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David Leeson is known for a lot of things — his Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalism, his trailblazing video storytelling, his photo blog of intimate self-portraits. What he’s never been known for is pulling punches. After 30 years on newspaper photo staffs, his departure from The Dallas Morning News last year was difficult, and he doesn’t pretend otherwise. But he’s also reconnected with old passions through his new endeavors, and thankfully shares that experience with the same intimate honesty. Click here for a list of all other “After Staff” posts.

US soldiers take a break from the invasion of Iraq with a leap into a desert irrigation pond. ©David Leeson/The Dallas Morning News

Miki Johnson: How long were you a staff photographer and where? Did you think when you started that you’d be a staffer for life?

David Leeson: My career in newspapers began on Nov 20, 1977 at the Abilene Reporter-News in Abilene, TX. When the newspaper hired me, I was 19, a full-time college student working a part-time job sweeping floors at a local jewelry store.

I had no portfolio or degree and was unfamiliar with the term “photojournalist.” I was an avid amateur photographer, however, and built my own darkroom in my parents’ home when I was 17. The newspaper photo staff knew me as someone who would occasionally show up with a contact sheet of images from an event. I was never discouraged that they didn’t use my photos — I was happy just to be shooting.

I fell in love with photojournalism when I realized the power a camera could possess in the hands of a compassionate photographer. My life became consumed with perfecting my skills, including my heart, mind, and soul, for the purpose of affecting my community with images that would hopefully make a difference.

That essentially describes my 30 years in news photography. The last few years were dedicated to helping my profession navigate difficult changes, a new era fraught with demands for rich online content, declining readership, shrinking resources, and more work. I didn’t enjoy the work but believed it was important to give back as much as possible to a profession that had given so much to me. Besides, I saw my industry facing extinction and I was ready to do whatever I could to change the tide.

“I feel that I failed. I have wondered many times what I could have given that might have made the difference.”

Unfortunately, I feel that I failed. My grief was more than the loss of something I loved — newspaper photojournalism — it was the feeling of having failed to be everything I could possibly be. I have wondered many times what extra part of myself I could have given that might have made the difference. My solace today is in realizing that I can still impact the industry from outside its walls. Perhaps, in fact, it is the ideal place for me to do it.

But the further I get from my life in newspapers, the more I realize that the best I can be is to be who I have always been, a small voice hopefully providing something of value to my world. In many ways, little has changed in my life. The day I knew that my career as a newspaper photojournalist had reached the end, I told my boss (and friend), the director of photography at The Dallas Morning News, that I had never been dedicated to a newspaper. Rather, I had always been dedicated to the ideals of photojournalism: through credible and ethical image making, we can bring needed change to the world.

I did believe I would likely retire as a newspaper photojournalist at The Dallas Morning News. But understanding that I am still in active service to my profession, even though I am no longer on the DMN staff, has softened the blow. The loss of a title did not change who I am.

First Gulf War - Iraqi prisoners of war - shot at night against burning oil fires. ©David Leeson/The Dallas Morning News

First Gulf War - Iraqi prisoners of war - shot at night against burning oil fires. ©David Leeson/The Dallas Morning News

MJ: What are you working on now? What is the biggest difference between what you’re doing now and what you were doing as a staffer?

DL: There is little difference today from the life I was living the last few years of my career. My position at The Dallas Morning News could best be described as “research and development.” I spent inordinate amounts of time on finding new workflows and methodologies to help speed the process of rich media integration. Oddly, I found that I enjoyed that kind of work, although I knew it failed to “scratch my itch.” More »

When I found out about the incredible cache of photos, audio recordings, and ephemera from America’s greatest photographers that Paul Waldman has collected through his work with the Living American Masters Photography Project, my first question was, “Where can you see it online?” The sad fact is, you can’t. Many of the portraits are available on Paul’s Facebook page, and he sent me several audio interviews. We are happy to give them a temporary home on RESOLVE, where we’ll run one “master’s story” per month, and we hope this exposure will help it find a permanent home soon.

Duane Michals, photographed by Paul Waldman for the Living American Masters Photography Project. Courtesy LAMPP

Miki Johnson: Tell me about how this project started.

Paul Waldman: After I left my position as managing editor of Zone Magazine, I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done, and that had both global and intimate scope. The Living American Master Photographers Project (LAMPP) grew out of this. At the time, far more emphasis was placed on photographic content as opposed to the individual artist. Nobody was studying the personal content of individual photographers. Portraits of these men and women, whose images were shaping society at a basic level, were not available.

