Robert Clark is a Brooklyn-based freelance photographer, who has lived and worked in and around the South Williamsburg lofts at 475 Kent Avenue for the past 20 years. Many world-class photographers have called the building home during its recent history. So for the first installment of our interview series with some of them, Nomadic Press spoke with Clark at his current studio in the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yards about his photographic work with National Geographic, as well as in newspapers and books.
Originally from Hays, Kansas, Clark attended Kansas State University, finding immediate work as a staff photographer for school newspaper, The Collegian. After graduating in 1985, Clark worked as a newspaper photographer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Cincinnati Post, and The Ogden Standard Examiner. It was in Philadelphia that Clark connected with reporter Buzz Bissenger to photograph West Texas high school football culture in Odessa for 1990 bestseller, Friday Night Lights. A decade later, and to the southeast, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts commissioned Clark to capture the lead-up-to and inaugural season of local NFL expansion team, the Texans. One hundred and fifty of his photos were then compiled into First Down Houston, with an accompanying essay by Houston Chronicle sportswriter Mickey Herskowitz.
A New Yorker since 1991, the morning of September 11, 2001, found Clark on the roof of 475 Kent Avenue with his camera, photographing the explosive moment a second plane hit the World Trade Center. Four of his pictures from that morning went on to win a World Press Award, and continue to be regarded as essential still-life documents of the day’s attacks. A decade later, and across the East River in the Brooklyn Navy Yard Museum, Clark produced a permanent video exhibition on the people and industries that currently populate the sprawling property surrounding his own photo studio business—including those engaged in ship repair, military body armor manufacturing, television set fabrication, Sweet‘N Low packing, woodworking, medical blood and fluid testing, and more.
Yet Clark is often far from home on assignment. And perhaps the best distillation of that professional nomadic existence is a 2005 book of his photography entitled, Image America. It began as a commissioned assignment from Sony Ericsson, with Clark coming up with an ad campaign where he would spend 50 days traveling through 25 US states and into Canada, capturing North American life using only the company’s S710a camera phone. The idea was partially inspired by Robert Frank’s 1958 book of photography, The Americans. Clark’s 2004 journey was driven in a 2002 Arctic White Volkswagen Eurovan (nicknamed “Moby Dick” by his brother Patrick), and its stops were documented by American Photo magazine’s website, where he uploaded 25 daily images. The resulting book was one of the first crafted entirely from a phone’s digital pictures. A year earlier, Clark had helped usher National Geographic into the digital age with his photograph of a dinosaur skeleton for the March 2003 issue—the magazine’s first online cover, and part of Clark’s photos for the story “Flesh & Bone” by Joel Achenbach.
My first engagement with Clark’s work turned out to be his first assignment for National Geographic in 1995. That year, the remains of French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur De La Salle’s ship “La Belle” was discovered beneath 12 feet of water in Matagorda Bay off the Texas coast. It was decided a steel cofferdam should be built around the wreck, and the Gulf of Mexico pumped out, so that a “dry land” excavation could delicately strip centuries of mud from the wooden ship’s surviving hull and help uncover what cargo remained. Clark stood atop the dam’s rim to snap a memorable wide shot of La Belle exposed to open sky for the first time in more than 300 years, the old boat surrounded on all sides by the dark waters that had claimed it in 1686. The photograph was part of Clark’s contribution to National Geographic’s May 1997 story, “La Salle’s Last Voyage”, written by Lisa Moore LaRoe. December 2014 marked Clark’s 38th National Geographic story, “Just Press Print,” written by Roff Smith. The story’s subtitle reads, “As epoch-making as Gutenberg’s printing press, 3-D printing is changing the shape of the future.”
Yet it is the long story of our planet’s collective past that draws Clark’s most passionate responses during our conversation in his Ten Ton Studio space. The studio’s business office features bookshelves housing rows of tomes on a variety of subjects—including those featuring Clark’s photography of birds and their feathers, and the still-unfolding tale of human development. Those subjects were of interest to Charles Darwin in his work On the Origin of Species. In Nat Geo’s November 2004 issue, writer David Quammen examined how the OTOOS theory on evolution had held up over the 145 years since its publication, with the article “Was Darwin Wrong?” photographed by Clark. The story won the National Magazine award for best essay, while Clark’s photo work won Picture of the Year from the National Press Photographers Association.
