One of photography’s great storytellers. William Albert Allard,Allard has been a mainstay of National Geographic for more than 40 years, producing some 40 magazine articles and a number of books, the latest of which, a retrospective, is called William Albert Allard: Five Decades. It’s a heartfelt look back at an astonishing number of career high points and photographic destinations—from the American West to Sicily, from the Basque country to the film sets of Bollywood, from Hutterite colonies in Montana to minor league baseball diamonds in Arizona. “In a way, the stories are always about subcultures,” he told me recently. “That’s what I’m interested in.” While the far-flung landscapes form the backdrop for his work, it’s the people in his images that are the real focus—etched as compelling characters within frames that are filled with profound atmosphere.
Allard’s storytelling is not limited to pictures—he’s also written for Geographic, and he contributed some 55,000 words of text to his Five Decades book. “I wanted to be a writer before I became a photographer,” he says. “Writing is harder—good writing. You look at a picture and you either say, ‘Goddamnit, that’s nice,’ or it’s not, whereas with writing you think, “Will what I have to say mean anything to anybody? Why should they listen to this?’”
Here, as part of Big Picture’s irregular series on the career turning points of major photographers, Allard tells how he became a photographer—or, more precisely, how a famous photographer from the Magnum agency, who for no apparent good reason spent a couple of hours changing a young man’s life. As you’ll see, fate did indeed step in to alter Allard’s life—after he gave fate a little kick in the pants.
Drinks With Dennis Stock
As told by William Albert Allard
Between my junior and senior years, I took the portfolio to New York. I got an appointment to see Arthur Rothstein—the Little General, the director of photography at Look magazine. He was also pretty famous for is own pictures from the 1930s Dust Bowl.
He looked at my pictures and said, “These are pretty good pictures. I just had a guy in here from a newspaper in Texas, and these are almost as good as his.” And I said, “Well then, I’ll just have to work very hard this coming year.” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, I’ll have to work hard because in a year I will be better than that guy.”
And then he said, “There are only so many jobs out there…even if you got as good as Dennis Stock.”
I felt like I was just digging myself a hole. So I packed my stuff up and said “Thank you Mr. Rothstein, but next year if I’m as good as Dennis Stock I think someone will give me a job.”
Look was at 488 Madison Avenue, and I went down to the corner and into a phone booth and looked in the directory—there were complete directories in phone booths in New York City in 1963—and I looked up the name Dennis Stock. I knew his work. I’d bought a book of his pictures called Jazz Street some time before—got it on remainder at a bookstore in Minneapolis for $1.29.
I picked out one of the Dennis Stocks in the phone directory and called the number. A voice answered, and I said, “Is this Dennis Stock?” The voice said, “Yes it is.” I said, “Is this Dennis Stock the Magnum photographer?”
“Yes it is,” he said. I told him who I was, and why he didn’t know me. Then I said, “Would you have any time to look at some pictures?”
He said, “Well, we’re moving to Europe tomorrow. But come on over.” He was in the middle of moving, one of the most traumatic experiences a person can have. And he wasn’t moving across town—was moving to Europe. The next day. And he said he’d see me.
I got a cab. He was in a walk up in the Village—a good looking guy with a shock of black hair, and he was wearing moccasins and blue jeans, a white shirt with sleeves rolled up, and there were packed boxes lining the walls His wife was in the kitchen making a pie. Why the hell she’d be making a pie they day before they moved to Europe I don’t know, but she was.
He mixed a couple of screwdrivers, and we spread my pictures out on the floor and he got very excited. He looked at one of the pictures and said, “Oh yeah, that’s the way Cartier Bresson would do it.”
That trip to New York was worth every ounce of energy and every nickel I’d put into it, not because I got a job, but because I’d had that exchange. Sometimes I wonder, “Have I ever been a Dennis Stock to some young kid photographer?” I certainly hope so.
Tomorrow: An intern shapes up an entire magazine