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National Geographic photographer shares life

About 200 community members, students and faculty gathered at the Berry Performing Arts Center (BPAC) on Saturday afternoon to hear National Geographic photographer Sam Abell share his life work. As the lights dimmed, a black and white photograph of a man watching a train in the snow appeared on the large screen above the stage.

It was one of Abell’s first photographs, taken when he was just 14 years old with his father’s Rolleicord. Abell said that as he was trying to take the photograph, his father gave him advice that he has followed throughout his long career.

“Compose the picture, Sammy, and wait,” his father had said to him that day. The simple bit of advice has worked well for Abell and has helped him take his own photographs.

His presentation in the BPAC featured many of his best photographs, but it also featured humorous and endearing stories from his life.

He told tales of picking up hitchhikers in Australia and of his parents’ secret marriage during the Depression. He elaborated of a story from his childhood, when he survived a cyclone while in a small plane going to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus with his brother and father.

His father was a major inspiration to him. The family travelled on educational road trips, and always took pictures. “He taught me photography,” Abell said fondly.

He also drew inspiration from his home state of Ohio, and later incorporated strong horizon lines into his photographs which he said reminded him of where he grew up. His roots remained dear to him, despite his travels throughout the United States, Australia, Japan, Ireland, Canada and many other places.

Aside from his obvious skill and eye for fine photographs, Abell’s talent was made even more apparent when he pointed out that he does not crop or edit his photographs in any way. His photographs are all composed entirely through the viewfinder, with not a touch of Photoshop. It took much convincing to get Abell to use a digital camera.

“I was a very reluctant digital photographer,” he said. “I resented it.”

Lindy Martin, junior graphic design major attended the event and said, “I thought it was a valuable display of classic, untouched photography in a time where we see thousands of digitally altered photos everyday.”

Eydun Syderbo, senior kinesiology major said, “I admired how great his shots were for being unedited. I saw how difficult it is to get the perfect photo. Taking tons of photos and only getting 7 published proved his discipline and determination.”

Having left National Geographic 10 years ago, Abell continues photography, but also teaches, travels and gives workshops for aspiring photographers. Teaching is in his blood, he said, just as both his brother, parents and grandfather were all teachers.

He encouraged students and other photographers in the audience to pay attention to the “micro-composition” of their photographs, the little details that make it come alive. He also gave them the same advice his father gave him: compose the picture, and wait.

“To make fine photographs, make fine snapshots,” he advised.