For almost half a century, this National Geographic ‘street shooter' has brought the world's cultures to life through his travel portraits and evocative essays.
William Albert Allard came to a conclusion about life and photography many years ago. The only way to keep producing exceptional work is to carefully select the work you do. And that work has to matter to you because that's the only way to make images that are truly honest, images that you can stand behind and believe in.
"I just reached a point where I thought, I just don't want to do anything I don't really want to do," Allard recalls. "And that's the way I've been able to keep the juices going over so many years is by getting into stories I had a passion for, a feeling for."
And it has been a few years for Allard. At age 73, he is at a point in his life where he can look back at a lifetime of achievements that, in many instances, have actually made a difference in the world. His famous National Geographic photo essays on India's "untouchable" caste and the poverty in Peru have literally changed people's lives by raising awareness of their plight. His other, more immersive stories about living among the Amish, the Hutterites, American cowboys and minor league baseball players have shown us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of quiet lives that few viewers have experienced.
Allard has been a working photographer and essayist for nearly 50 years, as evidenced by his recent book, aptly titled "Five Decades: A Retrospective." It's an intimate look in words and pictures at his lifetime of work with the gold standard of magazine and exotic travel photography, National Geographic magazine. His book, and his enormous body of work, is a long-lasting testament to his vision and spirit.
Though much of Allard's work falls into the documentary or travel categories, it is his portraits that stand out, even though they are mostly part of bigger, more specific projects about a region or a culture. It's been that way from the beginning.
"My portraits come usually as part of another whole package within the essay. They come in as part of my street shooting," he says. "I consider myself a good portraitist — I really do. One of the things that has always fascinated me the most is the human face."
Part of Allard's personality is his directness and his honesty. He's not known to beat around the bush. "I've always felt that the best way to approach a subject or people that you want to work with is the most direct way," he says. "It's the only way I know how to work."
He goes on to elaborate on his methods of photographing people. "There is no formula," he says. "Hopefully, you don't have too low a rejection threshold because there are people who aren't going to want you to do that. But you don't need a doctorate in psychology to see if you're irritating someone. I also get asked, ‘Do you go up and ask for permission?' If I do that, I've just chased the subject away."
Being a stranger in town with a camera requires a special balance of restraint and directness. "Sometimes it's every bit as important for the subject to get to know you as it is for you to get to know the subject, for them to be comfortable with you," he says.
For Allard, it's all about how you present yourself. "If I'm working in an area where I see people more than they see me and I see them over a period of time, I'll eventually go up and explain what I'm doing — but never right off the bat," he says. "I go to a bar and put a camera on the bar there; I don't say, ‘I'm Bill Allard. I'm with National Geographic.' I go in and put my camera on the bar, order a drink or a beer, and if somebody comes around to ask me, I'm not going to lie, but I'm not going to make it a big point. And hopefully, because I'm working with Geographic, I've got the time to go into that place more than just once."
Working the edges
Perhaps the key to Allard's success is his own style of photographing. He calls it "working the edges." This means looking for subjects in unexpected places, away from the main event that is happening, or searching for unusual points of view.
"If I'm working on a blues story, for instance, I don't want to be down in that pit in front of the stage, whether it's a tent or whatever it is. I want to be around, if there is a stage, backstage, or I want to be in the wings," he explains. "I might want to work down in the front, but I certainly don't want to limit myself to that because I really feel so often, especially in the performance arts, that what's around the edges of the performance is usually more interesting than the performance itself. It doesn't mean that working the edges isn't seeking out a major image, a composition that really is special, but it's not what everybody is seeing who is sitting down in the first row."
Working the edges is more about the ambience of the scene, sometimes showing the minor players and events, sometimes showing an unexpected view of the major subject. It's all about exploring visual possibilities and trying to let nothing escape.
Allard is a traditionalist in some ways — if he had his way, he would use only Leicas for all his shooting. But he is also flexible and adaptable.
"I would love to be able to just go back out on the street with a couple of Leicas," he says. "But when it gets right down to it, a camera is a camera is a camera. It's a tool."
For Allard, it's how you use the tools you have that makes the difference — that and knowing your equipment until it becomes second nature. "You want it to be as much a part of you as possible," he says. "You don't want to have to be thinking about stuff. Just use it, you know."
