A book for the ages: William Albert Allard's retrospective

This is my copy of Bill Allard's book. You should get one, too. Click the image for a link to Amazon. ©Mike Davis/2011

William Albert Allard Five Decades, A Retrospective is a book you should own if you strive to tell stories with pictures. Definitely look at the pictures in this book. They are his best. But it is the words in this book that make it special.

The combination of words and pictures create a virtual x-ray of Bill Allard as he opens himself to us. A lot of photography books have words at their beginnings. Most of that text deals with the body of work presented. And that’s fine.

Bill’s words in this book reveal himself, they let us see his life as if we are slung from a sling shot back into the different times of his life. Or, to connect with Bill’s Minnesota roots, we are the rock that skips across a sometimes serene, sometimes tumultuous and always serendipitous lake that has been his life.

That the introduction was written by William Kittredge and the book is designed by David Griffin are further bonuses.

I bought Bill’s book in January during the National Geographic seminar in the hope that Bill would sign it. Sure enough, I walked up to him at the after party, held up my copy and he said, “Want me to sign that, Mike?”

Then he told me to be sure and read his words, that he spent a lot of time crafting the words. In fact he said he wrote so many words that he had to eliminate some pictures. It seems like a fair trade, in this case.

Words and pictures are divided into chapters of Bill’s life, into layers of his photography that are presented sometimes geographically and sometimes topically. There are gems of photographic understanding to be found throughout. It's as if he's talking to you directly, telling you a story that happens to be about himself and his photography.

For example: “I’ve always put great importance on finding interesting failures in my work, a far more satisfying harvest than simply finding some good pictures amid a lot of goddamn boring ones. I certainly make those, too, but to me an interesting failure is an indication that something good was going on within me emotionally, intellectually, or both. I may have missed the picture for some reason, often technical, but an ‘almost’ effort is far better than not having seen the picture at all.”

I once got to edit a few rolls of Bill’s film, when I worked as a picture editor at National Geographic magazine. We had hoped to work together on a full story but that never happened, to my loss.

I learned a lot from looking at those few rolls. I remember clicking through frame after frame on the Garrett box - a desktop projector/screen combination that was created by and named after the best-ever Geographic editor, Bill Garrett - and thinking that, geez, I thought Bill was a good photographer. There were so many pictures that didn’t work, at all. These were the failures that he talks about.

But then, after a couple rolls of failures, there was one frame, one beautiful coming together of light and composition and moment that was pure magic, an unseeable combination of things. And then I got it. He was striving to make a picture he couldn’t see, he didn’t know whether it would work but he knew there was something there so kept pushing himself in the hopes that serendipity would come from the effort.

That was one of the lessons I learned: Serendipity doesn’t just happen by itself. It takes a coming together of intention, understanding, ability, seeing and feeling.

This book is a gift that you should give yourself. Here's a link to Geographic's store.

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What is the relationship of photographer with picture editor?