William Albert Allard. Portraits of the Midwest.

William Albert Allard came to a conclusion about life and photography many years ago. The only way to keep producing exceptional work is to carefully select the work you do. And that work has to matter to you because that’s the only way to make images that are truly honest, images that you can stand behind and believe in.

“I just reached a point where I thought, I just don’t want to do anything I don’t really want to do,” Allard recalls. “And that’s the way I’ve been able to keep the juices going over so many years is by getting into stories I had a passion for, a feeling for.”

And it has been a few years for Allard. At age 73, he is at a point in his life where he can look back at a lifetime of achievements that, in many instances, have actually made a difference in the world. His famous National Geographic photo essays on India’s “untouchable” caste and the poverty in Peru have literally changed people’s lives by raising awareness of their plight. His other, more immersive stories about living among the Amish, the Hutterites, American cowboys and minor league baseball players have shown us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of quiet lives that few viewers have experienced.

Allard has been a working photographer and essayist for nearly 50 years, as evidenced by his recent book, aptly titled “Five Decades: A Retrospective.” It’s an intimate look in words and pictures at his lifetime of work with the gold standard of magazine and exotic travel photography, National Geographic magazine. His book, and his enormous body of work, is a long-lasting testament to his vision and spirit.

Direct connections

Though much of Allard’s work falls into the documentary or travel categories, it is his portraits that stand out, even though they are mostly part of bigger, more specific projects about a region or a culture. It’s been that way from the beginning.

“My portraits come usually as part of another whole package within the essay. They come in as part of my street shooting,” he says. “I consider myself a good portraitist — I really do. One of the things that has always fascinated me the most is the human face.”

Part of Allard’s personality is his directness and his honesty. He’s not known to beat around the bush. “I’ve always felt that the best way to approach a subject or people that you want to work with is the most direct way,” he says. “It’s the only way I know how to work.”

He goes on to elaborate on his methods of photographing people. “There is no formula,” he says. “Hopefully, you don’t have too low a rejection threshold because there are people who aren’t going to want you to do that. But you don’t need a doctorate in psychology to see if you’re irritating someone. I also get asked, ‘Do you go up and ask for permission?’ If I do that, I’ve just chased the subject away.”

Being a stranger in town with a camera requires a special balance of restraint and directness. “Sometimes it’s every bit as important for the subject to get to know you as it is for you to get to know the subject, for them to be comfortable with you,” he says.

For Allard, it’s all about how you present yourself. “If I’m working in an area where I see people more than they see me and I see them over a period of time, I’ll eventually go up and explain what I’m doing — but never right off the bat,” he says. “I go to a bar and put a camera on the bar there; I don’t say, ‘I’m Bill Allard. I’m with National Geographic.’ I go in and put my camera on the bar, order a drink or a beer, and if somebody comes around to ask me, I’m not going to lie, but I’m not going to make it a big point. And hopefully, because I’m working with Geographic, I’ve got the time to go into that place more than just once.”

Working the edges

Perhaps the key to Allard’s success is his own style of photographing. He calls it “working the edges.” This means looking for subjects in unexpected places, away from the main event that is happening, or searching for unusual points of view.

“If I’m working on a blues story, for instance, I don’t want to be down in that pit in front of the stage, whether it’s a tent or whatever it is. I want to be around, if there is a stage, backstage, or I want to be in the wings,” he explains. “I might want to work down in the front, but I certainly don’t want to limit myself to that because I really feel so often, especially in the performance arts, that what’s around the edges of the performance is usually more interesting than the performance itself. It doesn’t mean that working the edges isn’t seeking out a major image, a composition that really is special, but it’s not what everybody is seeing who is sitting down in the first row.”

Working the edges is more about the ambience of the scene, sometimes showing the minor players and events, sometimes showing an unexpected view of the major subject. It’s all about exploring visual possibilities and trying to let nothing escape.

Working methods

Allard is a traditionalist in some ways — if he had his way, he would use only Leicas for all his shooting. But he is also flexible and adaptable.

“I would love to be able to just go back out on the street with a couple of Leicas,” he says. “But when it gets right down to it, a camera is a camera is a camera. It’s a tool.”

For Allard, it’s how you use the tools you have that makes the difference — that and knowing your equipment until it becomes second nature. “You want it to be as much a part of you as possible,” he says. “You don’t want to have to be thinking about stuff. Just use it, you know.”

There are always a lot of other matters to consider when you’re out photographing.

Part of the way Allard works is to find a place that’s visually interesting, and keep shooting and exploring the variables until the right combination of elements comes together to make a successful image.

“Find a space where the light is doing something, where there are spatial relationships going on,” he explains. “Watch the light and see how it changes. Change lenses. Do it again. Look at it again. And then you wait for that image to be completed, for that moment to happen, probably by somebody who was offstage.

Then they come in and complete it. It’s spontaneous, but you were working for that spontaneity. It’s very much like rewriting a passage until you get it right.”

In describing his style of shooting, Allard quotes the poet James Dickey, who once said, “It takes me a hundred drafts to get a poem right and fifty more to make it sound spontaneous.””I think street shooting can sometimes be a little like that,” he adds.

A love of words

Such literary allusions come naturally from Allard. When he was growing up in Minneapolis in the 1940s, his home entertainment was a world of spoken words that fired his young imagination. He often listened to radio dramas, such as “The Shadow” and “The Green Hornet,” and breathless descriptions of championship boxing matches. This created in Allard a strong love of words and storytelling — a love that eventually drew him to photography, though it wasn’t a direct route.

After graduating from high school, Allard took four years to decide whether to go to college. Drawing and art had been a passion of his since he was young, so he chose the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts, intending to study painting. But a growing desire to write caused him to leave art school after a year and enroll in journalism school at the University of Minnesota. He wanted to be a writer. At least, that was the plan.

One day at the university, his life changed. Allard attended a lecture on photojournalism given by a then-new professor of photojournalism, R. Smith Schuneman, who talked excitedly about the power that is created by combining words and pictures. Allard was soon caught up in that excitement, seeing photojournalism as a way to bring together two of his greatest passions, images and words. This was the answer he’d been looking for all along. Soon after, he switched to photojournalism as his major.

While Schuneman taught Allard technique and craft, it was Jerome Liebling, a former student of Paul Strand, who taught Allard the aesthetics of this new creative outlet. Unlike a lot of photography majors in college, Allard had no particular experience with photography, but he never saw that as a handicap. “I started from scratch,” he says. “I was very fortunate. I didn’t have any bad habits.”

But in time it made sense to Allard, and he found a great deal of common ground between photography and writing, especially when it comes to visual editing. “I’ve always felt there are a lot of parallels between good writing and good pictures,” he says. “There’s certainly that old Hemingway saying about what you cut away is probably at least as important as what you leave in — cut away, cut away, cut away. Get rid of what you don’t need.”

Over the years, Allard saw the advantages and challenges of being both a writer and a photographer. “If you have the talent to do that, and do it well,” he says, “you have the opportunity to give a story a unique personality because it’s being seen and felt through one pair of eyes, and felt with one heart and one mind, and you can really give it a personality. That’s assuming you can do it, but it takes a hell of a lot of energy. The work is never done.”

Two months before he graduated, Allard took his portfolio and applied for an internship at National Geographic. What followed would change his life and take him around the world.

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