I was appalled that as a society we weren’t in touch with what I considered a living national treasure: our photographic community. I began doing portraits, interviews, and occasionally both, with photographers starting in 1991. Back then, the idea of committing to an ongoing “living study” was somewhat foreign. At times, it is still difficult to convince people of LAMPP’s value as a social tool and document.

Many of the photographers resisted initially. Some had been “hunted” by fans who wanted a shot of them. But after the first ten or so portraits, a body of work began to emerge that was well received. Although my hopes for editorial assignments and assistant jobs from these encounters never materialized, what I ended up with had a greater value: some of the most rewarding personal relationships of my life.

MJ: What does a typical interview and portrait session look like?

PW: An interview is now a prerequisite for participation but in the beginning, it was an either-or proposition. I opted for the portraits, thinking I could always go back for a phone interview. There was never a template I followed; I think this enhanced the experience for both myself and the participant. Whenever possible, I tried to sit down and talk, not as an interview, but as two people sharing a beginning. Participants saw I wasn’t trying to coerce something out of them other than their love, experiences, and accumulated wisdom garnered from an eye within the craft.

Andreas Feininger by Paul Waldman. Courtesy LAMPP

I became close with Andreas Feininger and his wife Wysse. I’d often go up to their flat on 22nd and Broadway in Manhattan for tea. Jacques Lowe and I would talk about his time with JFK, his love of jazz, and his experiences photographing its legends. I did a portrait and interview on the road to and from Seligman, Arizona, with Allen Dutton and we remain close to this day.

When I photographed Sally Mann, Patrick Demarchelier was doing a street shoot as we were approaching our portrait location. I asked Sally if she wanted to meet Patrick and introduced them for the first time. There were other strange moments, like finally photographing Duane Michals in his basement laundry room after trying to meet with him for three years.

The first session I scheduled with Gordon Parks, a big Nor-Easter hit Manhattan. I realized there was no way it could happen as planned. When we finally met, there was a blizzard tearing through Manhattan. Snow appeared to fall parallel to the ground, as if it were orbiting the city.

MJ: Do you have a favorite image or story from a portrait session?

PW: That’s a challenge. Working with Bob McNeely at the White House under President Clinton was a privilege. After we’d met and he’d taken me down to the photo office, he needed to go and pick up his daughter from school. I told him not to worry, I’d be happy to hang out. Later, Bob snapped an image of the president and I as we talked about Bob’s daughter, who was quite young at the time. He had President Clinton sign the photo for me. Since then our friendship has blossomed. I recently spent a night out at his farm upstate from Manhattan, re-photographing him with his daughter — she was graduating high school!

Jill Enfield by Paul Waldman. Courtesy LAMPP

Most recently I photographed Barbara Bordnick at home. She was so moved by the experience, she asked if I’d record an extra track at the end of our interview. To my surprise she shared some moving words about my presence as a portraitist and her love for the LAMPP body of work. Barbara’s an amazing editorial portraitist; her unsolicited kindness was especially inspiring.

Jill Enfield was incredibly generous. She and husband Richard Rabinowitz let me stay in their home in Manhattan for an LAMPP trip. I was a stranger, having only spoken with her and Richard by phone. I arrived at 6am! Her two teenage daughters were sleeping as I quietly settled in. That kind of love and appreciation for the project’s mission has been particularly touching.

MJ: What about a good story about recording an interview with a photographer?

PW: A favorite audio recording is of AP legend Marty Lederhandler. His “Pigeon Story” from WWII’s D-Day is well known among many of the AP people, but few know it outside that circle.

Marty Lederhandler – “The Pigeon Story”

One of my favorite moments involved Sylvia Pericon, a student who volunteered to interview Steve McCurry for LAMPP. After the interview, we sat at a cafe in New York’s West Village and did a post-interview about her experience. She was so moved and energized. When Sylvia told her teachers about her LAMPP interview, they were amazed she had such an opportunity.

MJ: Where does all the content live? Where would you ideally like to see it?

PW: I am committed to the idea that this content should “live.” Because the project has been almost entirely my creation, the negatives, prints, audio, media kits, FAQs, quote selections, contributed letters, kudos, and rejections remain with me. One of my highest hopes is that LAMPP escapes my personal gravity, that other people get involved. In retrospect, I feel LAMPP has suffered in part from its perception as “my” project. I’d like to see it expand, for others to experience what I’ve been blessed with.

