Having turned away from his quest at National Geographic
for an America of nostalgia, a renowned photographer
now seeks to see America as it really is.
by MIKE HIXENBAUGH
photography by HYUNSOO LEO KIM
archive photographs courtesy of SAM ABELL
Before he became one of the most respected photographers of his generation, before the storied career at National Geographic, before the nationally touring art exhibits, before the lifetime achievement awards, Sam Abell was an antsy little boy staring at a needlepoint map of America.
That’s what obedient children did at the Abell household when adults stopped by for adult conversations – they sat quietly in the family room, daydreaming as they studied the cloth map that had been encased inside a glass coffee table, the map their mother had made in 1942 when she was pregnant with the first of her two boys.
Within the border of each state she had stitched a symbol of beauty, or history, or ingenuity – America as she imagined it. A prickly cactus in Arizona. Golden wheat stalks in Kansas. A cowboy riding a horse in Texas. Smoke rising from a thriving steel mill in the Abells’ home state, Ohio. George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.
For the better part of four decades, Sam Abell carried a camera across America in search of those idyllic images. He photographed ranchers roping steer in Montana, bison grazing through snow in North Dakota, a lone fisherman obscured by fog on the Mississippi River. The photos are iconic, expertly composed. They hang on walls in museums and fill the pages of books and magazines.
The images Abell spent decades chasing depict America as he dreamed it would be in all those hours gazing at his mother’s map. They are photographs of the wild and untouched New World.
And they are mostly superficial.
The realization hit Abell without warning a decade ago. He had been among the most celebrated documentary photographers of the late 20th century, yet he had spent most of his career making images that more closely resembled scenes from the 18th century.
“I was treasure hunting,” Abell says of his work for National Geographic. “I was on the beach with a metal detector looking for a ring, the whole while disregarding the ocean and the sky and the sand. I went to great lengths to escape the authentic, modern world around me, searching instead for a hidden vestige of another era.”
Sam Abell had spent his career photographing America the way his mother imagined it.
Now he’s searching for the real story.
The views from Abell’s eighth-floor downtown Charlottesville studio perfectly symbolize his late artistic awakening. Out one window is the historic Court Square where Thomas Jefferson and James Madison once argued cases. Antique black lampposts stand along brick sidewalks and streets. A tree-covered mountain range is on the horizon.
Out another window, on the opposite side of the studio, is a municipal parking deck. Cars whip along an asphalt street painted with double yellow lines. A thicket of power lines obstructs the view of a narrow sidewalk where two restaurant workers are taking a smoke break.
The first scene is what drew Abell, who will soon turn 69, to Virginia many years ago. He and his wife live in Crozet, on a plot of land near the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As he traveled the world searching for images of natural beauty, cultural meaning and historic significance, he chose to plant roots in a place that seemed to embody all of those things. He moved here when he started at National Geographic in the 1970s and never left.
“Virginia,” Abell says, “has a hold on people, including me, that comes from a gathering together of very important things: History, culture, geography, climate, landscape. Charlottesville is a coming together of the best of all those things.”
It’s one of the places he remembers visiting with his family as a boy during one of their many road trips across America. He vividly recalls standing in the garden at Monticello with his older brother. They each held up a nickel in the direction of Jefferson’s grand estate and closed one eye, trying to see if the picture on the coin matched the building before them.
Abell family vacations were elaborate history lessons. The family of four studied the American landscape as it flashed by their car windows. They traveled scenic back roads and took rest breaks at Civil War battlefields. “My parents were both teachers, and so when we traveled, it was not about sunbathing and it was not about mountain climbing or fishing or rafting. It was about American history.”
Dad always carried a camera. The developed film reel would arrive in the mail about two weeks after they returned each summer. The slide shows documenting those trips were in Technicolor, and they featured a smiling family against the backdrop of America.
But with each passing year, it became more difficult to ignore the changing landscape.
Abell was working on a project about Lewis and Clark when he heard the words that would reshape the way he sees the world.
It was 2001, and this was to be his final assignment for National Geographic. He met with the writer, historian Stephen Ambrose, in Helena, Montana, to discuss the project.
“Sam, I’ve got the easiest job to do on this project,” Ambrose said. “All I have to do is retell the story of the greatest fishing, camping, hunting and boating trip of all time. You, Sam, have the hardest job. You have to pretend that nothing’s changed in America for 200 years.”
That offhand comment was a resounding wakeup call. Abell realized, quite suddenly, that he had been fictionalizing America. He had spent years traveling through the modern world – in a car, or on foot, or in a boat – disregarding almost everything he saw “in search of fragments that were beholden of another time, another way of life.”
He thought of a months-long assignment from years back for a travel story in the vast Australian wilderness. It was boring. He barely saw anything worth photographing. But he managed to capture a few breathtaking shots, and those are the images that ran in the magazine. He thought, “My God, people are going to come here and they’re going to say, ‘Where is it?!’ ” Had he been doing the same thing in America?
That conversation with Ambrose sparked an idea – one that Abell first had as a photography student at the University of Kentucky but that he had lost sight of, having landed at National Geographic. It’s perhaps the most celebrated photographic magazine in the world, but its style skews toward beauty over realism. His dream job led him away from his roots.
