cameras on a canoeing trip. He had lost so many beautiful photos, and went on a walk to ponder his thoughts. He came across a fallen tree that had been hurt by the storm, just like him. He took a picture of the landscape from underneath it, and it became one of his favorite photos.
He shared many other anecdotes with us, like the time he encountered a sloth in his travels, in a location and climate where the chances of that are astronomical. He discovered it was carrying a baby underneath it, and once again waited for that perfect moment. He also shared the story of the time he encountered a bison on one of his explorations.
Sam Abell has published many books, such as The Photographic Life. The cover photo was a picture of Sam and his father decades ago, and he chose it because it was how his photographic life was founded.
After his talk, I finally met him personally, and showed him my favorite photograph I’ve composed.
To my delight, he expressed his interest in this photo, especially in the emotion. He gave me great feedback, and told me that there are so many little elements in this photo, as well as any photo, that make it a composition. He had a recurring statement about photography during the entire presentation: “I didn’t take this photo, I made it.” He waits patiently for the moment, he analyzes layers and lines, he incorporates photographic styles, he thinks about the colors in every photo, and looks for every possibility for a great composition.
I realize that I might never be in contact with Sam Abell again, but I would still like to thank him for all that he did for me in just one day. Mr. Abell, you started out as a summer intern for National Geographic, and worked your way up to staff. You were never offered any photography courses like I was, but still prevailed in what you loved to do. Thank you for being a part of my life, you have forever inspired me.