On His Favorite Authors
Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Travels With Charlie—these are all books that really spoke to me pretty well. I was pretty severely dyslexic. And more than anything, it just created a fear of reading. So I didn't really read much. You know, I got through school by just listening in class and memorizing. So I have a pretty good memory for everything I hear. And one of the harder classes in high school I got A’s in all the time, because I would just sit there and listen to the lectures, and just write down little tiny notes. There's an author who I think is brilliant: S. E. Hinton. She wrote a very famous book, The Outsiders when she was 17, which is stunning. Then Rumble Fish, and That Was Then, This Is Now, all these books. And I really got into that, because it was kind of contemporary teen fiction at that point. But she was 17 when she wrote that first book, and it was like, "As I walked out of the darkness of the movie theater, I had two things on my mind: Paul Newman, and a ride home." I mean, that's the opening. It's brilliant. And that was actually the end of the book as well, because it does this whole kind of out-of-sequence circle thing. But you know, that stuff was really, really evocative to me, and made me understand stuff. And my brother helped me too. I was reading the book, The Jim Ryun Story, about the great Kansas miler. And I was a good runner. I wasn't great by any standards, but I was decent. And I started to get interested in photography when I was in the 9th grade, when I was 14 or so. The pictures in [The Jim Ryun Story] are done by a guy named Rich Clarkson. Before that, he had done a lot of his work in sports, and he covered Jim Ryun, and did this beautiful work on Jim Ryun, and had the cover of Sports Illustrated when he broke the world record in the mile: 3:51:3 at Berkeley. You know, I just remember stuff like that. I remember stuff that influenced me heavily. Then I started looking at Jim Richardson, who now works for Geographic, and I started seeing Chris Johns and all his stuff. I was just in the right place at the right time. Being from Western Kansas, going to K-State, having visually one of the best newspapers in the United States just right there. They're 65 miles away, and we'd see the newspaper every day. So it was an amazing opportunity.
On Who Influenced Him During His Development as a Photographer
I got interested in being a sports photographer, partially because there is a really good newspaper, The Topeka Capital-Journal, in Topeka, Kansas, and Rich Clarkson was in charge of it. Clarkson ultimately became the director of photography at Geographic for a while. One of the guys who worked for him, Chris Johns, was editor. He's moved on, and Sarah Leen, who was a staff photographer there, is the current director of photography. So I was around a lot of these guys. There's a guy named Jim Richardson. I'm a huge fan of his work, and he was a very big influence. He's about 10 years older than me, but he was a very big influence on all of us at K-State, and the kind of work that we wanted to do. It was a good environment. I did well in high school. I was planning on going to KU, which has this "good journalism school." But I was going be a junior before I could work on the newspaper. And I was like, “Screw that.” K-State, the day I walked on campus, I was on the staff. I took time off for internships, and I was slow getting out of college. But I worked on the Collegian for six years, and it was a great environment, because we had an extremely competitive photo staff (with each other), yet supportive. John Sleezer, who works in Kansas City now, was College Photographer of the Year, did an internship at Geographic, and worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer. I ended up getting that job at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Buzz Bissenger, who wrote Friday Night Lights, and I became friends. That was kind of my jumping-off point into magazines in a way. Because I think Sports Illustrated ran 15 or 17 pictures of mine in black and white from the Friday Night Lights story. They excerpted the book, and it was good for me.
Friday Night Lights, I just showed up and shot, and it was pretty easy. I had great access because of Buzz. Friday Night Lights spawned a genre of book subjects. You know, there's a book called Hope Is A Muscle, about a girls basketball team up in [Amherst]. There's like 15 different things like that. And then the Undefeated documentary that won the Academy Award, We Are Marshall ... I mean, there are so many good things that kind of touch on that. Peter Berg, who directed Friday Night Lights, and is actually Bissenger's first cousin, said to me, "It's a brilliant book. But the way I knew it was a movie is because of your pictures." Which was cool. It was really nice that he could see the story.
