October 29, 1998
Sam Abell, Stay This Moment: The Photographs of Sam Abell, (The Professional Photography Division of Eastman Kodak Company and Thomasson-Grant, Inc.) Copyright 1990.
I found this book while browsing the photography section at the College of Du Page Library. I knew nothing of Sam Abell when I picked up this book but was immediately drawn by the symmetry and calm of the cover photo. As I opened and browsed, the photographs I found reminded me of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. I was hooked.
Sam Abell's interest in photography began when he was young—his grandfather and his father were both active amateur photographers. When he was 12 his father set up a home darkroom and Sam began helping with processing. The following indicates how his time in the darkroom with his father affected him and how it continues to influence him:
"Why do I find photography so appealing? First there is the mystery evident in an image that develops before your eyes for the first time. I felt that at 12, and I feel it today whenever I see fresh film."
Sam Abell carried his early interest in photography though high school and college, photographing for the school newspaper, yearbooks, and other assignments. After college, at 22, he applied for and was accepted for an internship at National Geographic. In 1971, he began working full time for the magazine. Through this relationship he has had the opportunity to travel, photograph, and hone his skills. His goal in the 1970's was to develop his skills, style, and career to enable him to create monographs.
The style he developed is, as he describes it, "quiet photographs that are strong and have staying power." The photographs selected for this monograph ably demonstrate this style. I believe that Sam Abell achieved his goals. These are strong quiet photos and they have the staying power to draw a viewer back over and over. With the selections of images for this book, he demonstrates a consistency in style with powerful horizontal compositions. In addition, he seems to prefer to use muted, often monochromatic colors with a definite leaning toward the use of blues, which tend to reinforce the quiet mood of the photographs.
A few paragraphs back I wrote that I was attracted by the symmetry and calm of the cover photo of this book, and of being reminded of Hopper and Wyeth by other photos. Hopper's and Wyeth's works speak to me with their spare composition and strong lines. I see similar compositional elements repeated in Abell's photographs though he makes no mention of Hopper or Wyeth as an influence (He does credit three artists for their influence: Christopher Pratt, Mariii Lockwood, and Buckeye Blake.) The muted, harmonious colors Abell uses can also be seen in much of Wyeth's work. In both cases, they reinforce the quiet of their compositions.
Much of what I find particularly appealing in this book are Sam Abell's landscape photographs. I find grand landscapes difficult to photograph and smaller scale landscapes almost as troublesome. I am often unable to translate what draws me to a scene to what I can see and capture in the viewfinder and ultimately on film. Thus, I am more likely to choose a close-up of a small element of the landscape and I am often successful with this approach.
From other resources (I did a search for Sam Abell on the Internet), I read that Sam is attracted to images that show several planes converging on a distant horizon. He looks for elements that work together to provide depth to the photograph. He also waits for the right "moment" when the light is right and any additional subjects come together to complete the photograph. I learned in the Notes section of this book that Abell uses a 35mm camera predominately with a 28 or 35mm lens because they "give the least distorted sense of realistic presence to a photograph." Perhaps I rely too much on the use of my 28-105mm zoom lens when I should try staying on the wide end of that range. Abell shows these photographs uncropped. I also prefer to complete my composition in the viewfinder and not in the darkroom.
Following are descriptions of a selection of images from Stay This Moment. Each is an example of Abell's success in the development of his style "quiet photographs that are strong and have staying power."
The cover photo, Round Pond, Allgash River, Maine 1975 (no one can accuse Abell of using non-descriptive titles) is a horizontal image as are the majority in the book. The point of view is sitting in the middle of a canoe, looking forward at the front half of the canoe on a river. The canoe, in the middle of the frame divides the frame equally left and right. The tip of the front of the canoe falls in the center of the frame, and along with the tree line serves to divide the frame horizontally and separates the water from the sky. The overcast sky is reflected in the river providing similar tones. The dark of the tree line expands outward from the tip of the canoe to form diagonals to the edge of the frame. Except for highlights on the canoe, the entire photograph is muted grays, blacks, and blues. I feel calm, quiet, peace in this photo.
Plaza, Toronto, Ontario, 1978 is a very Hopperesque image. Again, we have a horizontal format with very strong horizontal lines. The top half of the frame is a solid gray wall while the bottom half is white pavement. The left side of the photograph shows white hard edged, square forms balanced on the far right by a walking woman in an off white dress. Except for her skin tones, the entire photograph consists of whites and grays. The overall quiet coldness of the photograph seems disturbed by the presence and movement of the woman. But, without her in the frame the composition would not be complete, would be too cold, and would be unbalanced. Feelings of tension and urgency come forward when focusing on the right side of the photograph, then ease and slow as the eye moves from the solid square forms on the left to the soft, human forms on the right.
Frigate Birds, Galapagos Islands, 1986. This has Wyeth influence written all over it! Except for a small patch of blue in the lower left, the sky, which fills 99% of the frame, is heavily overcast. An almost black line across the bottom of the frame grounds the image. In the foreground are swooping backlit and silhouetted frigate birds. I find a quiet but foreboding feeling with this image. The weather appears stormy, either just before or more likely just after a storm. The birds are restless but the repetition of their forms keeps the viewer’s eye in the frame to once again see the solid strength of the horizon line.
Caribou Antlers, Spatsizi Plateau, British Columbia, 1981. The frame is split slightly diagonally with about 1/3 dark blue sky above and 2/3 dark rock below. In the upper left is a small, round, moon - the brightest subject in the frame balanced on the lower right by a rack of caribou antlers. Once again, quiet with harmonious calming colors, strong horizontal composition, and an image with the power to bring the viewer back for another look, and another and another.
On the next page is Firth River Valley, Yukon Territory, 1981. This is a "Whoa!" photograph. When I first saw it, I was pulled to it because of the patch of white in the lower 1/3 of the frame, just right of center. I learned in the notes that this is a patch of snow on the tundra. The photo is divided in half horizontally with two bands of green in the lower half – dark green along the bottom with lighter green above, then a thin band of very light green leading to the dark blue of hills in the distance and finishing on top with blue gray clouds. The cool greens work very well against the cool blues to reinforce isolation and quite. The patch of snow provides a bit of tension that completes the photos and adds to its staying power.
Now for something completely different. Koi, Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto, Japan, 1988. A pond, Koi, lily pads, autumn leaves floating on top, and all of it graced with a touch of sunlight. Ponds relax me. I can sit and watch the fish, the water, the wind, the plants, and lose myself. I have tried to capture this feeling on film and have yet to pull it off. Sam did it so well I can hear the flick of the Koi’s fins against the water. No strong horizontals here – but there are diagonal and circular movements. The overall colors are greens, brightened, and complimented by reds and yellows. This photograph is very different from the other examples, but is not out of place in this collection. Once again the mood is quiet and the composition strong. Sam Abell has taken us from grand landscapes in Alaska to an intimate landscape in Japan and pulled it off.
Copyright Colby Jordan 1998