In conversation with William Albert Allard

William Albert Allard has contributed over 40 articles to National Geographic magazine, is celebrated as one of the pioneers of colour photography, and is a former member of Magnum Photos.
From his home in Charlottesville, Va., Allard shares his evolution as a photographer and a writer in a phone call with Vanessa Tignanelli.
“Biography of a straight shooter” is an article that celebrates a rich career, one which continues to seek serendipitous moments and document the “one-act plays” of life that call him to be a storyteller.

Biography of a Straight Shooter

          As a young boy
growing up in Minneapolis, Minn., William Albert Allard spent his days
listening to the fights at Madison Square Garden over the radio with his father,
drawing pictures and humming Sinatra tunes. The announcer’s words would paint
pictures of the epic scene, and his imagination would run wild. These early
years fostered his creativity, and would become an important part of Allard’s
journey much later in life. For the time being, art would be his favourite
subject solely for the reason that he could skip class to smoke cigarettes and
still pass with an A.

            In 1957, at the age of 20,
Allard had barely graduated from high school, and his direction in life seemed
to be taking a less creative path. College was unappealing; he was working as a
construction lineman for the Northwestern Bell Telephone Company, often
arriving late to work; plans were set to marry his high school sweetheart. However,
rather than join his coworkers at lunch, he preferred to get lost in the words
of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, O’Hara and Faulkner. These great storytellers
inspired him, making him believe that perhaps one day he would like to be a

            Allard was accepted into the
Minneapolis School of Fine Arts on the basis of a few good pencil drawings. A
mandatory English composition course caused him to realize his natural talent
for narrative, and after one year in art school, he transferred to journalism
at the University of Minnesota in 1962.[1] 

            It was not until his sophomore year that a lecture by a young enthusiastic
photojournalist named Smith Schuneman changed his life. Photojournalism would
become the complete marriage of his passions, the “bringing together [of] words
and pictures to create something potentially more powerful than either of the
two by itself.”[2]  While at the University of Minnesota, Allard
also studied with Jerome Liebling, a former student of Paul Strand’s, in the
school of art.

            Just prior to graduation in the spring of 1964, 
Allard went to Washington, D.C. and showed his photographic portfolio to
potential employers, including Yoichi Okamoto, the head of photography for the U.S.
Information Agency. Within a few minutes, Okamoto placed a call to Robert E. Gilka,
the director of photography at National Geographic, and asked Gilka if he would like to see a good people
photographer. Allard saw Gilka the next day. In June 1964, a mere two days
after his graduation, Allard was hired as National
’s summer intern.

            A three-month internship turned into
a six-month contract, which lead to a staff position in 1965. At National Geographic, Allard was forced to
shoot in colour, with the magazine being the only full-colour major publication
in America at the time. It also kick-started an interest in photographing subcultures
within America. His first assignment was to document the Amish of Lancaster
County in Pennsylvania. Allard’s essay on the Amish, published in 1965, which
included a portrait of a young Amish boy holding a guinea pig, has been
credited with changing the aesthetic direction of the National Geographic magazine.[3]

A young Amish boy and his pet guinea pig, Pennsylvania, 1965. Photo by William Albert Allard

            From his home in Charlottesville, Virginia,
Allard reflects on the historical impact that has been credited to
these photographs:

“It wasn’t due to any genius on my part. I think the key word is simply
intimacy. People in the sixties were not used to seeing this in the National Geographic magazine. My story
came out, and here was a very simple photograph of a young boy. It was very
His humble attitude seeps through the telephone as he discusses his life’s

            In 1967, after only two years as a
staff photographer with National Geographic,
Allard decided to pursue work as a freelancer while completing assignments
for National Geographic on the side.
His interests sent him around the world, where he would immerse himself
completely in the culture and livelihoods of his assigned subjects, always finding
some way in which he could relate to them.

