Compose and Wait

This impromptu video of starlings flying in formation (called a 'murmuration') illustrates my father's injunction to 'compose and wait.'  I was 14 years old at the time he enjoined me to 'wait.'  What he meant was to settle on a committed composition and wait for a subject to appear and animate the scene.  That is easy enough to remember when little is happening.  It's harder to remember when there is the dramatic appearance of a subject. Such appearances give one every reason to chase the subject instead of waiting for it to complete the established composition.  In this situation I resisted the strong temptation to chase the starlings.


How Genius Works, for The Atlantic
"Since 1970, Sam Abell has worked as a documentary photographer, shooting primarily for National Geographic. Over his 40-year career, he has depicted Aboriginal Australians, Montana cattle ranchers, and the Imperial Palace of Japan. Here, in an exclusive video interview, he recounts his year-long quest to find the perfect image of bison skulls for an essay on American painter Charles M. Russell..." 

Time Magazine - The Sam Abell Library: 40 years of Life and Still Life

"In 1967, Sam Abell rode a train from New York to Washington DC thumbing through a copy of Walker Evans’ American Photographs. He’d marvel at the level of consideration and thoughtful restraint, at the deep-felt honesty conveyed, but something was missing.   The world outside was very different than the one represented in the monochrome photographs made 30 years prior..."


New York Times Magazine - Object Lesson, by Teju Cole

"No image stands alone; each is related in straightforward or convoluted ways to other pictures. Ilnitsky’s photograph reads to me as a sad update of a famous one by Sam Abell taken in Moscow in 1983. Abell’s picture also shows a diaphanous white lace curtain, but in this case, it is not drawn aside. We see through the curtain a windowsill lined with seven pears, luminous in late-afternoon light, beyond which are visible the spires of Red Square..."

Sam Abell interview by Jonathan Blaustein from The Photo Editor

JB: Where have you been photographing lately?
SA: Wherever I am. I’m never not on assignment. What I’m interested in is modern American history. I’m taken with the changes that have occurred in America in my lifetime.
In my first class at the University of Kentucky, my American Literature professor came in, and the first sentence out of his mouth was “The central theme of American Literature is an attempt to reconcile what we’ve done to the New World.”
I wrote that down in my notebook, and thought, “What is he talking about?” But that’s what I think about now. The New World and what we’ve done to it...

Smithsonian Magazine - by Robert M. Poole 

Two black dots appeared in the distance, barely visible through swirling snow. Drawing closer, they resolved into recognizable forms: a man on a horse, a dog running alongside.  

"That'll be Gerald," said Ken Perry, a rancher who had driven photographer Sam Abell high into the Little Belt Mountains of central Montana in 1985 to search for cowboys still working in the traditional style. "No one else would be up here" in the forbidding Montana winter.


National - Proof: Picture Stories - Ireland

Sam Abell knew he would need the luck o’ the Irish with him to have any hope of photographing the country for National Geographic in 1994. “Expectations for the story could not have been higher,” he told me when we spoke by phone last week. “Every editor had been to Ireland, and everyone had had some, like, leprechaun magic or literary, romantic time—with the language, the music, the whiskey, the landscape, whatever.”


National - Proof: Picture Stories - Sam Abell profile

"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."

Distinction Magazine - by Mike Hixenbaugh

"Before he became one of the most respected photographers of his generation, before the storied career at National Geographic, before the nationally touring art exhibits, before the lifetime achievement awards, Sam Abell was an antsy little boy staring at a needlepoint map of America."


The Perfect Throw

Two things are demonstrated in this informal video I made January 16, 2018. One, a truly great disc golf throw by Tom Daly. Two, a composition that, once established, is unmoved despite the drama of Tom's incoming ace. Then there's Tom himself on the back layer, micro-composed.

Compose...and wait!