There are always a lot of other matters to consider when you're out photographing.
Part of the way Allard works is to find a place that's visually interesting, and keep shooting and exploring the variables until the right combination of elements comes together to make a successful image.
"Find a space where the light is doing something, where there are spatial relationships going on," he explains. "Watch the light and see how it changes. Change lenses. Do it again. Look at it again. And then you wait for that image to be completed, for that moment to happen, probably by somebody who was offstage.
Then they come in and complete it. It's spontaneous, but you were working for that spontaneity. It's very much like rewriting a passage until you get it right."
In describing his style of shooting, Allard quotes the poet James Dickey, who once said, "It takes me a hundred drafts to get a poem right and fifty more to make it sound spontaneous."
"I think street shooting can sometimes be a little like that," he adds.
A love of words
Such literary allusions come naturally from Allard. When he was growing up in Minneapolis in the 1940s, his home entertainment was a world of spoken words that fired his young imagination. He often listened to radio dramas, such as "The Shadow" and "The Green Hornet," and breathless descriptions of championship boxing matches. This created in Allard a strong love of words and storytelling — a love that eventually drew him to photography, though it wasn't a direct route.
After graduating from high school, Allard took four years to decide whether to go to college. Drawing and art had been a passion of his since he was young, so he chose the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts, intending to study painting. But a growing desire to write caused him to leave art school after a year and enroll in journalism school at the University of Minnesota. He wanted to be a writer. At least, that was the plan.
One day at the university, his life changed. Allard attended a lecture on photojournalism given by a then-new professor of photojournalism, R. Smith Schuneman, who talked excitedly about the power that is created by combining words and pictures. Allard was soon caught up in that excitement, seeing photojournalism as a way to bring together two of his greatest passions, images and words. This was the answer he'd been looking for all along. Soon after, he switched to photojournalism as his major.
While Schuneman taught Allard technique and craft, it was Jerome Liebling, a former student of Paul Strand, who taught Allard the aesthetics of this new creative outlet. Unlike a lot of photography majors in college, Allard had no particular experience with photography, but he never saw that as a handicap. "I started from scratch," he says. "I was very fortunate. I didn't have any bad habits."
But in time it made sense to Allard, and he found a great deal of common ground between photography and writing, especially when it comes to visual editing. "I've always felt there are a lot of parallels between good writing and good pictures," he says. "There's certainly that old Hemingway saying about what you cut away is probably at least as important as what you leave in — cut away, cut away, cut away. Get rid of what you don't need."
Over the years, Allard saw the advantages and challenges of being both a writer and a photographer. "If you have the talent to do that, and do it well," he says, "you have the opportunity to give a story a unique personality because it's being seen and felt through one pair of eyes, and felt with one heart and one mind, and you can really give it a personality. That's assuming you can do it, but it takes a hell of a lot of energy. The work is never done."
Two months before he graduated, Allard took his portfolio and applied for an internship at National Geographic. What followed would change his life and take him around the world.
Colorful times at Geographic
Allard traveled from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1964. At the National Geographic headquarters, he met with Bob Gilka, the director of photography for the magazine. At this time, Allard had shot only black-and-white film, and National Geographic did work only in color. Still, Gilka could see a lot of potential in the young photographer's work and offered him the internship. After Allard started shooting color, he never went back to black-and-white.
His first assignment was to go to a Pennsylvania Dutch festival in Lancaster County, Pa., that summer. While he was in the area, Gilka told him to get some photographs of the Amish. Allard hung out in the small towns and met people who introduced him to Amish families. It wasn't long before he began sending back images to the Geographic. Gilka told him to stay and keep working throughout that summer.
Based on the results of this first assignment, Allard was offered a staff position. From that summer in 1964 until now, and into the foreseeable future, he has worked at National Geographic, sometimes as a staff photographer and sometimes as a freelancer. His work has taken him to India and Europe and Australia and South America, as well as all across the United States.