            It is an arduous task to summarize
the work of such a thorough photojournalist, one that has been active for over
50 years and continues to produce work in the field. Allard has contributed over
40 articles to the National Geographic
magazine as both a writer and a photographer, as well as to a number of major
United States and European publications. He is a former member of Magnum
Photos, and his prints appear in private and museum collections worldwide. He
has authored 6 critically acclaimed books, including Vanishing Breed, which was awarded the
Leica Medal of Excellence in 1983.[5]

            His ability to capture Americans
whose lifestyles differ from the typical American way is something that can be
appreciated throughout his work. Whether he was in unfamiliar territory in the
Basque country of Spain, capturing Fashion Week in Paris, falling in love with
the coincidence of colour in Mexico, or listening to the colourful stories of
cowboys across the American West,[6]
Allard roamed freely and waited patiently for the right moments to present
themselves. In the discussion of Allard’s vast body of work, it is most appropriate
to focus on the serendipitous moments that proved to be most life-changing for

            The story really begins in Montana, 1967.

“I fell in love
with Montana. I was there to do some work in Yellowstone, and was living in a
little town named Gardner just outside of the entrance to the park. Whenever I
ran out of books, I would drive up along the Yankee Jim Canyon to the
Livingston bookstore. In the process, I could feel the openness of Montana.” [7]

            Allard’s love for the American West
would become a lifelong affair. When National
approached him in 1969 to do a story on the Hutterites, Allard
scouted colonies across North America and settled on two that would present to
him a more intimate portrait of Montana.

            “The connection was automatic,” he
says. “I have now photographed as well as written about them, which would
certainly make this my most personal work.”[8]
 Allard’s photographs of the
Hutterites continue to remind audiences of the danger in believing people are
exotic simply because they are different. “The Hutterites are very similar to
us in almost every way except for their dress and the intensity of their
religious beliefs,” he says.[9] 

Girls on the swing, Surprise Creek Hutterite Colony, Montana, 2005. Photo by William Albert Allard

            After his first story on Montana,
The Hutterites: The Plains People of the
was published in National
in 1970,[10]
he then followed a desire to create more work on the American West and the
cowboy. This period not only became a part of his lifestyle but possibly some
of his best-known photographs to date. During this time, Allard continued to
return to the Hutterite colonies to visit those who had become to him like a
second family. Although another story on the Hutterites did not occur until June
2006 in Solace of Surprise Creek, in
2005 Allard called upon his Hutterite friends to provide sanctuary following
the tragedy of losing his eldest son to melanoma. Solace of Surprise Creek would in many ways serve as a tribute to
his son, and is an account of personal loss and redemption told through the

            In 1981, intuition told Allard that
he needed to finally break away from the American West and pursue an assignment
in Peru. It was there that he met the love of his life, Ani. “Something in my
gut told me to go. I would never have fallen in love and my life wouldn’t be
the same. We’ve been together over 30 years now.”[12]

            It is safe to
assume that Bill Allard is a romantic. See the intimacy of his
photographs, his evocative dialogue, and his easy infatuation with beauty.[13]
Unlike his contemporaries and good friends James Nachtwey or Eugene Richards, one
will not discover much grief in Allard’s images, although they are no less
intoxicating. “I think what I share with my friends is that I very much care
about what I do.”[14]

            It is difficult to find other photojournalists
who share Allard’s passion for pairing written essays with their photographs,
especially as the face of journalism shifts to appease new frameworks within
the industry and wavering attention spans. His work brings to light the
importance of a photographer’s ability to form deep connections to a place and
its people, to present an intimate, more personal observation. Many follow in
Allard’s footsteps as the “street shooter,”[15]
producing work that focuses on chasing the serendipitous moment. Alex Webb, a
good friend of Allard’s, views street photography as being 99.9% failure, the
other 0.1% being that fleeting moment which is nearly impossible to capture.[16]

“What I preach to
young photographers is that you cannot do superior work if you’re indifferent.
You really have to care. When I’m working with the Hutterites, it’s because I
care about that subject. I care about walking the streets of Paris. It’s not
just a gig. You can’t keep the juices going for as long as I have if it’s just
a job,” he says.[17]

            This unwavering passion carried
Allard through the termination of his and Jodi Cobb’s staff positions at National Geographic in 2008. His
photographs that line the magazine’s office walls in Washington, D.C. are a
contribution that should warrant more respect than to be left feeling as if he
is “no longer on the menu.”[18]
Nonetheless, he continues to actively produce photographs. He returns once
again to the streets of Paris, working to produce enough impactful material worthy
of another book, set to be published in June 2017. The permanency offered by
books has always been a driving factor for him as a storyteller.

