Mississippi King: National Geographic photographer comes to Minneapolis

  • Article by: RANDY A. SALAS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 14, 2008 - 6:07 PM

World-renowned photographer Sam Abell comes to Minneapolis to share his photos and stories of the Mississippi River.

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Near the Mississippi source.

The first time National Geographic photographer Sam Abell traveled the Mississippi River, it didn't go nearly as well as his most recent excursion.

The latter, in 2001, resulted in the spectacular book "The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation," by Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley. Abell comes to Minneapolis on Thursday to discuss and show the photos he took for the book as part of National Geographic Live! at the State Theatre.

Back in 1964, though, when Abell was 19, the great river was not his friend. The college student was a counselor then at a summer camp near Bemidji, Minn.

"One of the other counselors lived in Grand Rapids, Minnesota," Abell explained recently. "He said at the end of the summer, 'We should take a canoe trip on the Mississippi River, from my house back to camp.' And I said, 'Great idea!' "

Well, it sounded good. Unfortunately, neither of the young men had really considered until they were actually paddling out of Pokegama Lake and onto the Mississippi that Grand Rapids is downstream from Bemidji. The planned river journey -- at least 50 miles -- was all upstream.

"It was torturous in many ways, between the current and the black flies," Abell said, laughing about it now. "We made only half the trip in one long day."

Abell, 63, canoed the Mississippi again in 2001, when he traveled the river from May to August for the book, but this time he spent a day paddling downstream from its source in Itasca State Park. He and Ambrose didn't actually traverse the river from one end to the other for the book.

"It's what we call 'highpointing,' which was to go the parts of the river that are the most photogenic or most important to the understanding of the river," he said. "We did the headwaters, several sections in the middle of the river and then the mouth of the river."

A gallery of today's river

It wasn't a full-on photographic journey because the book, published by National Geographic, tells the history of the Mississippi River and the Louisiana Purchase. Abell's photos provide a gallery of today's river to complement a substantial number of archival images.

"The great power of photography is not just what it includes but what it excludes," Abell said. "Since it was a history book with an emphasis on 'once upon a time on the Mississippi,' there's an absence of locks and dams and the agribusiness and the highways and the overpasses and the bridges -- the infrastructure of the Mississippi. I felt obliged to exclude that, and I looked for those aspects of the Mississippi that were timeless."

For example, in one image, the streets and railroad tracks of Muscatine, Iowa, are covered by floodwaters.

"I thought the water covering up a fair portion of the contemporary landscape made it old-seeming and historic -- that is, the history of flooding," he said.

Abell lives in Charlottesville, Va., but he travels the country to teach professional and student workshops, as well as "photo camps" for inner-city children. At all of them, he passes on many of the things he learned about picture-taking from his father, a teacher and freelance photographer, while growing up in northern Ohio.

Dad's biggest lesson?

"A form of patience that distills itself into three words: 'Compose and wait,' " Abell said. "[It means] as a photographer to be out in life and to have a scene select you, sort of speak to you, and to dwell on it and to compose it carefully, and then to wait until the scene is fulfilled by something -- something arrives, something departs, things happen in front of you.

"I've made a lifelong habit of doing that, and it's the most characteristic thing about my methodology, how I arrive at pictures."

An iconic image

That's what happened with an iconic image he took at 15. It captures his father standing on a station platform on a winter day as a train pulls away -- a strikingly composed shot accented by diagonal lines and icicles dangling overhead. The result of the waiting? A plume of steam belching from the locomotive.

Abell says he always asks kids, "At what age do you think you'll take your best picture?"

"They'll look at me uncomprehending," he said. "And I'll say, 'I asked that question because many people think I took my best picture when I was 15 years old' -- and then I show them that picture."

Abell's photographic survey of the Mississippi River was strongly influenced by being with Ambrose, the acclaimed author of "Band of Brothers" who died in 2002, the year the Mississippi book came out.

"Hearing his stories and his love of history -- he was an extremely vivid character, not what you would call an academic historian," Abell recalled.

The photographer said he and Ambrose had a friendly rivalry about their home states, Ohio and Wisconsin, respectively. Ambrose's combativeness stemmed from his football-playing days at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in an era when Ohio State University dominated the Big 10.

As the two departed St. Louis on the Delta Queen steamboat to head north to St. Paul, Ambrose came to the back of the ship with two extra-large martinis. He handed a glass to Abell and toasted the Mississippi River and their project.

As Abell remembered it:

"And then he said, 'Now tell me, Sam, what's your innermost thought about the Mississippi?'

"And I said: 'The Mississippi -- mighty tributary of the Ohio!'

"And he said, 'What the hell is that supposed to mean?'

"And I said, 'Well, when the two rivers meet in Cairo, Illinois, the Ohio delivers twice the water the Upper Mississippi does.'

"And he said -- well, I don't know if you want to publish it -- and then he stormed up to the [ship's] bridge. ... Five minutes later, he came back and said, 'Well, you're right.' "

Not bad for a guy who once didn't know the Mississippi River's upstream from down.

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542.

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  • NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC LIVE!

    What: Sam Abell shares his photos of the Mississippi River.

    Where: State Theatre, 805 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.

    Tickets: $10-$37.50; 651-989-5151 or www.ticketmaster.com.

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