One thing I learned shooting sports—that book doesn't have one action picture in it. It's all about the environment, and sense of place. I'm more interested in winning and losing pictures, the emotional aspect of things, than the peak-action picture.
On His Interest in Evolution
I've done so much work in evolution, that I have really, really very low tolerance for religion, in general. I mean, I get faith. I understand faith. But I have faith in science.
I've done now 8 or 10 stories about the physical evidence of evolution. I actually had a book made in the neighborhood, and it's a little torah-like book. The idea is that everything in [the book] has an aspect of evolution in it. And it's a book that evolves. So it’s just a maquette (French for a book that folds out), and the idea is to put five or six essays on the back, or a correlated time chart of the planet. [The book uses human models as] examples of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, which is our example of "survival of the fittest." You know, that these germs evolved and changed, because they didn't give [patients] enough antibiotics to kill them. So everything in there has some aspect of evolutionary theory. It's 22 feet long, and I have five stories I've done since I made it that are about human evolution.
I did a thing on dogs. And dogs have a common ancestor, which is a wolf. The diversity, and how different they look, is shocking that it would come from the same ancestor. But it's breeding for specific qualities over and over and over and over. I mean, that's fascinating to me. So is evolution of feathers. And with all the dogs, and the feathers, and then all these human footprints, I've started making mosaics of things. I have these mosaics with like 80 feathered fossilized birds from the Jurassic and Cretaceous, and 60 dogs, 45–50 feathers. You know, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. And I'm just interested, because I think it's really fascinating and fun to shoot this stuff. I mean, come on, there's a whale from the Eocene with hind legs. And if you cut open a baleen whale today, their skeletal structure has hips. People with Albinism don't get malaria. It's jut weird interesting stuff, and nobody's really done a big photographic look at it. Tim Flach, a photographer in the UK who's quite good, has done some amazing work. But he isn't doing, I don't think, the scope and the scale of what I'm doing. I don't think anybody is, because I'm just really, really lucky. I mean, [I’ve photographed] fossilized birds, and Archaeopteryx, which means "first feather." So it's an interesting kind of scale and scope of things to photograph. I was climbing around in a cave in South Africa. And in the dolomite caves I was in, they're 2.6 billion years old. It was such hard rock. And I'm walking around with the geologist talking to him, and I pick up stromatolite that's 4 billion years old. That's the first thing on the planet that started to exchange carbon and oxygen, and that kind of changed our environment. So that's crazy, and that's interesting. And [my piece] is tiny, but they got as big as Volkswagons. There's a place called Shark Bay in Australia, and they're still in the water there. They're dead. They're no longer exchanging that, but they're the first thing that started changing our environment to where we could ultimately exist.
Darwin's amazing, and just a brilliant person. His wife was very religious, and they were the heir to the Wedgwood China fortune. So he lived a pretty comfortable life. His parents were rich, His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin had actually written a bunch of stuff about evolution, and I know [Charles] heard and learned a lot from his grandfather. The birds that he collected in the Galapagos, the beaks of the Finch, it's an island bio-evolution where things evolve and fill a niche. For me, it's a very interesting part of the theory of evolution. But there was a guy named Alfred Russel Wallace, who was probably the greatest field biologist, and there's a phenomenal book called The Song of the Dodo that was written by David Quammen—the guy who wrote [Was Darwin Wrong?] for Geographic. I think it was the first article for the magazine that won a national magazine award. I just became fascinated with that. I did a lot of it on 4 x 5.
I mean, there's 26,000 species of orchids. When I was in Peru, I was in the Sacred Valley. And there are 2,000 different kinds of potatoes, because of all these little microclimates in Peru. They were in these separate valleys, and they evolved separately. It's just stunning to me the diversity, and the amount of things you can photograph. You can photograph almost anything, and there's some evolutionary component to it. It's fascinating.