National Geographic is the standard for color magazine photography in the 20th century. When most magazines were still printing in black-and-white, Geographic pioneered the use of color reproductions and color films, and championed the use of Kodachrome slide film. The most used was the slow and fine-grained Kodachrome 25. Like most of the photographers at Geographic, Allard shot for almost all of his career on this film, with the exception of an occasional roll of Kodachrome 200 or a rarer roll of Fujichrome Velvia.
Shooting slide film taught Allard a discipline that nothing else could have. "Working in transparency film, you learn that you have to get it in the box," he says. "You can't take it in the darkroom and make any great changes."
It was the announcement of Kodachrome's discontinuation several years ago that convinced a reluctant Allard that it was time to move on. "It's one of the reasons I went over to digital photography in 2005, because they had already announced they were going to discontinue it," he says. "When I realized these films were going to be gone, basically taking my tools away, I thought, well, it's obvious that digital is where it's going to be, so I might as well jump in now. I do miss film. I have no expectations that I will ever load another roll of film."
Pain and joy of travel
In typical Allard fashion, he succinctly sums up the current state of travel in the world today: "Air travel is an absolute fucking pain." But then, travel has never been effortless or without its own demands for any National Geographic photographer — or any other pro who regularly travels on assignment.
Most times, it's the travel itself, the time away from your personal life and your home, that can be the most challenging for photographers. "There was one point in my life, working as a Geographic photographer, that I was probably away for five months out of every year. That's a long time," he recalls. "That's a lot of away time for your domestic situation and your personal relationships and all of that."
And sometimes it's hard to explain to your life partners, says Allard, who has four children from his first marriage. "You tell somebody what they're marrying into, but they have to experience that to find out what that's like," he says. "I'm very much into my work. Especially if I'm on assignment, I'm in there 110 percent."
Traveling as a photographer, with its inherent solitude, isn't always a good match for everyone. Not everyone can handle that particular stress. "Dealing with being alone is a given in this line of work, whether you are a travel photographer or a Geographic photographer," he says. Still, with all its challenges, the rewards have been great for Allard, and he wouldn't change anything about his career.
The next chapter
He may be an old veteran of travel shooting, but his days at National Geographic are far from over. In addition to splitting time between his homes in Missoula, Mont., and Charlottesville, Va., with his second wife, Ani, Allard is working on yet another photo essay for the magazine — this one on northern Montana.
His mind is turning to other matters as well. And some of those go back to his beginnings. "I really want to concentrate right now on my writing," he says.
Allard sums up the role of photography in his life this way: "Well, it's something I've loved to do for almost 50 years. I love looking for and making pictures. That's why I carry a camera with me all the time. I can't imagine ever not wanting to make pictures. That's what I am."
Sometimes it’s every bit as important for the subject to get to know you as it is for you to get to know the subject, for them to be comfortable with you.
IN THE LOUPE: William Albert Allard
Home/Studio: Missoula, Mont., and Charlottesville, Va.
Published books: "Vanishing Breed," "The Photographic Essay," "A Time We Knew," "Time at the Lake," "Portraits of America" and "Five Decades".
Awards: Western Heritage Award, 1982; Leica Medal of Excellence, 1982; University of Minnesota Outstanding Achievement Award, 1994; Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award, 2002; University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communications Award of Excellence, 2004.
Preferred equipment: Nikon D3s and D700; Leica M8; Panasonic Lumix GF1 ("I love that little Lumix"); notebook and pencil.
Personal projects: Upcoming book of women's portraits, "Her Picture in a Frame," and the novel he's writing.
Hobbies: Hunting and music (singing).
Inspirations: For black-and-white photography: W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans ("to a certain degree"). For color photography: Henri Matisse, Edward Hopper, the Impressionists and the Dutch Masters. "I was always attracted to looking at paintings," he says. "I slowly became more influenced by painters than I was by other photographers."
Advice to aspiring travel photographers: "You've really got to be hungry," Allard says. "You're not going to do superior work if you're indifferent. You may have talent, but if you don't want it badly enough, there's somebody out there that may not have as much talent, but they'll get in because they wanted it that much harder."
Also, he adds: "If you ever do get a chance to talk to a Geographic editor — and that's a very tough nut to crack — do not say you have this urge to travel. That's not going to help you. Most everybody likes to travel."