There was not a dry eye in the room last night. Bill Allard, exquisite, endearing, warm, unpretentious, friend and fellow photographer, finished his show last night in Calgary to an applause that might have been reserved for a musician more than a photographer. A man that just laid down his life’s work, who bared part of his soul for all of us to see, who wowed the audience with his amazing work.
William Albert Allard, simply put, is one of the most important and influential photographers of our time. He has spent the better part of the last 50 years on assignment for National Geographic. The yellow border magazine that has helped shape a generation of photographers, and has educated countless people around the World. In the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of this one, Allard has been at the forefront of creating memorable stories for the Geographic. Amish, Basques, Peru, Hutterites, France, Italy, India. When Allard does a story the photographs linger like the after taste of a fine scotch.
I had the pleasure of contacting Allard earlier this summer to come and speak at the annual Digital Expo 2011 here in Calgary. Each year, supported by The Camera Store, a keynote speaker comes and shows his work to both amateurs and pros to kick off the event in Calgary. Earlier this year, I told my friend Julian at The Camera Store, why don’t we just try for the best this year. Let me try and get Bill Allard. Friends laughed when I told them. No way, he won’t come up here, no chance in Hell that he would make the journey. But make it he did.
This was not the first time for Allard in the Cowboy capitol of the Canadian West. He has been here a few times before to photograph our bucking broncs, and the wild west show we call the Calgary Stampede. He simply said he was more than delighted to come up and speak.
Allard, who is now in his 70’s, with no signs of slowing down, arrived in Calgary a day early, to check out the projector, room and make sure everything was going to work. Perfectionist, yes, another reason why I like him even more.
During Thursday’s wonderful dinner with my friends Leah Hennel and Mike Drew, the conversation runs from films, books, roads in Nevada, cowboys, iPhones, music and rodeos. After all these years, we suspected Allard was one of us, and now we really knew, he is one of us, a true Westerner. Enthralled by the West and it’s people, why we live here, he too has move to Montana for the summers and those Charlie Russell skies. Allard like us, surrounded by drinks, homemade sausage, lamb and steaks, with a few local grown carrots thrown, we are at home.
“Bill Allard, is that Sarah?” asks the young voice over the speakers. I try not to watch the show, I try not to listen. I know it will be emotionally charged. I want to see Bill’s show in it’s entirety, from start to finish without the interruptions. We have come Friday afternoon to do a run through. Allard paces the room, looking at the screen, searching for flaws. “Goddamn…goddamn that looks great. That’s an incredible projector,” he notes, more than once. Leica provided the show with it’s high end projector, and we all stare. “The images look better on the screen than your laptop,” I remark. “They do,” says Bill. “It’s incredible.”
That night, with people still arriving, we wait to start the show for another 10 mins. After people are seated and the lights go dim, I go up to introduce Bill. Now normally I don’t get nervous speaking in front of people. I am always prepared and have a few tricks up my sleeve for speaking to a large crowd. I start my introduction, I make a fatal mistake. I look at Bill sitting in the front row, starring at me. My palms get clammy, my throat gets dry, don’t screw this up now, I tell myself.
Allard comes to the stage, the lights go dark and he takes us through a remarkable career that spans 50 years. He ends with a podcast piece that is read, while Hutterite photos are show. He lays it all out, how his son dies, how he finishes the assignment, it’s like we are sitting watching him in the hotel room while he grieves. I look over and people are in tears, I really hope I don’t have to go back up on stage and speak, I don’t think I can.
William Albert Allard has been instrumental in my career. I have followed and studied his work since I started in this business 25 years ago. If it was an Allard story, it was talked about, studied, passed around and saved. I tell my wife on our walk tonight, I feel energized and alive after being with him for the past three days. I am reminded of a saying only a few days ago by another National Geographic photographer David Alan Harvey. “You need to be an “author”. It is all about authorship, authorship and authorship.” In photojournalism, my new friend Bill, is one of it’s greatest authors.