[National Geographic is] the only magazine in the world that will let me spend six weeks doing the thing on evolution. Who does that? Nobody does that. I mean, I'm working on a book on feathers for Chronicle Books, and 99% of it will come from the work I did for Geographic.
On 3D Printing, After Working on a National Geographic Story About It
It still is mostly used for rapid prototyping and really cool interesting production and design work. But the possibilities of it are endless. If you can scan it, you can 3D print. I mean, if you're Frank Gehry, you can wad a piece of paper up and throw it into a scanner, and you could ultimately essentially build a building based on that. They're making clothing out of it. They're building guns out of it. I saw a gun that they made a 3D print with stainless steel, which is amazing. They fired it 3,000 times, and there was no wear on it at all. It was a place down in Texas. And the interesting thing about that is that they took a gun that was out of patent, took it apart, and they scanned it. Then they put it in a computer, set it up, and they printed it. They went from the idea of doing this, and tearing a gun apart and scanning it, to having a working firing model in seven days. If you're going to make a gun in a gun shop, it takes 11 months, or something like that. So it's expensive right now, but the efficiency that that shows you—I mean, I think it took 17 hours to print all the pieces, and it's fascinating to see. It's called selective laser sintering. The laser is hitting it, and hardening it. So the possibilities, I think, will ultimately have a really big impact on manufacturing.
One of the largest places in the world is in Belgium, and it's called Materialise. And then there's Solid Concepts that made the gun in Texas. And then there's an amazing designer, Iris van Herpen in Amsterdam. She worked for Alexander McQueen. She's amazing. It's an interesting thing. What's gonna happen? Where's it gonna go? I have no idea.
On Working with Writers for Print Stories
I like working with writers, because just having conversations with them kind of gives me other ideas. And a lot of my stuff, there's so many facts. It's not like you're in Chicago, and they say, "Drive Highway 66." You're not just doing a start-to-finish thing. It's not a narrative that sets itself for you. I mean, I'd love to do a trip on Highway 66. I wanted to do it with the iPhone 6, actually. “The iPhone 6 on 66” would have been a fun thing to do. I've also done a lot of work with cell phones. I did the first book with a cell phone for Sony Ericsson. I was on the road for 50 days, which was great. I'm lucky that Geographic gives us time to understand and work on something. And a lot of the stories I've done, they kind of end up informing the other stories I've done. So I just have so much information now from 15 archeology stories I've done from Doggerland, and La Salle the French explorer, and Patagonian dinosaur hunters, and evolution of feathers. I've done the Denisova Cave, and our other cousin, about a specific group that left Africa and has a different DNA than you and I. And I worked with a guy Svante Paabo, who's the one who proved that we're all of European decent, and that we all have 4–5% Neanderthal DNA. There is all that concept and theory that they never intermingled. And we're finding that's just not true. So it's a really interesting informative process.
[Geographic] photographers generally spend more time on the stories than the writers, because it's a visually-driven magazine. That being said, I'll talk to anybody about any subject I'm working on, because you get ideas from all over the place. I did a story on Biomimetics (the inspiration of nature on design), and we were going to shoot this swimsuit that's built like sharkskin. My assistant at that time just happened to have been a swimmer up at McGill in Canada, and he goes, "Oh, that'd be great. We should get a really fast swimmer, and shoot him doing that." And it's like, "OK, that'd be cool." And he goes, "The fastest swimmer in the world is down in Florida, a guy named Gary Hall, Jr. I know what swim club he's at." So he called, and within an hour we were set up to shoot Gary Hall, and go down there. I had never shot under water. And triggering strobes outside the water, it worked out really well. We got like 14 frames, and then it started to lightning around us, and we got out of the pool. But I got like two frames that were very, very good. So sometimes things just kind of come together. Other times, you can work really hard in planning stuff, and it doesn't look very good.
