When I stumble across Sam Abell’s photographs in our archives, I almost immediately know they are his, even if I can’t see the credit line. He has a distinctive style with strong composition and a beautiful color palette. Several months ago, while digging through our online archives for the Found Tumblr, I found this incredible image of a fish tank and reflected landscape. However, as much as I searched around, I couldn’t find an original date for the image. Back into the stacks it went. Recently, when I decided I wanted to interview Sam, I found the image’s original date—1980. Now reassured that the image really was vintage, I was happy to post the photograph and talk with Sam about his quiet aesthetic and storied career with National Geographic magazine.
Note: Many of these photographs were shot on assignment but never published in the magazine.
JANNA DOTSCHKAL: Tell me more about this photograph.
SAM ABELL: The assignment was Hagi, Japan. Hagi is a small city in the southwest coast of Honshu and it wasn’t bombed in the second world war, so it retained its historical architecture and the historical character, which was the subject of the assignment. It was a one-month assignment, and I stayed in a small traditional inn called a ryokan in the heart of this small town, and because I didn’t have a car, and the assignment was should I say, confined in nature—it wasn’t sprawling—it was just this small city, I engaged with the most intense and continuous immersive photography of my career, those four or five weeks that I spent there.
Every day I walked the streets and one day I came to a large parking lot that had been turned into a farmers’ market. In the middle of the market was a very large fish tank with fish for sale.
I have the desire in my photographs to link a still life to a landscape, so by photographing through the glass, I was able to render the water, and the sky, and the landscape as one scene. And I just tried to compose the fish into the landscape. So it’s a committed composition that the fish are swimming through and it’s just a matter of timing it and taking a number of frames of images. It was an idea that one of those frames would have the most felicitous composition, one that has the best relationship of the foreground to the background.
I think of it as a landscape picture with fish, since it began as a landscape picture, a so-called “still life” that is not really still. So the clouds were important and the tree was very important and the perspective of the picture was important. The fish had to be right. What makes this particular [image], why I chose this in the editing process, was the way it wasn’t just the arrangement of the fish, which was important, it was the reflectivity of the three of them.
JANNA: What you’re saying about sitting, waiting and taking a bunch of very similar frames, isn’t that very representative of your approach overall?
SAM: Completely. The “compose and wait” school of photography. I’m a charter member of that school. It’s a way to take pictures and it’s the way that works best for me. I’ve become devoted to that practice of seeing a scene and rigorously composing it and then waiting for something to animate it. In this case, it was the fish tank. I chose the frame that had the most life. The “life of a photograph” is what interests me. And this photograph was given life by the fish, by the bubbles, and by the iridescent reflectivity of them in particular.
JANNA: What was going on at this point in your career?
SAM: I was young in my career, I’d been at the [National] Geographic for about 10 years, and I had 20 years ahead of me. The big experience in this assignment was my first connection to Japan—it’s culture, people, and history you might say. And I was very won over by it. Of all the places that I’ve traveled and worked, I feel closest to the Japanese culture in terms of sensibility. I did not know that, except from a great distance, until I spent those five weeks in Hagi. It led to the last assignment of my career, 20 years later. I did the photography for the Japanese Imperial Palace. I think I was chosen for that assignment because of the work I did in Hagi.
JANNA: How did you get started at National Geographic?
SAM: I was a summer intern in 1967. That was everything. The internship program was not some kind of automatic pass to becoming a full-time photographer there. Only a few interns have taken that step from intern to full-time photographer, but I was one of them. I was an intern in 1967 and I thought, “This is the right place for me, this is my life.” When I came to Geographic I thought I was the least qualified person probably who had ever walked in there. I had learned photography but I hadn’t gone to a school that had a photo program.
I came from a humble photographic background, but years later, after being here for a couple of decades, I thought I was the most qualified person who had ever walked in there because of my parents. My dad taught geography and ran the camera club at our high school and was a devoted photographer, amateur photographer, and my mother taught languages, so they believed in travel and learning. I came from a family whose culture was a lot like National Geographic.
When we went on family vacations it wasn’t to climb mountains or fish or play on the beach, it was to learn about wherever we were. When I went to Japan, I didn’t just drink sake and sing karaoke, I learned about the Japanese culture firsthand.
I also drank sake and sang karaoke.
JANNA: I’m glad you did.
JANNA: During your internship, in those early years, we still had many staff photographers. What was it like working at that time?
SAM: I would say that one of the greatest things about working for the Geographic—everyone instantly thinks of travel, and that’s not wrong, they’re right about that. But when I think about the Geographic I think about the culture that I was a part of. By that I mean, the writers as well as the photographers. I richly enjoyed traveling with writers. They were smart, funny and hardworking. Good at what they did and taught me a lot.
That didn’t always happen, often I was by myself, but I always felt sustained by the knowledge that we were spread out over the world at the same time. Working hard were men and women who were like me, and we were kind of a fellowship.
I will say this—it was mostly a state of mind because we were not often together, ever. We were together once a year in January for the annual meeting. But I never felt alone. I felt connected. The word I always used to describe it was “campfire.” When you were back from an assignment there was always someone else back and you’d be at the campfire together. You had this life that nobody else lived and it was hard for other people to really understand it, but you knew that your brothers and sisters, your fellow photographers did understand it, and that made it rich. I’m very glad to have been at the Geographic when there was a rich culture of photography.
JANNA: How do you feel like you’ve grown or changed since you first started as a photographer?
SAM: Well, I’m going to answer that obliquely. It never occurred to me that having photography as a career could exhaust your love of photography, but that did happen to photographers who’ve had it as a long career. When they left the Geographic they discontinued photography. It’s not uncommon in other careers, I know that. But I would say that one of my accomplishments was that, at the end of my career at the Geographic, I still loved photography. I think that I was able to because I took up the personal publishing of my work. I didn’t only rely on the Geographic to be my publisher; because if it went away, well there would go my publisher. So, I consistently published my own work as I went along in my career, and I’ve kept that up. I had a full head of steam about photography when I left the Geographic.
JANNA: What are you focused on now?
SAM: I have a publishing project going on called the Sam Abell Library. It’ll be 16 slender books in slipcases, four books to a slipcase. It’s not all assignments. It’s personal projects. It’s my photographic life.
The other project i’m working on is a project that I call American History. America is the subject and the changes I have seen in my lifetime are the principal subject matter—pictures of people texting and people smoking cigarettes on ledges, and big box stores and you know, interstate highway, infrastructure, modern America. As a Geographic photographer there wasn’t much call to photograph big box stores, for example. When I left, I became very interested in on-the-ground everyday realism in American life, and that’s what I’m photographing.
JANNA: Well you’re not really a “follow-the-action” photographer. You see the action in everything.
SAM: Right, in fact, I teach that if something’s going on, if the event’s going on in front of you, turn your back on it. There’s one picture that I made at a football game at the University of Georgia. There were 50 photographers there and 49 of them were photographing the touchdown. I’m sympathetic to that, they had a job to do. And they were from various newspapers. I got that, I’ve worked at a newspaper. But I wasn’t at the time. I was Sam Abell, and I was there not to get the touchdown. I was photographing America, I turned my back on the touchdown.
Explore the National Geographic archive on Found.
View more of Sam Abell’s work on his website.