photo: Joanna Clark Swayze


Forty years ago as a new reporter/photographer for the Bennington (Vt.) Banner, I traveled back roads in southern Vermont in a red VW beetle, looking for photographs.

On the right front seat was my Nikon F with a 28mm lens, and a couple of rolls of Tri-X film. No light meter, no special gadgets. Sometimes I’d bring a longer lens for making portraits, but the idea was to keep it simple. As an Army information officer, I had learned about this notion of simplicity from photojournalists in Vietnam. It seemed to make sense.

For someone who had grown up in the flatlands of New Jersey, the Vermont landscape, especially in winter, was intoxicating. The land and the structures that punctuated those spaces drew me in.

Later, as I became more confident as a photographer, I began to photograph people as well as places. Not always, but much of the time, I found that my subjects seemed to trust me with a camera. I felt that making photographs was more than a job, and maybe they sensed that. In fact, the actual taking of a photograph vs. making the print in the darkroom has always been the favorite part for me.

November Scene, White Creek, NY, 1970

Now 2010, a Subaru has replaced the VW, a bunch of cameras replaced that old Nikon, and years ago my family left Vermont. However, my approach to making pictures has remained pretty much the same, albeit shaped by years of teaching photography and being a photographer for a long stretch of time.

That approach is related, in one way or another, to these thoughts on image-making that I seldom get around to talking about. If asked, however, I might suggest the following: l. Be curious, visually and otherwise, about the world. 2. Get ideas from reading interesting books instead of trying to memorize tedious photo-texts. 3. Look for the best light, which often means being patient. 4. Know and practice good technique, but trust your instincts. 5. Share your work with others – prints, postcards, electronic images, it all helps. 6. And finally, keep a camera with you whenever you can. There it is, a list of photo tips.

Fish Kill, Waloomsac River, 1970

As to where my photographs come from, I can say that few have been made as a result of specific projects or assignments. This is a curious contradiction because as a teacher -- a career that followed journalism (see About section) -- I encouraged my students to seek areas of specific interest, also known as projects. “Find meaning in depth not breadth,” I would preach to them. For me, however, the approach has been more organic, with most of my photographs evolving out of daily experiences.

I think I can say that over time I have merely followed myself around with a camera, recording details of Old Ways; returning to Vietnam, now a country at peace; making Portraits, often of Family but also on the road in Russia, Ireland, and other destinations; and looking for those intriguing Moments.

As to the digital revolution and how I photograph today, I am a traditionalist, and I continue to shoot with film cameras. I still make silver prints in a darkroom, or alternative process prints under the sun. However, I seldom venture out without my small digital Leica, and later spend more time in front of a computer screen than I would like to admit.

About the rewards but also the potential burden of having 40 years of negatives, I am never going to get around to printing a fraction of what I have shot, but this fact is not going to keep me from making new pictures. It’s just too interesting to stop now. -- Joe Swayze