Lynn Johnson, who's a photographer for the magazine, she's amazing. I've always really liked her work. She gave me kind of the best advice. She said, "Let the story be your guide." You know, just learn as much as you possibly can about a subject, and how you want to do the story will kind of reveal itself to you. Which is kind of like a mystical process. But I think that the more information you have, the easier that the story becomes for you. I mean, I did a football book for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. I spent a year with the Houston Texans, off and on. I made like 18 trips to Houston, and it worked out really well. People were nice. This is because the McNairs had given the museum like $50 million over a certain time period. But this is really the last big project I did in film. I had my film in these canisters, and I was using this tape to hold it. And the designer of the book saw that when he came by, and he's like, "Oh, that's amazing." So that ended up being the design of the book.
The reason I wanted to do it in black and white is because I didn't want it to compete with the daily newspaper. Because Houston had, and has, a really great sports photographer named Smiley Pool, and I didn't want to try to compete. I'm fine in the locker room and sidelines, and doing that kind of stuff. I think I do that as well as a lot of people.
On His Approach to Composing Shots
There's just different ways to construct photos visually. And I think I've got very good compositional skills. But one of the things that I intentionally, specifically did when I moved to New York was that I wanted to learn lighting. Life Magazine was going away. Look Magazine was going away. There were just less outlets for true photo-journalistic stuff. It was kind of the rise of people like Annie Leibovitz and Mark Seliger, and I was seeing those kind of produced pictures. And they're not photo-journalistic, but they are documentary. And I've always been interested in, and been a very big fan of, Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White. Those were the kind of things I loved. There's an amazing book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans. The text was separate from the photos. They were separate but equal statements about the same subject. And sometimes, that's what Geographic does. Other times, they're more kind of intertwined. But that was a verse out of the bible, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, and they have all these white sharecroppers in the south. And then the next verse in the bible is, "And Their Children After Them." And Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, who were both at the Washington Post for a while, they did a book following up called And Their Children After Them. They went and found the relatives of these people, and followed them. The book won a Pulitzer, and it's a brilliant combination of things.
On Other Documentary-style Photographers He Admires
There's a photographer named Stephen Shames. He won the Alicia Patterson Foundation grant, which is like a $40,000 grant. He'd done all this work on child poverty, and he did a book called Below The Line. It was kind of encompassing all of his child poverty work. He spent tons of time with the Black Panthers back in the day, and did a book on the Black Panthers. He did some pictures up in the Bronx of this one neighborhood, and he just published a book called Bronx Boys. He's amazing. He's a very straight-ahead, extremely-liberal, intellectually-stimulating, amazing guy. Also, W. Eugene Smith was from Wichita, Kansas. His dad committed suicide in the crash of '29. From a very wealthy family, and committed suicide. Eugene Richards, he's amazing. To me, he is kind of an example of where I was told, "If he can do it, you can do it." That kind of thing. And that's very Kansan, in the sense that Kansans are very leery of anybody who thinks they're better than they are. They're a little bit like the "Show Me" state. They're a little bit like that. And to be honest, Kansas has changed a lot since I was there. It wasn't as conservative looney tunes as they are now. But the reason that they're crazy now is partly because of Fox News, but also because Doctor Tiller, who performed late-term abortions, was in Wichita. And so Operation Rescue came there for a rally, and then the people who ran Operation Rescue just decided to stay in Wichita. So they founded themselves in Wichita, and they just kind of bubbled out from that. I think that was in 1985, the year I graduated college, and Kansas has become progressively more conservative. And you know, Kansas doesn't have a conservative past. "Bloody Kansas" Kansas was an extremely liberal state. That's where John Brown was from. Probably my best friend growing up is now Lieutenant Governor on the same ticket with Brownback, and he and I have had conversations about all that. But you know, it was a really good place to be from in that sense, I think, because my parents worked extremely hard. So it's that whole kind of good work ethic, and I think I have a certain amount of talent. But also, it's been talent that's been exercised a lot. I mean, ever since I was 15 or 16, this is all I've really ever done. I've really never had any other jobs. I shingled roofs, started to buy cameras. Mowed yards, so I could buy cameras. I didn't take a senior high school trip to New York City in 1979, because it was gonna cost 700 bucks, and my mom gave me the money to buy a camera. So, money well spent, and now I'm in New York full time. But when I sit back and kind of look at it, it's been great. By most standards, I'd be very successful. I'm not rich, or anything like that. But I am very rich in experiences and knowledge. And ultimately, that's more important I think than financial things. But I think anybody can do what they really set their minds to. I think a lot of people just give up, and get distracted. And I'm very distractible. But I can jump from one subject to the other, and come back. It's not the most linear process. I mean, look, having a six-year-old, being married, having a National Geographic traveling career, running a photo studio—there's a lot. It's a very busy life. Which is great.
