It’s early March, and I’m on the phone with William Albert Allard. He’s reading me what he once wrote about Arizona rancher Henry Gray, whom Allard had met while traveling across Arizona: “We sat in his kitchen, and from a butane refrigerator he poured glasses of ice-cold well water. Henry said he was 72 years old and had come to Arizona from Pecos, Texas, in 1919. On the kitchen wall were pictures of Richard Nixon as a senator and Barry Goldwater in his younger days.”
Allard continues with a quote from Gray: “Ever since I came here with my father and two brothers, we’ve run cattle on the 330,000 acres of [Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument] desert. Since the park people came in, we’ve had permission to graze our cattle. But it seems like they’re always putting up more fences. And now they’re talking about us having to move out altogether. I’d kind of hate to leave my old home. Guess I’d just have to quit ranching. I’ve never lived in town. I go in for supplies about every two weeks or so, but I never seem to do no good there. Sitting around gets the best of me.
I don’t believe I’d last long in town.”
As Allard finishes the story, I mention my favorite quote from Gray: “I’m going to get me some store-bought teeth soon as I can. I pulled mine about a year ago; couldn’t seem to get in to a dentist. They all came easy, except one. And that last one like to have taken my head off!”
Allard chuckles. He met a lot of interesting characters, and made a lot of spectacular photos, during his half-century as a photographer and writer for National Geographic — a career that began when he was 26 years old. He’s produced more stories for that magazine than anyone. And some of those stories brought him to Arizona.
Gray, for example, was featured in 1971’s Two Wheels Along the Mexican Border, for which Allard traveled from San Diego to Port Isabel, Texas, by motorcycle. Much of his adventure was across Southern Arizona, where he found himself in vast open desert between communities such as Yuma, Nogales, Tombstone, Bisbee and Tucson.
When the story was proposed, Allard convinced his editors that a motorcycle would be a new and interesting way to go. So, the Geographic bought him a new Triumph Tiger 650 motorcycle, and the in-house custom machine shop built a chrome steel rack on the back to hold his two Halliburton camera cases. “When it came to motorcycles, I was a sucker for good looks — and everything they did looked great,” Allard recalls. “They even put black English leather straps on the rack to hold the cases down. Back then, ‘budget’ wasn’t a word in anyone’s vocabulary.” He remembers feeling the need to get on his way before someone at the very top changed their mind and decided a motorcycle wasn’t a “respectable mode of transportation.”
Allard says he’ll never forget pulling up to a border agent to ask for directions to the two-lane road that ran along the Mexican border. “You don’t want that road — it’s narrow and full of sharp curves,” the agent said, looking at the motorcycle loaded with cases, a duffel and a sleeping bag across the handlebars. Allard told him it was a strong bike and it would be a great trip. The agent, he says, seemed skeptical.
When Allard got to Tombstone, he met Sid Wilson, who was in his 90s. Wilson said he’d driven the last stagecoach out of Tombstone — probably to Benson, Douglas or Bisbee. Late-afternoon light, Wilson’s weathered face and a hand-rolled cigarette lodged in the corner of his mouth came together for the Kodachrome portrait Allard made that day.
These days — since 2005, actually — Allard exclusively uses digital cameras, partly because he says they can almost see in the dark and partly because “when Kodak stopped making Kodachrome, they took one of my tools away.” He favors Leica rangefinders with 28 mm, 35 mm and 50 mm lenses; occasionally, but not very often, he’ll use a 90 mm lens.
“I’m sometimes asked if I ever miss film,” he says. “Basically, I don’t, except for one thing — probably more psychological than not. Back in the film days, one would ship film back to the office by DHL, Federal Express or plain old mail, and National Geographic would send it off to the lab and then give me a report by cable, in the very early days, or telephone. But I wouldn’t actually see any of my work until sometimes several months later, when I got back to the office in Washington, D.C. So then, while looking at the ‘selects’ my picture editor had made, when I came across something really fine, it was like receiving a gift from afar.”