There’s so much undiscovered country, so many older masters and emerging masters who haven’t been tapped yet. For the past few years I’ve been trying to establish foreign satellites that would explore global perspectives through the LAMPP paradigm, the LMPP: International. As our planet becomes smaller through faster, richer, deeper communication and media distribution, methods of common experience will be instrumental in forging more meaningful international, intercultural relationships.

Gordon Parks by Paul Waldman. Courtesy LAMPP

I’d like to see LAMPP integrated into a higher education institution or museum with robust photographic programs if it does not attain its own self-sustaining presence as a foundation. The project needs space to expand, and the opportunity for participants and luminaries to visit for “micro residencies.” I’d like to see an interactive textbook created that students can collect and have signed by masters featured for that year.

MJ: What is the biggest challenge you face moving forward?

PW: Recently I’ve approached the Annenberg Space for Photography, The Smithsonian, and the Duke Center For Documentary Studies without so much as a commitment to an open dialogue. I find it ironic and disturbing that these institutions will feature an individual artist, but neglect the impact of the photographic community as a whole. It’s like trying to understand an orchestral piece by listening to one or two musicians individually.

“With each master’s passing, we loose the collected wisdom of a life.”

The deaths of many 20th century masters was a wake up call to the community. Creating an active interest in LAMPP before participants pass has also been particularly daunting. Getting contact information for possible candidates is fraught with obstacles. With each master’s passing we loose the collected wisdom of a life and the synergy of that information within the context of an individual, gifted and trained in the art of seeing, perceiving, touching. My hope is that this will become an additional source of income for photographers, as well as a boon for our emotional, social, cultural, and political evolution.

MJ: How can photographers help?

PW: The best way to help is to get involved. Become an LAMPP evangelist. I’d love to build a proactive board that embraces fundraising initiatives. It doesn’t have to be just photographers. LAMPP was designed for the American public trust. I’ve been in a photo lab so many times when the people working there didn’t know the seminal living or past master photographers.

We’re changing. The photographic image is omnipresent. I tell people there’s probably a photograph ten feet from them; they’re probably sitting or staring at one as we speak. That’s powerful stuff.

It’s nothing to be intimidated about; not knowing photographers by name or face. There’s so much out there to get excited about, to enjoy, to participate in. But in practical terms we need grant writers, legacy donors,  a LAMPP home, services, co-opt friends, associates, business partners, professional organizations, industry support, and interest from the government. That’s a wish list! Let everyone know we’re sharing vision; we’re growing sight through every man and woman’s contributed light.

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, it was great to hear and see so many young photographers at LOOK3 who are taking ownership over the incredible change happening in the industry today. But, in the end, we were all there to scope out some great photography. Here are 10 awesome things from LOOK3 that I might otherwise have missed (they’re in no particular order, so I’m not even numbering them).

  • Shaw Rocco’s Cellular Obscura, a series of images taken with this generation’s Kodak Brownie i.e. a cell phone. Don’t miss the end of the slideshow – it’s very worth it. Also, bonus points for a great version of one of my favorite songs.
  • Jason Eskenazi’s Wonderland, the result of more than 10 years (and several prestigious grants) documenting post-Soviet Russia. Several people mentioned this to me as the standout of all the festival slideshows.
  • Carl Bower’s Chica Barbie about the beauty pageants of Colombia. I feel incredibly ambivalent about these images, which in my mind is a marker of great art. This was one of several great projections brought in by Slideluck Potshow…a natural addition to a festival that started as a projection in Nick Nichols’ backyard.
  • Martin Parr’s Playas book. Watch the preview on Magnum in Motion, but keep in mind that the book is so much trashier (in the best way) in person. Parr found the worst designer, cheapest paper, and least-talented printer possible to produce this little conversation piece…which claims “$7.99!” on the cover but really sells for $40.
  • Kelly Shimoda’s I Guess You Don’t Want to Talk to Me Anymore. Ok so I technically knew about his one before, and in fact I think my cell phone is probably in this project somewhere, which comprises photos of cell phones displaying text messages. But until I saw this at Slideluck, I didn’t realize how many images were available on Kelly’s blog and website.
  • Michael Wolf’s Transparent City. Considering that the Museum of Contemporary Photography has already picked up on these, I’m probably behind the times. The best part about seeing these as a slideshow was the mix between the distance and detail shots of people photographed in the windows of huge office buildings.
  • Blood Trail, a documentary following conflict photographer Robert King through 15 years in the field. Sadly, I didn’t make it to this film, but I heard so many great things about it that I am making it a point to hunt down a copy asap.
  • Jessica Dimmock’s Papparazzi! Jessica made a name early for herself with her Ninth Floor work about a community of addicts living in a posh New York apartment building. Of course I was intrigued to learn she had moved on to photograph the least respected and possibly best paid editorial photographers in the business.
  • Tim Hetherington’s Sleeping Soldiers, which most people saw at the New York Photo Festival, where it was praised as the highlight of the program. I’d watched the video online, but it’s always better live on a huge screen.
  • Yolanda Cuomo and Kristi Norgaard, who designed all the visuals for the festival, explaining the fascinating process they go through to design photo books for legends including Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, and Sylvia Plachy.

