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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

A Contemporary Storyteller

Jay Dusard — Photographing With Permission

I first became aware of Jay Dusard when I was given, in 1983 ,a copy of his newly released book, The North American Cowboy: A Portrait. This was in the early days of my budding photography career while I was still struggling with the fundamentals of photographic craft. Looking at Dusard's book was a revelation not because of his subject matter but rather because of his beautifully crafted images, all shot with 4x5, processed to exquisite tonality, and easily the envy of a young photographic ne'er-do-well. I spent countless hours studying the technical aspects of his images. I even measure them with rulers and analyzed them relative to the rule of thirds. How silly! I tried to understand his tonal relationships by using a Kodak Grayscale step wedge and comparing it to the various tones in the book, looking for harmonies and relationships. Looking back on it, I'm convinced that all of these moments spent analyzing his craft and sensitivity to black-and-white printing allowed an unconscious process to take place in which I absorb a great deal about his ideas about artmaking and portraiture in particular. Years later, I attended a workshop taught by Dusard and his good friend Don Kirby, both of whom it's been our great delight subsequently to publish in various issues of LensWork. It was my admiration of the craft I had seen in The North American Cowboy book that prompted me to sign up for his workshop, but the more valuable lessons where the unexpected ones — which is almost always the case when you sign up for a workshop.

 

Dusard's portraits would be, I suppose, described as "environmental portraits." These are not studio lit, professional pictures, but they are formal and posed images of the cowboys in their natural environment — the barn, the porch of a log cabin, or on horseback — and usually surrounded not by props, but rather the tools of their trade. Someone at the workshop — it was not me — asked Dusard how he gained access to make such wonderful portraits of these cowboys. Here was the valuable and unexpected lessons as he described his process. You see,  Dusard is a cowboy himself. First, he said, he would prepare the way by gaining permission from the owner of the ranch to come and spend some time there and maybe make some photographs. After arriving there, the first thing he would do is pull out his cowboying gear and spend the next few days working alongside the men and women whom he would eventually photograph. At that point, they all knew he was a photographer, but he gained their respect and cooperation for his photography project by sharing in their work. During these first days, he didn't even bring the camera out of the car. Once he had "earned his spurs" as they say, only then would he start talking about photographing them. It was through this example from Dusard that I fully realized the importance of gaining the cooperation of strangers for your photography project. It's opposite, I guess, is street photography where invisibility and surreptitiousness are the coin of the realm. Dusard's approach was the opposite.

 

In subsequent years as I was working on photographing what would eventually become my book, Made of Steel, I used Dusard's approach — well, a bit modified for my use — but used it nonetheless to great success. When I would pull up to a garage or machine shop that looked to be photographically interesting, I knew my first task was to gain their trust and cooperation in my art project. Leaving my camera gear in the car, I'd approach and introduce myself, talk a little bit about my grandfather and his machine shop, and get to know the guys through conversation. I'd show them some photographs I'd made in other locations and talk with them some more. Eventually — hours or sometimes days later — I'd ask permission to make a few photographs. With their cooperation and permission, the photography would then begin and I can only imagine what they thought as I donned my photo vest, grabbed my massive tripod and view camera out of the trunk, and spent the next several hours managing 20-minute exposures and reciprocity failure. When I was done, there was always a smile and a handshake — and not infrequently I would be invited to dinner to continue the storytelling and good times. I would always think about Dusard and could imagine him at the dinner table with his fellow cowboys — whom I'm sure had become friends, not merely photographic acquisitions.

 

When I first went to Japan in 1990 to photograph, I knew Dusard's approach would not be possible because I didn't speak any Japanese. Nonetheless, I figured out a way to adapt his approach to gaining permission through cooperation by writing an introduction to my work and my interest in photographing in Japan. I had this introduction translated into Japanese, which I then bound into a spiral book along with a couple dozen of my photographs. Once I was in Japan, by way of introduction, I would hand them this book, which they always were courteous enough to read. Permission soon followed — and often a broken conversation with dictionaries and a lot of gesticulation about photography with my new Japanese acquaintance bringing out their camera and some of their photographs to see. I now carry such a book with me everywhere when I'm out photographing, translated if necessary into the native language of the people I'm hoping to photograph. I owe this successful little idea directly to Jay Dusard and his straight forward way of connecting with the people he wanted to photograph before he would bring out his camera.