I wasn't a good student, but I know a lot now about a lot of subjects. I was bad at spelling, and I got confused that spelling was intelligence. In certain ways, I'm very intuitive, even though I still can't spell. I spell things so poorly that spell-check shrugs their shoulders and is like, "Uh ... I don't know." So I'm very hopeful that the whole Siri thing, where you can talk to it, will work out. But then I'll have the wrong accent, or something. But I've been very, very lucky. I worked with a photographer named Greg Heisler, and learned a lot about lighting from him. I worked for a sports photographer named Walter Iooss, who's the greatest sports photographer ever. He's done all of the swimsuit issues. He's one of the only people who's been to every Super Bowl. I think he's 71 now, and he's amazing. His son Bjorn, is a great photographer now, and his other son's a photo editor. Walter is just one of the nicest people in the photography business, and extremely talented, and extremely successful. He's also funny, and he's very confident in his abilities. I was working for a very technical photographer, as far as portraits and things like that. And then to go to work with Walter. ... Frankly, I think his pictures were just as good as the other guy. And the other guy is very acclaimed. But Walter proved to me you can have a good career and be a nice guy. And I'm struggling with that still, because it's very competitive, and I don't necessarily handle stress. My way in the past was always to just work harder if you have stress. But when you have a six-year-old, and a wife, you have to learn to monitor it better. And it's a work in progress, I should say.
On the Early Years of the 475 Kent Avenue Photographer Community
I've been in Williamsburg 20 years. I moved into 475 about 1998. There was a time when all these people were moving here: Thomas Dvorzak, and Alex Majoli, and Paolo Pellegrin, and David Harvey. Chris Anderson had lived there upstairs for a while with Andre Lambertson and his girlfriend. [475 landlord] Nachman hadn't finished the 3rd Floor yet. So I went to Nachman, and I said, "Save like six apartments." And Nachman and I had a pretty good relationship, so they all ended up living on the 3rd floor, and I was on the 4th floor. David Coventry was right next to me, and Harvey took an apartment there across the hall. I mean, they call it "the Kibbutz" in photo circles around the world. I think at one point, like 21 or 22 World Press Awards had been won by the photographers living there. So it was pretty ridiculous. It was fun. You know, Harvey always used to say that it was easier to borrow a CF card than it was a cup of sugar. But it was absolutely a good thing in a lot of ways. Everybody's work was different.
On Former 475-resident Tim Hetherington’s Approach
The thing about Tim is that he was a big picture guy. I mean, he was not just covering the march to Baghdad, or one little battle here, or being embedded, or doing a story about the guys who cover Mosul. He had BIG ideas about things. I think one of the things he was working on at the end was about youth and violence, and how it was almost sexy to them—violent video games, and this whole obsession. He had big ideas. I mean, he got accepted to Oxford when he was 17. He was a very smart guy. And frankly, I don't think most photographers are that smart. Not like him.