“I want the title to
be The Eye of the Flâneur. Flâneur is
a French term for what I do, really, when I work, especially in Paris. It’s as
if I’m wandering through a series of one-act plays.”[19]

            How appropriate to summarize such a
man with a word that depicts the idler, the stroller, the one that floats along
in awe of their surroundings. William Albert Allard comes alive simply by immersing
himself in the lives of others, ever alert to possibility and chance.

Eye of the Flaneur, Paris. Photo by William Albert Allard.


Allard, William Albert. Personal interview.
24 Oct. 2016.

Allard, William Albert. Portraits of America. Forward by Richard
Ford. Washington: National Geographic, 2001. Print.

Allard, William Albert. “Just for the Record.” William Albert Allard Blog.
N.p., 5 May 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Allard, William Albert. William Albert Allard; Five Decades: A
. Forward by William Kittredge. Washington: National
Geographic - Focal Point, 2010. Print.

“Invisible Interview: Alex Webb &
Rebecca Norris Webb. ”Invisible
Photographer Asia IPA
. N.p., 2016. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

“ReFramed: In Conversation with
William Albert Allard.” Interview by Barbara Davidson. Framework. Los Angeles Times, 12 Feb.
2014. Web. 2 Oct. 2016.

Jenks, Jayson. “We Don’t Take
Pictures, We Are Taken by the Pictures.” News Photographer 67.2 (March 2012): 45. Print.

Sargent, Sarah. “On the Edge.” Virginia
. N.p., 22 April 2011. Web. 29 Jan. 2017

“Street Shooter, Straight Shooter; When
I go out on the street, whatever light happens to be out there is what I have
to deal with.” Interview by Paul Weideman, Pasatiempo Magazine. Santa Fe New Mexican [Santa Fe] 21 Jan.
2011, Arts and Entertainment sec.: A-28. Print.

“William Albert Allard on the Passion
From Within.” PROOF. National
Geographic Society. Ed. Caitlin Kleiboer. N.p., 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

[1] For more on Allard’s journey from a painter to writer and
eventually to photojournalism, refer to the interview by Barbara Davidson for
the Los Angeles Times (Feb. 2014).

[2] See Allard’s Introduction in Five Decades: A Retrospective, 13-18
for more on his discovery of photojournalism and early years of work.

[3] For direct quote, see Five Decades: A Retrospective page 72.

[4] Personal Interview with Allard, 24 Oct. 2016.

[5] A full list of accomplishments can be found on Allard’s official

[6] Allard’s essays describing his experiences with each subject can be
found in Five Decades: A Retrospective (31-34, 45-50, 71-75, 129-135)

[7] Personal Interview with Allard, 24 Oct. 2016.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Read the story of Allard’s experience in his essay “The Hutterites”(33-35),
Portraits of America.

[11] Sarah Sargent’s article “On the Edge” presents Allard as fearless
as the individuals in his photographs.

[12] Personal Interview with Allard, 24 Oct. 2016.

[13] Refer to “Her Picture in a Frame” series, Five Decades: A
Retrospective (243-270).

[14] Personal Interview with Allard, 24 Oct. 2016.

[15] For more on the concept of the street shooter, see the interview by
Paul Weideman for Pasatiempo Magazine, 21 Jan. 2011

[16] Full quotes found at Invisible Interview with Alex Webb &
Rebecca Norris Webb on Invisible Photographer Asia (Web).

[17] Personal Interview with Allard, 24 Oct. 2016.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Personal Interview with Allard, 24 Oct. 2016.

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