Second glances 

For photographer Bill Allard, looks can be receptive

Bill Allard—to take nothing away from his obvious talent and amply demonstrated work ethic—has had a charmed career. At 26, just out of college, already married with four kids, he walked into the offices of National Geographic magazine with nothing but a portfolio of black-and-white student work and waltzed out with a job shooting exclusively in color for what was about to become the premier photography magazine in the country. He's been given free cameras, free film, and been paid to travel the world taking gorgeous photographs. It's a relationship that's lasted, with a few notable bumps in the road, the better part of ever since.

If you've got an ounce of romance in you, you've wanted his job. And you're never going to get it. National Geographic doesn't employ staff photographers anymore, just freelancers (among whom Allard, who just finished shooting a piece on the homesteaded history of Montana's Hi-Line, continues to be a regular).

Starting his career in 1964, Allard remembers, "magazines were coming out your ears," and he worked for many of them. "I mean there's Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, Holiday, all kinds of things," he says. No more.

Digital cameras and processing software, meanwhile, have changed everything about photography but the light. Allard switched over five years ago. He's got Photoshop loaded onto his computer, but admits he doesn't know how to use it.

click to enlarge In Five Decades, seasoned National Geographic photographer Bill Allard combines personal memoir with images spanning nearly 50 years. “Buckaroo T.J. Symonds, IL Cow Camp, Nevada, 1979,” from his Out West collection, is just one of many he took during his travels across the U.S., Europe and South America.
  • In Five Decades, seasoned National Geographic photographer Bill Allard combines personal memoir with images spanning nearly 50 years. “Buckaroo T.J. Symonds, IL Cow Camp, Nevada, 1979,” from his Out West collection, is just one of many he took during his travels across the U.S., Europe and South America.

So you can almost read Five Decades, Allard's just-published sixth book, and second (so far) retrospective, as the story of a photographic era that's good and gone. But you would be misreading the story. Five Decades is the vicarious view of a man who was lucky enough to intersect with a golden age, and who had vision enough to help define it.

When I call in early December, Allard answers in his Virginia home, recently returned from his part-time domicile in Missoula. He's in his library, where he's writing fiction.

"I am in love with books," he says. "I just love the heft, the smell of them. And I think for a photographer as an outlet for a collection of one's work, that's the ultimate."

So Five Decades, with its hefty body of photographic work and expansive text component, is especially satisfying. Allard entered the University of Minnesota in 1960 ambitious to become a writer, and he still quotes Hemingway admiringly on the virtues of self-editing, whether in picture-making or prose. But while he was there he fell afresh for photojournalism—pictures and text combined—and found a model in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the classic collaboration between journalist James Agee and photographer Walker Evans. You get the sense that Allard's always wanted to be both, and with Five Decades, he gets to be, weaving a compelling and apparently candid narrative about his personal and professional life among his best photos.

Allard refers to himself at various times as a street-shooter (his primary self-identification), a documentarian, and a photojournalist, and maybe as a result of his range, there's really no instantly identifiable Allard style. An Allard photo is fully about its subject, even if what the subject is may be open to interpretation. For instance, there's a picture on page 59, "Calving time, Padlock ranch, Montana, 1975," that any idiot could tell you is a profile portrait of a horse standing in a storm. It looks to me like the most accurate visual representation of the verb "snow" I've seen.

Allard frames portraits and landscapes, almost-abstractions and pure color. His "streets" over the course of a career have included Paris catwalks, Hutterite living rooms, Nevada chuckwagons, Peruvian slaughterhouses, Brazilian brothels and Indian sewers. You can find echoes in Allard's work of Robert Frank (if he'd shot The Americans in color), and street-shooting pioneer Henri Cartier-Bresson (a 1967 tableau of boys playing ball in France). A few of his photos could be passingly confused for the work of contemporaries like Peter Brown (a luminous Winifred, Mont., homestead), or Annie Leibovitz (the uncannily illuminated Wyoming range detective Ed Cantrell). But none of the occasional touchstones is much to the point.

Allard's photos are about what they're of. The self-portrait they imply shows a photographer with an eye open to any possibility of color, character and composition that might wander through his view. A picture with the cool formal rigor of "Minor league spring training, Phoenix, Arizona, 1990" has little in common with the warm grainy blur of Allard's prostitute portraits, which have little in common with the grin on bandleader Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's face as he finishes a set in Memphis. What they do have in common is that Allard was there, open and equal to the moment. Sitting in a French cafe watching the girls smoke or tromping through cornstubble with Iowa birdhunters, Allard, more than anything else, is receptive.

He likes to make the point that some of the best photographs are given by their subjects, rather than taken by the guy with the Nikon around his neck. But it takes a certain graciousness and respect to receive a gift properly, and Allard has it. If this 40-some-odd-years of work was gifted to Allard, Five Decades is ample repayment.

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