He had grown to love his craft while studying the work of Walker Evans(American Photographs, 1938) and Robert Frank (The Americans, 1958), two photographers known for their blunt and honest portrayal of America and its people. As a student, he had dreamed of picking up where they left off.
Retirement offered a fresh shot. Abell wrapped up the Lewis and Clark assignment and immediately went to work on a new long-term project that would become his obsession – one that bears little resemblance to his celebrated portfolio.
“It’s a rebound project,” he says. “It’s also a reaction against romancing America. I don’t have regrets about that. I was capable of doing that. I was good at doing that. I made the romance meaningful, not candy. My photographs always tried to have an intelligence about them and a soul that went beyond the surface of the picture. But now I wanted to take up all those things I had passed by while searching for the exception.”
Abell settled down in Virginia for its lush landscape and history. But lately it’s that parking deck he’s been looking at for inspiration.
The subjects of Abell’s photography have changed dramatically, but his approach is rooted in many of the same foundational techniques his father taught him as a boy in Sylvania, Ohio.
Abell won an award in a national high school photography contest in 1960 for a black-and-white picture of his father standing at a train station. His old man had offered a few pointers – get a low angle, “look for strong diagonals,” and then wait for a train to move into the frame. Years later, someone paid $10,000 for a copy of the image that resulted from that impromptu lesson.
Abell is known for composing his images from the back to front, a painstaking and counterintuitive approach that requires as much patience as it does vision. First he searches for a dynamic background and attempts to build meaning into every layer. Once he has composed the image, he waits for the subject to move into the shot.
On assignment for National Geographic, that often meant several hours or even days camped out in the same spot, waiting for the right light to reflect off a river or for wildlife to move into his frame. Abell once spent a year and a half making an image of bison skulls on a prairie for a story on the life of Charles M. Russell, the cowboy artist of Montana. After he found a pile of discarded skulls, he made multiple trips to the scene, waiting for the right elements. Finally he captured a live bison passing through the background on a snowy day. The project was complete.
Compose … and wait.
Lately Abell has been employing that unconventional approach while photographing people at fast-food restaurants, smokers standing outside department stores and business people staring at cell phones while walking down busy sidewalks. He carries his camera always as he travels the country to lead photography workshops and lectures.
“I’m always on assignment,” he says while sipping a coffee outside a café in Charlottesville. “I’m on assignment right now.”
For now he’s calling the project “Modern American History,” drawing inspiration from a college professor who once told him that the main theme of American literature is to come to terms with what we – the arriving peoples – have done to the New World. “I wrote that down and I never forgot it.”
The working collection includes images of people riding trains through rolling countryside, but instead of looking out the window, they’re staring at screens in their hands. It includes shots from the Lewis and Clark Trail, but instead of framing out the power lines, highways and truck stops, those modern creations are the subject.
Abell has become obsessed with photographing product distribution centers – “the most constructed building of the past 50 years,” he says – and self-storage facilities, where people indefinitely stash the stuff that won’t fit inside their homes.
The man who earned fame photographing real-life cowboys spent a recent trip to Dallas marveling at the massive Cowboys Stadium, a gargantuan building capable of hosting more than 100,000 spectators and home to the world’s largest high-definition screen. “This stadium is an architectural temple to football, surrounded by an ocean of automobiles,” he says. “This is modern America on steroids.”
Themes of Abell’s post-retirement project include: automobiles and how they have shaped the modern landscape, the mass consumption of processed food, the triumph of mass marketing in all aspects of life, the influence of consumer electronics on behavior, and industrial, commercialized patriotism.
Abell, who plans to publish the project in 2015, says he’s trying his best to remain neutral.
“I think the thing that would doom this is if I were trying to make a statement, either condemning or celebrating modern American culture,” he says. “That’s not my goal. My hope is to present an authentic portrait of this country as it exists in our time, in an effort to continue the conversation that was started by Walker Evans and Robert Frank. My strongest statement, I think, is a question, not an answer. And that is: Was there another way?”
Press him hard enough, though – ask him to contrast his recent work with the images he chased during his storied career – and it’s obvious that Abell believes the answer to that question must be, “Yes.”
Abell isn’t jaded, he says. He’s simply documenting the world around him as it is, not searching for beauty in the margins but instead searching for meaning in the authentic world before him.
His mother’s old needlepoint map hangs in a frame in his Charlottesville studio, alongside cherished photographs from his many travels – all reminders of how far he’s come in pursuit of an interesting life. Once in a while he’ll pull the map off the wall, set it on the table and daydream about the images his mother stitched so many years ago.
He turns from the map and points to his computer screen; it’s open to the gallery of his latest work. The cursor hangs over a photo of a young couple at a beach in Florida. They’re tourists driving along a boardwalk in a convertible. They’re seeing the ocean for the first time, and they’re both seeing it – separately – through the screens of matching digital cameras.
Abell looks at the photo and thinks of his mother, who died in 1981, long before the rise of smartphones and social media and widespread instant gratification. She grew up in an era with fewer distractions and simpler dreams. Hers was for her boys to travel the country she loved – to visit every state on that map – and to see the images of Americana that colored her imagination.
Her younger son wonders what she would think of his most recent pursuits. “She wouldn’t recognize the America in these photos.”