Great Photographic Essays From Life

I was 9 years old, living in a small town in south Florida, when I read Grey Villet’s “Lash of Success” in Life magazine — one of the very few extras my family could afford. The pages of Life were filled with images of President John F. Kennedy, the space program and rising stars of television. Yet it was the subject and style of “Lash” — about a businessman sacrificing his humanity in pursuit of success — that had the greatest impact upon me. I have never forgotten it.

Mr. Villet’s photography continued the tradition of great storytelling produced by Leonard McCombe in the 1948 essay “The Private Life of Gwyned Filling,” and predated Bill Eppridge‘s harrowing story of heroin addiction in 1965.

I’ve always believed that the proper way to honor artists’ work is to respect their ideas while avoiding imitation, but it’s difficult not to be influenced by Mr. Villet’s oeuvre. I’ve done hundreds of picture stories since I started in photography in the late ’70s and I have to admit that there’s a bit of the Grey Villet DNA in every one of them.

Yet over the years, the work of Mr. Villet (who died in 2000) has been shrouded in obscurity. Far too little has been written about him.

Several months ago, while searching for information about Mr. Villet on the Web, I found the e-mail address of his wife, Barbara Villet. I contacted her. Finally I was able to express my admiration and gratitude. And at last I was able to hear some of the back stories.

In 1961, Barbara Cummiskey, a writer at Life, had the idea that the American dream could be expressed in three separate essays: fame, success and wealth. For the “success” segment, she developed the story around Victor Sabatino, owner of a chain of foam-rubber stores. He was a man driven by a desire for wealth and power. Mr. Villet was assigned to the story, which yielded one of the finest photo essays ever produced at the magazine and was the beginning of a partnership with Barbara, personal and professional, that lasted nearly four decades.

“They were, in fact, the perfect team for this extremely difficult, highly intellectual story … all of it told in faces,” Maitland Armstrong Edey wrote in “Great Photographic Essays from Life” (1978).

Ms. Villet told me, “He knew exactly what we were looking for, and shot the story with a sense of building it into layouts all the way.”

“Yes, the idea was mine and yes, I did spend time before Grey came on board with Victor, getting into sync with his obsession,” she said. “But when I explained what I had found to Grey on first meeting, he got it instantly and shot it from the outset with an intense awareness that blew me away.

“Words play a much lesser role, in my mind, than what the photographer grabs from the moment to reveal inner emotions,” she continued. “That is, for me, what really counts. I am convinced that the less the photographer imposes his ego on the moment, the more powerful the result is likely to be. It means patience and watchfulness and a willingness to stand back and wait to catch the truth on the fly and finally edit for the best of it.”

Courtesy of Barbara VilletGrey and Barbara Villet, around 1961.

Mr. Villet was 34 years old when he began photographing “Lash.” His work had already become defined by his personal vision: an art that reflected his interpretation of the world, reached without inserting himself in his photographs.

“Now, as to words,” Ms. Villet said, “they may be cues. But much like docents in a museum who tell us what to see rather than allowing one to see for oneself, I believe that at times they may distort things.

“When it comes to photo essays, my sense is that much as with the best images, hearing what people are really saying — and letting them speak for themselves as much as possible — works best. And sometimes things should be left wordless, forcing the viewer to see what’s there for him or herself.”

This is evident in several sections of the book that Ms. Villet is finishing on her husband’s work. In the book, “Over the Edge, A Life’s Work,” is a story about a bus accident near Prestonsburg, Ky., in the late ’50s in which 27 children drowned. Many came from a hamlet called Cow Creek. “Life didn’t use all of Grey’s pictures of that small town in mourning,” Ms. Villet said. “But assembled in essay form, the images arrive at something much larger than the news story that ran. For me they hold up still as a portrait of small-town loss and grief.”

Mr. Villet relied largely on available light and a subtle presence with his subjects. “I hate to set up stuff,” he told John Loengard in “Life Photographers: What They Saw” (1998). “I’d much rather let people act as they are, and reflect that. If I’ve got the patience, that’ll give me a better picture than anything I can dream up.”

In this digital world, it’s easy to forget what it took to produce the kind of pictures that Mr. Villet and his peers made. Composing essays in the field without the benefit of instant feedback required an intensity of focus and experience.

Often the work of photographers fades in time because there is little or no postmortem advocacy.

“The work will tell,” Grey assured Barbara — only months before his sudden death nine years ago — when he rejected the idea of organizing his own restrospective. “The work will tell.”

He thought of it all as “a great adventure,” Ms. Villet writes in the preface to her book, “and it was one that I was privileged to share as his colleague and second wife.”

“One part photojournalism history and one part visual biography, as a final collaboration with the spirit of the man who was for 40 years the center of my world; it is also, one part, a love story.”

A Life of Work

Six photographs from the photo essay “The Lash of Success” and 13 other examples of Mr. Villet’s work can be found in a complementary post on Pixcetera. It also answers the question: what are his feet doing dangling over Fifth Avenue?

Like Chapnick’s wise and salient words in the previous post (link), we can learn from the classic photo essayists from the past. Many of the early photo stories in Life took a formulary approach. In the early days of the magazine, stories were often told chronologically, scripted and storyboarded. Photographers were given the formula and a laundry list of shots to take.

The blueprint for a typical Life magazine story required eight different types of pictures to ensure photographers came back with a variety of imagery. From an overall shot, to a medium view, close-up, portrait, a sequence, an action shot, a closer or end shot, and of course, the all-important signature image. Even today, if your photo story contained strong images from these categories, chances are it would be successful.

From The Country Doctor, Life Magazine. ©W. Eugene Smith Click on the image to see the entire photo essay.

By applying their simple framework to a story or essay, it can help give your theme some necessary direction and structure. Moving through the next few steps in The Passionate Photographer, you’ll learn to work your scenes and give yourself options from all the elements below, a shortened structure of the classic Life magazine photo essays.

  • Signature Image: This is often the strongest image, with visual impact that both tells a story itself, and invites the viewer into the story for further investigation. It’s the book cover, the storefront window display, the icon, and web page attention getter. We strive to make every image a signature image but in the end, it rises to the top from the following visual possible components that make up your essay.
  • Portrait: A picture of a key player in the story you are photographing. Make sure to use background and/or foreground elements to help bolster the narrative. Environmental portraits, where the subject is caught in a real moment, can be very compelling, but so too can a series of posed portraits.
  • TheOverall or Wide View: This photograph gives us a sense of the place or a part of the place where your story happens. Note that sometimes a sense of place can be communicated in a series of detail images.
  • The Detail: Look for a photograph that examines details rather than the larger picture. This photograph can often be abstract and particularly eye-catching, a nuance. This detail also can reveal to the viewer something that would otherwise be missed in a wider shot. A series of small details can be used as a mosaic in one image.
  • TheAction: Show us what is going on in your story. Look for dramatic and poignant images capturing people interacting with each other, moments and gestures that elevate and amplify the visual communication in some way.

The above is meant as a guide or starting point should you need it. There are always new, innovative, and creative ways to present your story.

Short-term projects become a powerful starting point for more comprehensive work, allowing you to delve deeper, showing new and different sides of an issue or theme. The more you shoot, the better you will get, but the Catch-22 is this: if you are not inspired, you probably won’t shoot much. You need to find the inspiration, then let your passion for the project motivate you to work and improve.

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