Art Wolfe didn’t become one of the foremost nature and art photographers in the world by taking the same photos everyone else was taking. His diverse work is set apart by his careful composition and artistic eye. Art will give a series of three free webinars about composition starting June 10, and he gives us a preview of his insights here. If you’re interested in seeing Antarctica with Art, who traveled there most recently to film an episode of his Travels to the Edge show, check out the details of his workshops at the end of this post.
King Penguin, Bay of Isles, South Georgia Island, UK ©Art Wolfe

King Penguin, Bay of Isles, South Georgia Island, UK ©Art Wolfe

Antarctica remains the last great wilderness in the world. The continent encompasses a vast array of environments, from the lifeless high plateau surrounding the South Pole, where miles-thick ice presses down the bedrock, to ice shelves extruding into the sea and the dry valleys where snow seldom falls. The Antarctic Convergence, the boundary where cold and warm water meet, rings Antarctica hundreds of miles from land. It extends so far north that it encompasses South Georgia, where tens of thousands of King Penguins nest on beaches beneath glaciated mountains 11,000-feet tall. Elephant seals guard their harems, and albatrosses soar above the waters.

The Antarctic Peninsula is an extension of the Andes. There is no other place on earth, including Alaska and the fjords of Patagonia, where such an impressive sequence of large glaciated peaks continues unbroken for so far. As you cruise south along the peninsula’s west coast, it’s easy to imagine yourself on the Orient Express through the Himalaya.

No animals larger than micro-organisms live at the Pole, but the northern tip of the Peninsula abounds with life. Penguins and blue-eyed shags nest in the rocks where a few hardy plants have taken root. Crab-eater seals loll on flat icebergs where the top predator, the leopard seal, is less likely to attack. Minke whales patrol the bays, surfacing with an explosive exhalation. Gentoo and Adelie penguins porpoise as they approach the shore either to confuse the leopard seals, or for the sheer joy of it.

A snow overhang on the Antarctic Peninsula. © Art Wolfe

A snow overhang on the Antarctic Peninsula. © Art Wolfe

The scenery here is so grand, and the animals so numerous and spectacular, that photographers often find themselves with a common problem. How do you avoid the image that has already been taken a thousand times? Your eye is naturally pulled toward one postcard view after another. How do you endow an image with a deeper power or a sense of surprise? Here are a few tricks I use:

1. Change your perspective. Get off the ship. Unless you set off on a different route, you are limited to a single point of view (although a battery of lenses can add some flexibility). Once on shore or in a Zodiac boat, you can place an iceberg or a rack of whale ribs in the foreground, wheel around to position an animal against a good background, or crawl behind a curtain of icicles.

2. Get Closer. A close up shot usually has a better chance to be involving. In Antarctica, the rules prohibit approaching wildlife too closely. But they don’t prohibit the wildlife from approaching you. I often find if I set up in the general vicinity of penguins or seals, one of them will come to investigate, nosing right up to my lens. This isn’t for everyone, since it usually means you are sprawled in guano, and more than once a curious elephant seal pup has crawled right up on top of me.

3. Skip Dinner. It is an unfortunate coincidence that dinner is inevitably served when the light is best. You can eat later — you may never have the chance to shoot this place in this light again. Always take advantage of unique opportunities.

For more tips and hands-on instruction, join me on my next two trips to Antarctica, in November 2009 and 2010. For details, check my website, call my office at 206-332-0993, or email


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