The Photographic Essay was introduced to me via a conversation on Twitter, if I recall. It was a couple of years ago, I think, and maybe I just read it but didn’t participate and that’s why I can’t find it now. No matter. William Albert Allard was a National Geographic photographer in the 1960s, and then a freelance photographer for the Geographic in the prime years for freelance National Geographic photographers and well into the magazine’s Fox-owned decline.*
In my YouTube blurb for the unboxing, I call The Photographic Essay “… a sort of master class on documentary photography and creating photographic essays….” After spending some time with it, well, I guess I stand by that. Sort of.
The Photographic Essay is one of two books in Bullfinch Press/Little Brown’s “American Photographer Master Series”** and isn’t really by William Albert Allard. Sure, the portfolios in the last third of the book have introductions from Allard with some memories of making the pictures and a very small bit of gear talk, but the first half of the book is a collection of essays about Allard, his biography, descriptions of his process and workshops, and etc.
As an introduction to Allard, it’s good, I guess, though I’d prefer something from National Geographic, I think, an actual series rather than a selection of pictures. Most of the portfolios contain pictures made over many trips to a place, often for different reasons/clients, and there’s no coherence to them, really, or maybe I’m just confusing what Allard calls “Picture Stories” with “Photographic Essays.”
I was weaned on the classic picture story: a series of images brought together on a certain subject, person, or place that has a beginning, a middle and an end…. In a picture story, you’re liable to see the same people throughout—Gene Smith’s country doctor, or nurse midwife. It’s narrative. But the stories I’ve photographed aren’t picture stories. I believe in the discipline of the picture story, but there’s almost no outlet anymore. In my work, you rarely see the same person more than once. The stories I do for National Geographic are much close to a photographic essay. I’d define the photographic essay in much broader terms. There’s more room for impressionism in a photo essay, and this leaves more room for the viewer. A photo essay isn’t as literal as a picture story.”Allard, William Albert. The Photographic Essay. Pond Press, Inc., Boston, 1989 (second printing 1991). p. 69.
So I suppose it could be argued that the portolios, from Allard’s “Basques,” “The West,” “Oaxaca, Mexico,” “Peru,” and the “Tea and Sugar Train,” are such photo essays, but then that would be at odds with how the publisher describes the series. From the back flap of the jacket: “Each volume… features the best of the photographer’s work….” So, unless the “best of” Allard’s work are completed photo essays, the images presented are just a hodgepodge of one-offs, and the title of the book, The Photographic Essay is more about Allard’s working process than what is contained in the book.
It’s not all bad. Really, it’s not bad at all. It’s just not really what was advertised. It’s something of a workshop-type book, though a far cry from Aperture’s excellent “Photography Workshop” series (see reviews of that series here, here, here, and here). I guess that’s what it was trying to be, what, 15, 20 years before Aperture’s series, but it didn’t quite make it. There are some descriptions of the way the old National Geographic assignment process worked, with no mention of digital files or manipulation, and given that the book was written in 1989, there’s no hint that things will ever change.
The writing is a bit gear heavy, maybe. There’s quite a bit of talk about cameras, lenses, focal lengths, an equipment list, flashes, and etc. scattered throughout, and I guess that’s to be expected from a publication related to American Photographer magazine. In fact, now that I think about it, it reads like a very long profile piece from a mass market hobby magazine.
Allard’s photography is absolutely brilliant. I’m reminded somewhat of Alex Webb’s work. They have similar sensibilities, I think. Allard’s color saturation and contrast is more restrained than Webb’s, and he’s of an older generation, but they’re both drawn to eye-popping color and light. And the quotes about his process and thinking are valuable, I suppose. It’s just not quite what I expected when I ordered it. I was looking for something more of how to structure a photo essay, how to arrange the pictures, pacing, things like that, and this book could never provide that: Allard doesn’t talk about that part of the process at all. In fact, he couldn’t. Someone else put his stories together, and while he wrote the text for many Geographic stories in his early years, he handed off that part of the process to others in the mid-1970s. And this book doesn’t contain a single photo essay, but only some pictures from about 25 years of Allard’s professional career.
Overall, I give it 2.8 stars.
One good thing about The Photographic Essay, clean used copies are cheap. Oh, wait… no they’re not! Sheesh! smh. $75 for a beat up paperback? The price has shot up since I bought this one. I think I paid $25 or less for it. Wow. I should probably put it up for sale. Anyone want to offer me, say $60 for it, including shipping? It’s yours… Honestly, though, unless you know what you’re getting, I’d feel like I ripped you off. Really, for that, go and pick up Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb On Street Photography and the Poetic Image workshop book, or maybe Dawoud Bey On Photographing People and Communities, which I’ve only just become aware of and ordered immediately. You can get both of those, new, direct from Aperture, for less than a used paperback copies of The Photographic Essay, and they’re better produced and better put together, and they know exactly what they’re trying to be, which can’t be said for The Photographic Essay.
It’s a shame, really, because Allard is a great photographer. I should really keep an eye out for one of his monographs or a collection of his stories for National Geographic, if such a thing exists (if there is, I can’t find it).
*Hopefully the Geographic will regain some of its credibility now that it’s part of Disney… after all, the Mouse is something of an environmentalist, something of a world-traveler, with some commitment to edu… tainment, anyway.
**The other, Patrick Demarchelier: Fashion Photograhy is on order at time of writing. I don’t know why. Completion, I guess? At least it was cheap: like the Allard book, less than $20, shipped. Expect a review sometime.