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Sunset Cigarette 26 February 2005
 
Photography is a deceptively difficult artform. Many great photographs have such simplicity of design that it's tempting to think you could have captured the image yourself. But this is one of art's great illusions. Simplicity is usually the mark of great skill. What's more, great photographers don't just stumble into these images of simple beauty. They are prepared to get them.

This point was driven home a few weeks ago when Charles Kogod and I flipped through a book of photos by William Albert Allard, the great National Geographic photographer. Allard captured the souls of cowboys and Hutterites and minor league baseball players alike. He had an instinctive sense of people, a willingness to invest in their lives, and a cat-like ability to pounce whenever an enduring image presented itself.

It is that last thing that I particularly admire. When a fleeting image materializes in front of me, my hands turn into Smithfield hams. I become Jimmy Stewart trying to pick off Liberty Valance--halting, indecisive, and slow on the trigger (and lacking a John Wayne to nail the shot on my behalf).

Charles, who edited Allard's master work, Portraits of America, and who knows him well, tells me Allard is the ultimate gunslinger. He raises his Leica with complete economy of motion, like a man slipping on reading glasses. No futzing with focus or framing or exposure. Allard handles his Leica the way Clapton handles a guitar, completely by feel--and unburdened by the calculations that get between lesser men and their images. Allard knows his tool. And he is always ready.

I'm no Clapton, or even Phoebe Buffay, but I'm working at it. Readiness is nothing more than discipline, and discipline can be learned. That means monitoring the light, studying my surroundings, and maintaining an itchy trigger finger. This new discipline paid off a few days ago when I caught the image below: a man, backlit by the sun, stopping to light a cig. The moment lasted no more than a second or two. This time I wheeled and fired. Good thing too--by the time I checked the preview window and looked back up, he was gone.

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