The Next Step: Working with Sam Abell

It’s been six months since the Sam Abell: Next Step workshop, but I can still hear Sam’s voice in my head repeating his mantra, “compose and wait.” I am the studio manager at DCP and I had the unique opportunity to learn from Sam both as a photography student and as a coordinator and I couldn’t be more thankful for the experience.

I have a suspicion that over the years Sam’s practice of composing and waiting has created a meditative energy around him. He lives in a flow and I could not help but be part of it while working with him. Even during the height of the stress of organizing the workshop, Sam stayed calm and kept me focused and grounded on the task at hand.

As we gathered in the studio on the first day, Sam steadily dissected each participant’s portfolio. He studied each photograph, meticulously pointing out what he liked about the image and what he might have done differently. It was eye-opening to hear how he would have composed the scene by slightly shifting to the right, or lining up with the window to give the subject more space and dignity. This was the whole concept of The Next Step. Refine. Take what you see and then edit out all of the unnecessary clutter. Then wait for the action.

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Over the next few days we took his lessons to heart. On our second day of shooting, we met on Jefferson Street in Oak Cliff and Sam challenged us to get behind the scenes. Our assignment was to shoot from the insider’s perspective. He meant this literally. Instead of shooting from the sidewalk, he wanted us to talk our way into one of the shops and get permission to photograph the inside of the stores. I was nervous. I glanced at the other participants and wondered if they felt the same anxiety. I then saw Jean, one of our quieter participants, take off across the street to an eye glass shop and knew that there was no reason to worry.

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The afternoon flew by and as the sun set the remaining photographers gathered on the sidewalk and exchanged stories. To my surprise, everyone had experienced success. Most shopkeepers had no problem opening their doors and letting us shoot. We had made an impression on Jefferson street and by the end of the day our group had become well known.

The week passed by quickly and I had the pleasure of watching Sam shoot several times. What I admired the most about him was his ability to connect to his subject almost instantly. He could walk up to a complete stranger and with one quick eye glance have their permission to take a photograph. I watched him pull up a chair next to the glass wall at a restaurant in Klyde Warren Park. He pressed his camera onto the glass and nodded to the waitstaff who were at a table inside rolling silverware. They obliged and after a few minutes forgot that he was taking photographs. After about 20 minutes, Sam stepped down off the chair and moved on. He mentioned repeatedly during the workshop that he did not get the shot he wanted.

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I later learned during his lecture at The Perot that this was a common occurrence for Sam. As we sat in the darkened theatre and listened to him recount how he took each image, I realized that his career was haunted by moments like the restaurant. For every truly amazing photograph he showed, there was an equally imperfect counterpart. Throughout the lecture, Sam shared his inner thoughts on each photograph revealing a life of determination, frustration and a passion for perfection.
Since the workshop, I have had the pleasure to stay in touch with many of the attendees. Earlier in the summer a few of us met up in downtown Fort Worth and put to use all of the skills Sam had taught us earlier this year.

I spent most of my time hopping from scene to scene, waiting for a few minutes and then moving on with an air of an exasperation, frustrated that what I hoped to capture hadn’t happened in the short time span I had allotted myself. This is why Sam is a master. He is a master of patience.

As I passed by a fountain I was intrigued by a little boy repeatedly running back and forth trying to chase the waterfall. Behind the fountain, a couple sat across from one another looking slightly bored – the perfect juxtaposition of childhood and adulthood. I raised my camera and patiently waited for the elements to align. Sam’s voice was in my head, “Compose. Wait.” Click.

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