In the early ‘70s, when photographer Sam Abell went to visit Canadian artist Christopher Pratt, Abell was, by his own admission, at a low point in his career. Spending time with Pratt in his studio, Abell found not only a subject, but also a creative model, one that left a lasting impression on his work.
Of his time there, Abell writes: “I was struck by how he and his studio were like his work– spare but intensely alive.”
The same could easily be said about Abell’s own photography, which seeks out and finds the prodigious beauty in stillness, both expansive and diminutive. Abell’s subject matter– broad skies, shining rivers, dark, desolate landscapes, and, sometimes, tiny details– appears with such deep character, that it’s easy to overlook just how completely motionless his photos can be– like the surface of a pond on a windless day. That graceful motionlessness is the source of his images’ power. Abell’s photography is the vision of an indifferent world at rest.
Abell, a National Geographic photographer, has lived for 25 years in Albemarle County, and so having a large exhibit of his work at the University of Virginia Art Museum only makes sense. A fair portion of the exhibit, “The Photographic Life,” is given over to the type of work he’s been contributing to National Geographic over the years. 
In “The Couple,” a man and woman stand over a carcass in the back of a truck, parked in a dark, windswept place.  Behind them, blurry, low-hanging clouds lie against the sky like motion-lines. 
“Bogged Truck” finds four men, tiny like pebbles, standing around a truck that has sunk up to its belly in mud.  The men and the truck are absolutely dwarfed by an expanse of sparkling water, which stretches out from the truck in all directions.
As the title suggests, Abell’s exhibit also includes a strong biographical element. Along with photographs from Australia and the American west are portraits Abell has taken of himself with his amateur photographer father, Christmas cards with photos of Abell as a child, and letters written to him by his father and from his first editor at National Geographic, coming just after his college days. It’s a beautiful gesture, and one that gives a rounded account of the photographer who has produced all these graceful images.

Sam Abell’s “The Photographic Life” runs through September 15 at the University of Virginia Art Museum. Rugby Road. 924-3592.

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