On His September 11th Photographs
They are the pictures of 9/11, essentially. They're in this war photography book. I couldn't go to the opening in Houston. But I first saw the show at the Annenberg Center in Los Angeles, and they had videos, and stuff like that. I sat down, and I was watching this war photo historian. And he said, " It's very rare that you see a picture of a war starting." And I'm listening to him, and then my images come up. And I didn't really even think about it like that. Those pictures were extremely lucky. I was extremely lucky to get those. And I'm very conflicted about those pictures, and about making money off of stuff like that. But the only thing worse than that would have been to not shot it, or to shot it out of focus, or to have missed it. A friend of mine was saying, "Well, you know, anybody could have shot those." And then his wife says, "Yeah, but you were still in bed." And this is a guy who lived at 475. Very talented photographer. Really good filmmaker. And he told me this story himself. I wasn't there. She's like, "You were still in bed," and I had already been up working since seven in the morning. So hard work is kind of the only other way I can see to succeed. Just working hard intellectually, working hard visually. And I'm very interested in every aspect of photography. Irving Penn still life. Irving Penn portraitures. Gene Smith photo-journalism. Conceptual photography. Black and white. Color. I mean, I like all of it. And maybe part of my problem is that I'm not as focused on one thing.
On Luck and Hard Work Impacting His Career
A friend of mine, who I haven't seen in a long time who I really like, a guy named Lou Bopp—he always said, “Luck is an extension of talent.” And it's something that I've been very lucky with. Like I say, I was in the right place at the right time. I made the right connections. I worked hard. For me to get Friday Night Lights, and convince Buzz to let me shoot it, the only reason he let me do it is that I'd done a boxing picture story with a guy named Steve Lopez (who's a great columnist, who was at the Philadelphia Inquirer for a long time). He was Bissenger's best friend, and he said I convinced him to write this story. Pete Dexter wrote Mulholland Falls. He wrote Paris Trout, which is a National Book Award Winner. He was a columnist. And you know, I'm going to the Philadelphia Inquirer, and these kind of looney old people from Plainville, Kansas, they go, "You know, our nephew's a writer in Philadelphia. His name's Petey Dexter. Look him up." So I looked him up, and I said, "Excuse me, are you Petey Dexter." And he looked at me, and he was a real harsh kind of character, and he's like, "Who are you?" And I said, "Oh your 'Aunt Verda' and ‘Old Lou’ told me to say hi to you." And he's like, "Come here." And he was great, and we got along well, and he was a funny guy. And I asked him to write the thing about boxing, and he says, "I can't do it. But ask this guy." So he called Lopez, and said he should do it. And Dexter helped me find the subject, because he had done boxing, and he was friends with Randall “Tex” Cobb, who was that bad-ass on the motorcycle in Raising Arizona. The newspaper in Philly at that point was amazing. It had like three Pulitzer winning photographers. They won 21 Pulitzers in 19 years. Gene Roberts, who was the editor, had been David Halberstam's bureau chief in Vietnam. He covered the race beat for the New York Times, and then wrote a book about covering the race beat that won a Pulitzer. It was just the right place at the right time. I was around really good people, and I worked hard. Because I'm not the most talented photographer. I mean, I was certain that there was a whole bunch of other people. You know, I have a list of people who I thought should have worked at Geographic, but just never progressed. And I've evolved and changed, and worked really hard at it. I'm happy, but not satisfied. I'm really happy, and proud of the work I've done. But I don't think I'm anywhere near the end of what I want to do.
I've got a good friend, a guy named Martin Schoeller, who's a big portrait photographer. He actually had a recent book opening in the city. He's an amazing portrait photographer, and he's done very well in a lot of ways—artistically, financially. In my bathroom, there's a portrait of Tammy Fay Baker that he did, and you'll recognize the work. It's very specific, the way he lights things. He always said, "Yeah, by the end of the year, if I've shot ten pictures I really like, then that's a good year." And Martin is a really, really good editor of his own work, and a very hard editor of his own work. And by the end of the year, if I've done one or two stories ... because I think what Geographic does is try to tell stories, and the agency I'm in, the Institute for Artist Management, their whole thing is "We tell stories." I think that's interesting. And for me, what greater story is there than evolution? I mean, it's the foundation of everything. It's not just the foundation of us. It's the foundation everything. We're expanding. We're changing. Every day is essentially different. And I'm 53 now. So you have a limited amount of time. So you've got to make hay while the sun shines, as they say.
Interview by Christian Niedan
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.