Crozet Library Soirée Review: Sam Abell, “My Life in Books”

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by Lisa Goehler

Sam Abell
Sam Abell

Photographs have the power to invoke emotions, or stimulate our curiosity about places we’ve never been, and many of the most affecting images can be found in books and magazines. On Wednesday, Nov. 10, an overflow crowd listened in rapt attention to “My Life in Books,” as told by renowned photographer Sam Abell, at the Crozet Library Soirée. In addition to his work as photographer for the National Geographic Society, Abell has been both author and photographer of numerous books, and collaborator on many other books, including two by historian Stephen Ambrose.

Abell began his presentation standing behind a table literally covered with books. Over the course of the evening, he spoke of the ways books had changed or influenced his life, from an heirloom copy of Mother Goose, to Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White) and The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame), to Book by Book (Michael Dirda) and his own Stay This Moment, weaving in photographic images, nostalgic stories of his childhood in the Midwest, and thrilling tales from his trips taken around the world as photographer with the National Geographic Society.

Abell learned the art of photography from his father, an amateur photographer and faculty advisor to the high school camera club. He showed the audience a haunting black and white image taken of his father standing on a railroad platform next to a train, with mist swirling. The photo won the young Sam Abell fifteen dollars in a competition for high school photographers. Abell got his start publishing books by editing his high school and college yearbooks, both designed in an “avant garde” style, which led to a career as a photographer with the National Geographic Society’s magazine and books divisions. In this way, he joined his love of photography with his love for books.

In addition to life stories, Abell shared techniques for setting up the perfect photograph, illustrating each with actual photographic images in sequence, from initial shot, to the final photographic image used for publication: framing the shot respecting the layers offered by perspective, and waiting for the right moment to present itself.

The evening was a moving and entertaining experience for the entire standing-room-only crowd, one of those evenings that you wish could go on forever. We can only hope he will be back to share more of his experiences with books, photography and life.

The Crozet Library Soirée series will continue January 12, when the local cello and flute duo Terra Voce will return with a program showcasing their interests in musical expression from different places and times. Their performance last year was fantastic, so be sure to attend the January soirée!