Although words have been the medium I am most drawn to, I also love the ability of images to convey meaning. And, since childhood, cameras as beautiful machines has had an alluring appeal.
I have photographed extensively in Cuba, East Africa, Mongolia, India, Southeast Asia, Central America, Upper Mustang in Himalayan Nepal, Papua New Guinea and the United States. My photographs have been exhibited in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Havana, Cuba and at The Louvre in Paris.
One hundred fifty (150) of my Cuban photographs will be published by Vajra Books in late 2020 as Seeing & Being Seen / Hearing and Being Heard: Portraits of Cuba.
"Reportage... is a form of vigilance." Judith Thurman
Trained as an anthropologist reliant on the power of observation and words, I appreciate photography for its potency and the wide range of its reach. I seek to meld evidence, emotion and ideas, allowing viewers to understand, empathize with and, if possible, sensitively assist, indigenous cultures fending off modern-world threats. Cultures – that is, our kindred fellows – who are striving to retain age-old manners, languages and time-honored traditions in the face of rapid societal disruption and erosion; upheaval wrought by the usual suspects: technology, politics, environmental and nutritional decline and, alas, ill-managed tourism that actually degrades the places we seek to sustain.
When I begin a project I try to keep an open mind. I outline the parameters of what I want to explore but it is really the freedom of creating images at-will, over time, that leads to the magic of a developing narrative. I follow where my nose and eyes lead and at some point – maybe even after returning home, story lines unfold in the assembled pictures. I admire photographers who can begin with a refined concept, and tenaciously follow their roadmap to a conclusion that satisfies them, but, like many others, I prefer to allow for serendipity and familiarity with my equipment, skill-set and locale to capture a story, perhaps without fully comprehending on a first visit what that story is really about. It is a 'system' of real-time shooting with minimal calculation and a large dose of instinct, striving to capture images that portray situations (if not, alas, answers.) I subscribe to food-maven Christopher Kimball's idea that, "We must lose what we think we know so that we can come to see what we least expect."
As an image-maker I straddle a personal zone betwixt & between: documentary photographers follow a character or situation over time to present complexity and nuance; photojournalists are more akin to image-snipers freezing a decisive moment that will forever adhere in our minds-eye. None of us, however, lay claim to any comprehensive report on the human condition. All simply provide glances into slices of life. My glance is to follow (document) a story and capture key scenes (photojournalism) in a given environment. My focus is to stitch these sundry images into a tableaux, weaving a tapestry about a chapter in the human journey. While, in my personal work, I do not direct subjects nor compose situations, I do not feel obligated to present my images without any post-processing. If I can improve the presentation to make it more artful and/or more like what I actually experienced, I often will as long as it does not materially change the truthfulness on display. I am more interested in the essence than the substance before my lens.
Transparency is key. My work as a chronicler seeks to evoke or vivify a time, a character or a place. The work is largely unscripted; I lie in wait with my chosen tools, in full view, to catch life on the fly.
I use a Leica M10 for digital color work. For digital black & white I use a Leica M246 Monochrom. I still have my original black-paint Leica M4 body for those times I get the itch to use film. One day I will convert my Fuji X-Pro1 into an infrared body.
Past work horses have been the Leica M-P Type 240, Leica M4 & M6, Pentax 6x7, the Nikon F4 and a Nikon F3HP (still on my shelf). There were also my first cameras: an Ansco Panda box 120/220 and my dad's Kodak Brownie Holiday model, both from the 1950s.
While it is difficult to beat the look and 'feel' of silver gelatin and platinum prints, my main chemistry is now archival pigment-on-paper printing (although I do experiment with 'alternative processes'.)
A sampling of my photographs may be viewed at www.wilburnorman.com.
Main elements contributing to my work
(in the order of their importance to me)
- An open mind, with as much understanding & compassion as I can muster
- Skepticism of the 'received wisdom' we tend to take at face-value
- A smile and a flair for languages
- Great footwear
- Natural light
- A good camera & lenses and proficiency in their use
Be realistic: Demand the impossible! – Herbert Marcuse
NWU - National Writers Union
IFJ - International Federation of Journalists
The Global Voice of Journalists
ASMP - American Society of Media Photographers
LHSA - The International Leica Society
Effort - Not Perfection
“The process of writing a book is infinitely more important than the book that is completed as a result of the writing, let alone the success or failure that book may have after it is written . . . the book is merely a symbol of the writing. In writing the book, I am living. I am growing. I am tapping myself. I am changing. The process is the product….
Invest in the "process" rather than the product. Process living neutralizes the depleting and impoverishing effects of chronically living in anticipation. Even when impossible goals occasionally are reached, satisfactions derived from them are invariably disappointing unless the process has given ample satisfaction along the way….
Happiness does not come from doing easy work but from the afterglow of satisfaction that comes after the achievement of a difficult task that demanded our best.” – Theodore Isaac Rubin (1923-2019)