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Archive for Thursday, November 22, 2001

s view of America

November 22, 2001

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Summers at the lake. Smoke-filled juke joints. Sweaty young men waiting for their shot at "the big show."

In "Portraits of America" (National Geographic, 256 pages, $50), a new book of photographs and essays, William Albert Allard shows us a homespun America a book "reflective of some things in this country that are pretty good," he says.

The coffee-table book features 165 photographs grouped into nine chapters including "The Amish," "Out West" and "A View of the Blues." Each is accompanied by an autobiographical essay by Allard, who gained stature as a photographer in 1964 after National Geographic sent him, a 26-year-old summer intern at the time, to photograph Lancaster County, Pa.'s famous Amish community.

The pictures Allard came back with provided a remarkable glimpse into a world untouched by time. Several of those photos are included in this new collection.

Allard's essays, instead of being skimmed over like much heavy, academic writing in other photo books, are meant to be savored. His style is crisp, revealing, engaging.

Rather than explain to readers the mechanics that go into making a picture, Allard tells us what initially drew him to his subjects. We learn about his childhood in Minnesota (basketball in the alley behind his family's yellow garage), his father's fishing habits (pan fish only "unusually easy to catch" and "bony as the devil"), his love of Montana ("Montana. It feels good just to say it," he says), and his summer as an intern for National Geographic (living in "the smallest hotel room in North America").

The photos themselves, saturated with color are primarily character studies pensive cowboys, jubilant ball players, coy lovers. Thirty-four pictures are single-subject portraits; only 12 photos in the book contain no people. Allard, 64, was among the first of his generation to shoot solely in color. "Portraits of America" is sweet and sad and timeless. It makes readers yearn for a kinder, gentler, simpler America one that has likely never existed outside the pages of a picture book.

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