Life in focus 

Street shooter William Albert Allard shows off the West

William Albert Allard worries about approaching women. He sometimes gives them his card at the Kettlehouse or the Hob Nob, asks them to e-mail him back with the classic line about how he’d like to photograph them. One was a tall, slender woman and “very animated,” Allard recalls, and another was dressed in Carhartt pants and a scruffy hat with “an interestingly attractive face.”

But Allard’s no pickup artist, and not at all the creep he fears he might appear to be in such situations. He’s spent the last 44 years as a photojournalist for National Geographic Society publications, shooting and writing about everything from mountain societies in Peru to the Parisian fashion world. Having just moved to Missoula last summer, he continues to search for subjects for his ongoing project, “Her Face in a Frame,” a collection of women’s faces as diverse as a Brazilian girl plagued with malaria to a woman smoking in a French restaurant.

But it’s really Allard’s iconographic work on American life—rodeos, the blues, Montana Hutterites—that has catapulted him into being considered one of the most influential American photographers of the last 40 years. It’s an ascent that has come with its fair share of stories.

In the ’70s, for example, Allard spent time with buckaroos all over the West, sometimes riding horseback into their camps.

“I’m not a horseman,” he says, “but I actually carried a saddle around for a while. I don’t know if that was just a romantic thing on my part. Well, I was playing cowboy, I suppose. But I can ride.”

In another instance, Allard rode into the high deserts of Nevada without knowing the countryside at all.

“I got there just before dark and if I hadn’t seen their camp, God knows I’d still be trying to find my way out of there,” he says.

Allard says it’s harder these days for professional photographers to make a living. Magazines like National Geographic no longer employ permanent staff photographers and utilize freelancers instead. And freelancers these days, he says, often don’t get re-sale rights for their work, which used to be one way photography managed to be a profitable career.

Allard has seen other changes, as well, technology being a major one. Just three years ago, he made the switch from film to digital. While handling the digital camera hasn’t been difficult, it’s things like converting files on the computer that make Allard feel like he’s learning a whole new system, and he still seems unsure of it.

“Digital cameras do everything but park your car for you and tell you what ramp level you’re on,” he says. “Are young photographers learning light the same way we learned it 45 years ago, by going into a dark room and seeing what happens? They may be. They certainly have many more technological tools at their disposal.”

But when it comes to teaching students about photography, Allard’s a purist on certain things. “There’s no, ‘We’ll fix it in Photoshop,’” he says. “No, no, no. If you don’t like that telephone pole coming out of that person’s head, well, then you should have stepped aside.”

Allard takes teaching and giving advice seriously. He recalls his second to last year at the University of Minnesota, when he purchased a plane ticket to New York City and brought his portfolio to the photo department of Look magazine. The editor told him he had good work, but that there were only so many jobs in photography.

“He said, ‘You could be as good as Dennis Stock, but there’s only so many jobs,’” recalls Allard. “And I happened to know the name Dennis Stock…I had his book on jazz musicians. I went down to Madison Avenue to the phone booth…I looked up Dennis Stock—I swear to God I don’t know how many there were in the phonebook—and I told him who I was and why he didn’t know me. And I said, ‘I’ve got a few pictures and I was wondering if you’d look at them.’”

Allard says Stock told him he was moving to Europe the next day, but to come over anyway. He remembers every detail of their visit: Stock’s jeans, white shirt, shock of black hair and moccasins, the way he lay Allard’s portfolio photos out and looked at them while they drank screwdrivers.

“That time that he spent with me was worth every penny and every ounce of energy I put into making that trip,” says Allard. “I don’t know that I’ve been that for anybody, but I do try to give back in teaching.”

Last year, Allard showed a retrospective exhibit called Five Decades for the Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Va., where he and his wife, Ani, had been living and continue to spend part of the year. Some of the Western photographs from that exhibit are now on display at Missoula’s Gallery Saintonge in an exhibit called Gone West: Work from the American West 1969-2005. His move to Missoula may not necessarily lead to more photography of the West—as Allard says, it may be “time to go to a different well.” But he’s continuing work on a retrospective photo essay book and says he’ll continue to photograph people in their natural environment.

“I’m a street shooter,” he says. “I get up in the morning and nothing is controlled. I deal with whatever light is out there, whatever you put on, whatever’s going on.”

William Albert Allard gives an artist talk at Gallery Saintonge for his photography exhibit, Gone West: Work from the American West 1969-2005, Wednesday, Oct. 22, at 7 PM.
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