HOTSEAT- Abell's camp: Make it, don't take it

Sam Abell.

National Geographic photographer Sam Abell doesn't take pictures– he makes them. In his latest book, a photo of a train derailing in Davenport, Iowa, is the only one in the book that he took. The rest, he notes, he made.

The new book, The Life of a Photograph, is the sequel to Sam Abell: The Photographic Life. Now retired from 30 years of traveling around the world for National Geographic, he admits, "My friends think I never worked at all. I had a life instead of a career."

His life in Albemarle County is a farmhouse setting within stone-tossing distance of the Moorman's River. Along the river are walls of rock not often seen in this county, and with fields and strategic garden spots, it looks like a place where a photographer would live. 

In his photography, Abell wants the viewer to see what he sees. "That sounds like a modest ambition, but it's devilishly hard to achieve," he says in his kitchen, with its primo view of the river in autumn.

He's well aware that books of photography are often flipped through, and he's dedicated to slowing that process down. "Is it involving?" he asks. "Because if it isn't involving, the book is forgettable."

Often two photos of the same image are presented, and Abell challenges viewers to sit in the editor's chair to determine which is better. 

"This book is presenting the idea that thought is involved– not luck, not an expense account, not a ticket to a faraway place," he declares. "It's about memory, desire, and admiration." 

Memory and desire are recurrent themes in Abell's work, and everything traces back to growing up in Sylvania, Ohio, where he learned photography– and to compose and wait– from his father, Thad S. Abell, who is in his son's photo of a train arrival that won an honorable mention in 1961 in the Kodak National High School Photography Contest. The life of that photograph is the foundation upon which Abell's life is built, he writes in his book.

The landscape of his Ohio youth– horizontal winter sky; flat, square township roads, and grain elevators– is another element that turns up in Abell's photographs. 'I think we have an inner aesthetic that can be found in the real world," he says.

Both of his parents were teachers. Abell, too, has the educator gene, and he enjoys sharing his craft with students– and not just at the workshops in posh spots like Santa Fe, or Italy and France. When his parents tutored students after dinner while Abell and his brother did "silent dishes," the photographer learned the best way to teach is one on one. "And in my teaching, I give great emphasis to that," he says.

Here's what Abell doesn't like: cropping, bleeds, guttering. Photos should be properly framed, he says, and it's no accident they're set in a white border in his book. 

"To put in un-retouched, 35mm full-frame photographs is the real test," he maintains. 

 While he's not too keen on artist Richard Prince's appropriation of his cowboy photo for a Guggenheim exhibit, Abell has taken the high road on this use of his work and now lists the exhibit among his credits.

And for the amateur photographer trying to get a good shot of those birthday candles being blown out?

"Every photographer gets the subject right," says Abell. "Almost no photographer gets the setting right. When I teach, I send students out to photograph empty settings and to do them well."

Sam Abell has his settings right.

Age: 63

Why here? The Moorman's River Valley, where we have lived for 30 years, has grown more, not less, beautiful. That is a tribute to our neighbors.

What's worst about living here? You'd have to travel as much as I have to know how great this place is.

Favorite hangout? Bookstores– is there a bad one in Charlottesville?

Most overrated virtue? Eloquence. My speech is nothing more than complete sentences.

People would be surprised to know: That I'm young.

What would you change about yourself? As the great Billy Joel sang, "don't go changin'."

Proudest accomplishment? Students of mine have published– several in National Geographic and many with books of their own.

People find most annoying about you: Friends accused me of being "too sensitive." I dropped them.

Whom do you admire? Ross McDermott and his college roommate. They've retrofitted a pickup for bio fuel and rehabbed an Airstream to be a combo mobile home and photo lab (including punching a hole in the Airstream itself to create a pin-hole camera).

Favorite book? Wabi-Sabi by Leonard Koren

Subject that causes you to rant? People who rant!

Biggest 21st-century thrill? After a small party in Los Angeles honoring the life of Helmut Newton, I praised Angelica Huston for her tribute. She said, "Well, aren't you sweet" and kissed me warmly on the lips.

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Sarah Palin, winking.

What do you drive? '04 Subaru Outback

In your car CD player right now: Standing in the Shadow of Motown

Next journey? France, to work on The Garden of Life book.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? I stalk and photograph my fourth grade teacher in her beauty parlor. I'm grounded and have my camera confiscated, but learn how emboldening photography is.

Regret: Not learning French, which my mother taught.

Favorite comfort food: On a long road trip, I always like to see the words "Waffle House."

Always in your refrigerator: Film

Must-see TV: The Ohio State-Michigan game. Go Buckeyes!

Describe a perfect day. The first full day back home after a long trip.

Walter Mitty fantasy: In the 1960s there was an All-Ohio Oratory Championship. My "humorous declamation" from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty came in second, losing to Horton Hatches an Egg. So my Walter Mitty fantasy is I win.

Who'd play you in the movie? Anthony Hopkins

Most embarrassing moment? In 1967 I held up the departure of two Coast Guard ice breakers in Trondheim, Norway. I had to run the length of the dock, between the sailors standing at attention, wearing (and carrying) all my gear for an around-the-world polar voyage.

Best advice you ever got? "Up here. Not down there." (From my father– on how-to-be in life.)

Favorite bumper sticker? "God Bless All Nations– No Exceptions" (seen in CHO after 9/11)

Sam Abell will be reading from and signing his new book at 6pm Thursday, November 6, at New Dominion Bookshop.