One of those gifts is the picture he made in Europe of two little Basque girls going home. Late one afternoon when the light was getting beautiful — the time they call “between dogs and wolves” in Basque country — Allard heard a mother calling her children. He was standing along the road and looking over a vineyard when the two girls came running and skipping past him. He raised his Leica and made two quick exposures. Weeks later, when he was back at the office and looking at his film, he came across those two images. “One was blurry, useless, an utter uninteresting failure,” he says. “The other was simply wonderful. And the two girls were not running, they weren’t skipping; they were weightless, floating in the air, as if forever suspended in grace and innocence.”
I like Bill Allard, and he likes people — and he’s always felt that where possible, it’s as important for the subject to know something about him as it is for him to know his subject. “You have to be receptive to your subject,” he says. “You have to care. You can’t do exceptional work if you don’t care.” One always hears how important access is to photographers and writers, but the thing that’s most important, Allard insists, is being accepted. “When you have acceptance, people start giving you pictures,” he says. “So many pictures were given to me. I was allowed to make them.”
In that vein, during his career, Allard immersed himself in his work. He liked being able to walk out the front door of his hotel and right into his story. “The best kind of room I can have,” he says, “is one where out the window I might make a picture when I first get up in the morning — or make one just before I go to bed at night.” On the road, when he’s dining alone, he always has a book. He believes in serendipity, watching and waiting. His Leica sits on the table — pictures don’t wait, you know. “One of the most important things that the Geographic gave photographers was time,” he says. “In trying to get a picture, I could go back to the same café every day for a week if I needed to.”
In his later years, he feels his pictures have become more visually and artistically complicated, but he tries to maintain some overall simplicity. In the latest of his coffee-table-style books, Paris: Eye of the Flâneur, he has a picture that’s a favorite of mine, and it’s definitely complicated. But I can look at it over and over, and everything that’s in the picture is meant to be there.
“I had arranged to document a cruise on Le Calife, a dinner boat on the Seine,” Allard says of that image. “And in mid-tour, as we began to pass by the Eiffel Tower, some diners left their tables to get a topside, open-air view. I remained below deck, where a glaze of raindrops lay upon the glass roof above me and a woman coming down the steps from the upper deck paused just long enough for me to frame her figure surrounded by diamond-bright highlights from around the tower and gracing the gently lapping waves of the Seine. The geometry of the image is complex, but there can be no doubt where we are at this moment.”
The result, Allard says, is a view of the Eiffel Tower that goes beyond the usual cliché. “My goal,” he adds, “has always been to make pictures that could be published in a magazine as part of a story but could also carry their weight on the walls of a gallery or museum.”
When Allard began his career, he didn’t know much about color film — in fact, he had never used it. “Back then, you have to remember that National Geographic and Arizona Highways were the only full-color magazines around,” he says. “Geographic would send my film out to Kodak to be processed, but it reminded me of taking it to your local drugstore.” He had always processed his black-and-white film in his own darkroom. Soon, though, he came to love color and all it offered. He says he “feels color” in most any photographic situation. On some story assignments, he’d shoot almost 1,500 rolls of color film, most of it Kodachrome.
Another assignment that brought Allard to Arizona was a 1991 baseball story called A Season in the Minors. He always liked when he was working on one story but knew he was scheduled for another good one after he finished. This time, though, he was without another assignment when he got a phone call in his hotel room. The magazine’s director of photography had two stories he could choose from: Russia or minor-league baseball. Allard recalls his thoughts: Russia will always be there and will get done over and over again, but baseball is probably a one-time deal. “I don’t think it’s possible to conjure up two more radically different subjects,” he says, “and I chose baseball, a game that was part of me as a kid.”
While in Phoenix, he made a photograph of players on the other side of a chain-link fence during practice. There was a cloth scrim on the players’ side to help keep blowing dust down, and the fence links created pronounced diamond-shaped shadows. To me, the image exemplifies a hot, dry Arizona afternoon. And baseball, from the diamond itself and the curvature of the outfield to line drives and even square bases, is all about geometry, making the shadow diamonds that much more meaningful.
As Allard and I conclude our conversation, he reiterates how lucky he feels that his work has always been something he loves. I mention that one of the great things about being a photographer is that you never have to retire. “You know,” he says, “I’m 85 now, and just this morning, I went to a little place just up the road where I like to have breakfast.”
While he was there, of course, he made a few pictures.