Russian Orthodox Church, April 2009
Moscow at Night, August 2008
Siberian Oil, June 2008
In the April issue of National Geographic appears a story by photographer Gerd Ludwig on the re-emergence of the Russian Orthodox Church. This is the third of a trilogy of stories that have run recently by Gerd covering various contemporary issues in Russia. I had a chance to catch up with Gerd in his home in Los Angeles to discuss his work.
Photographer Tyrone Turner photographed the March 2009 coverage on energy efficiency and produced a striking set of images using a thermal camera. I had a chance to ask him about the challenges of the assignment.
In the early 1990s, photographer David Alan Harvey worked on a profile of the famous American painter Andrew Wyeth for National Geographic magazine. Wyeth passed away last month and so I’ve asked David to recount his experience on the assignment.
David Griffin: National Geographic rarely does living biographies, why do you think Wyeth was seen as an exception and worthy of coverage by NGM?
David Alan Harvey: I think Andrew Wyeth represents in an artistic way a real Americana. His painted "fantasies" are probably the dreams of many Americans. So many Americans feel tied to rural roots, whether they actually grew up on the farm or not. On top of that, his work is quite comprehensible and he was indeed a living legend.
DG: How long was the assignment?
DAH: I had very few shooting days due to the elusiveness of Wyeth himself. He loved to play cat and mouse. He tested my resolve, because he denied most photographers access to his life. I think I was on that assignment for six weeks. I mostly waited. It took all of my ability and patience and "public relations" skills to make this story work. I only shot 35 rolls of black & white film. This story was literally "one picture at a time."
DG: What was Wyeth like to work with? Was he easy to approach?
DAH: Andy was a prankster. Like a young boy. He always wanted to throw me off track, and see if I could pick up on it. For him the whole process was a game. But I liked him. I can be pretty playful myself!
DG: At one point you met Helga, his famous model. How did Andrew and she interact?
DAH: I never thought in a million years I would see Helga, much less photograph her. I only shot three frames of her with Andy. He "gave" me the picture that was in the magazine. So there was no real way for me to know how they interacted. Since he painted about a hundred nudes of her, I would imagine they interacted just fine.
DG: What was your favorite image from the coverage, and why is it so?
DAH: I liked the shot of Andy coming through the window. THAT was Andy. He was out on the roof just walking around dangerously. Again, like an errant child. When he came back through the window, I was there. One frame. Literally.
DG: Earlier you mentioned shooting this in B&W, what was the thinking behind this decision?
DAH: I convinced the editor to go with black & white for one simple reason: I knew the coverage would be mostly Wyeth paintings on the page. I felt that my saturated Kodachrome look would just be garish up against his monochromatic paintings. My suggestion to the Editor was that if we went B&W that the Wyeth paintings would jump out and our photographs would stand on their own as well without conflicting with his work. I got the go-ahead for B&W in about 15 seconds.
DG: When you approached this, was your aesthetic choices for this shoot influenced by his painting style?
DAH: I had been influenced by Andrew Wyeth long before I ever knew I would shoot a story on him. I knew my work would blend with his no matter what I was thinking.
DG: You are an artist, did you feel a connection?
DAH: Absolutely. The only reason I could put up with Andy was because I could identify with him. I think he felt the same.
DG: Do you feel Wyeth recognized, acknowledged photography as an art form? Did he have any views on this?
DAH: He did not talk about photography. But I brought him a print of mine as a gift, and when I came back a few weeks later it was hanging in his living room. He was also friends with Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was the only other photographer who ever spent any amount of time with Andy.
DG: What was the strangest moment during your time with him?
DAH: The moment when he seated me next to Helga for Thanksgiving dinner. She was in disguise. In costume. I had no idea the woman next to me was Helga. Andy loved this joke. I guess she liked talking to me, so a few days later she showed up for the picture in the studio. I guess it always pays to be nice with whomever you are sitting at dinner whether you know who they are or not!
DG: Do you know how he reacted to the publishing of the story?
DAH: I never saw Andy again after the story. I heard the family was pleased.
DG: Was your later work (or life) influenced by Wyeth?
DAH: My life is always influenced by the people I meet. Both the well known and the unknown. What I loved about Andy was that he thought about nothing else but painting. His wife Betsy ran the "business." Without Betsy, Andy would probably not have sold a single painting. I saw the blend of art and commerce with this team. No one person can do both. But, it was Andy's freestyle way of living and playing and being very serious at the same time that both influenced and reinforced my overall life philosophy.
Last month I proffered that due to both digital capture and digital delivery of images, the playing field for great photography is being leveled. So how can a professional photographer maintain an edge?
In a word: consistency.
I honestly believe that everyone has at least one great photograph in them, and the tools available today mean that the capture and distribution of that one great image dramatically increases the chance it will be seen by a broad audience.
But to be a professional, you need to be able to make more than just one great image—you have to make them all the time. Any publication dedicating resources to the creation of original photography needs to be assured that the photographers on assignment will come back with the goods.
Each type of publication has specific visual needs. Newspapers use workhorse photographers who can produce good images on very tight deadlines. The news weeklies’ needs are similar but want work that is elevated aesthetically and can hold together over multiple pages. Monthly publications, such as National Geographic, hire photographers who specialize in long-form narrative or complex conceptualization.
I love the image above because it is a view that I have never seen before of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. It is in one of those images where I slap my head and say “how the heck did you see that?!” In the November issue of National Geographic, Jim Richardson has produced even more stunning images on a story on light pollution. And the truth is that these amazing photographs could not have been made to such a level of quality if it were not for digital photography.
There is one thing that photographers almost universally need to make photographs: light. But for National Geographic magazine staff photographer Mark Theissen, is drawn not just to light, but to fire.
“As a photographer you are drawn to light and I like photographs that have a light source within them.” Mark explains.
In the October issue of National Geographic, for a story marking 50 years of space exploration, Mark made a frame of spacecraft reentry tiles being tested using concentrated solar rays. Mark was permitted to get close to where the focused beams hit the tiles simulating the intense heat encountered when braking through the Earth’s atmosphere.
What a difference a few years can make. Ten years ago, Brooklyn-based photographer Robert Clark started a story for the Geographic on the beautifully and eerily preserved 2,000-year-old bodies unearthed from European peat bogs.
How do you make distinctive photographs of subjects that have been photographed countless times? That was the challenge British photographer Simon Norfolk faced for the assignment of shooting the classic Mayan ruins of Central America.