Spotlight on Jerry Wolford

TID:

What a powerful image! Please tell us a little of the backstory of the image.

JERRY:

What an honor to be included in your growing collection of great photographers and images. It is an amazing opportunity to see how differently photographers approach the creation of a great image, and the "play by play" aspect of TID is very educational to any level of photojournalist. You and Ross sure have created an amazing learning environment!

So, you want a backstory. How about going back a couple decades? As you know, I have been working on a retrospective of my almost 30 years of photojournalism and while working on that, a curator of the exhibit noticed how my body of work was mostly devoid of spot news photos after around 1995. I had not really noticed the pattern, but she was correct. I was stumped as to why until I had the revelation that my news photos dropped off just as the use of yellow tape became the norm in Greensboro. A few days later we talked again, and I told her my news photos were weak now because the access is so bad and that I could not really use all my skills to make photos at a live news event. Sure, there have been a few exceptions over the years, but the reality is that it has never been harder to cover spot news without having the access controlled and restricted.

(Greensboro police officer T. R. Sizemore consoles 21-year-old bicyclist Mark Scott as paramedics tend to the broken leg he received when he was hit by a car.
Published 3/27/1990, Greensboro NC News & Record)

JERRY:

So I preface talking about this photo with these observations, because the day this image was shot a modern photojournalism miracle occurred, there was no yellow tape, no police, just me and the people. The power of this photo comes from the close proximity that I had to the victims. The ability to move a few inches to the left and to the right with a wide angle lens to alter composition is a rare occurrence at a spot news event and it really felt quite odd. Sort of like 1995.

TID:

How did you prepare for this shoot, or what did you do to put yourself in place to make this happen?

JERRY:

We all knew a big storm was coming. I checked the radar and it was a narrow band, but it had a powerful leading edge. We heard some scanner traffic from where it had passed in the northwest part of the county. Nothing spectacular from it. I was lazily doing some image archiving at work and ran out just before the rain started. I drove up to the main street running though downtown, Elm St., and just made it under a big awning beside my parked car when the high winds and rain hit. I was guiltily enjoying watching people run to get out of the rain when along comes a guy on a bike barreling down the sidewalk. I fired off a burst and smiled, knowing I had this storm covered. Not really, but hey, I had a photo.

I had felt my phone buzz a couple of minutes before. I saw a text message from Director of Photography Rob Brown. The message, "704 Mobile Street. Report of tree through a house and a confined space rescue." I am ashamed to say that did not send me running. I thought how many trees on houses I had been to over the decades that were just that, a tree on a house. After a couple more minutes, I figured my guy on the bike in the rain was as good as it was going to get, so I jumped in my car and headed to the tree on the house. I was expecting little from it.

TID:

What challenges did you encounter while working to make this image?

JERRY:

I had good access, with none of the usual spot news restrictions. Any challenges this day were ones I created for myself. When I arrived at the scene I saw a kid having his head bandaged. My immediate challenge was dealing with my mental frustration of knowing what I had let pass while going after the lame weather feature shots instead of responding to Rob's text alert. I must have lost five minutes that I would have loved to have back. I had only about 30 seconds to shoot a child who was actually hit in the head by a tree in his living room. 

TID:

How did you handle and overcome these problems? (Problems are not unique, but what is unique is a photographer's ability to problem solve.)

JERRY:

I tried to put the bad decision I had made behind me and go forward. I had made a nice storytelling photo already of the child being treated. Next I very courteously made contact with some of the family to get some names and info. I was about finished with IDs when the grandmother of some of the children arrived and was in a frantic state of mind.

The grandmother's emotions seemed to regress everyone's state of calm to an earlier state of shock. The family was almost all in tears. The grandmother was concerned that her granddaughter had been injured when she had been dropped from a window as the family escaped from the home. (There had been smoke in the house, due to the tree falling, that caused a panicked exit through the window.) The grandmother was screaming thanks to Jesus. Now was my chance at redemption.

TID:

Now onto the moment. Can you talk about the moments leading up to the picture and also the actual moment?

JERRY:

Luckily the scene was devoid of the usual mix of police, yellow tape, and someone looking to direct me to a spot behind the bystanders on the street corner. I had already made contact with the family. This was my advantage - I was past the barrier of them really being concerned with me. I had switched over to my 24mm lens after shooting the earlier images and was committed to that angle of view as new things started to unfold. I guess I just instinctively was trying to keep my composition wide enough to get a feel for the whole scene since I had the close access. I remember trying to watch the other women's location and emotions in my frame while tracking the grandmother as my center of focus. 

I actually shot about 100 frames in a minute. During that minute I was trying a few different things before the moment with the grandmother and the layered effect with the other family members occurred. I saw what I thought was a special moment flash by as the motor drive was cranking, but I kept working it as it continued to evolve. After it was over, I said my little, "Please be in focus" prayer and while looking back at the images on my camera I saw all the hands and the faces and the grandmother's big tears. I knew I had captured a special moment. It was a better image than I deserved to have made on the assignment, but, luckily, I got a second chance.

TID:

What surprised you about the moment?

JERRY:

I was most surprised that I got a second chance to document the disaster's effects on the family, the access to the scene, and the family not reacting negatively to me documenting their situation. My experience has shown me that people can react very differently to the lens of a photographer, and you have to be able to read that and adjust to it. Luckily for me, I seemed to have a connection with this family that gave me a little extra room to be close to the action. That is not something that is easy to explain, it is just a feeling you have sometimes.

 

TID:

I'm more familiar with your long-lens work: super clean and very "decisive moment" imagery. But lately, I've seen many more multi-layered, wide-angle images from you, with several emotions or moments happening within the frame.

Was this a conscious effort on your part? Do you feel you are looking at things differently, or "predicting" situations in a different way? Do you have any advice for students as they approach a situation on how to choose their distance from the event, and how to choose focal length?

JERRY:

 I have always used a triadic-like model to define great images. My model is a great moment, great timing and great composition. I used to view those three in decreasing importance. I now see them more as equals, like a three-legged stool. They are all important. I can now see how I relied on looking for the moment and striving for great timing, but not keeping as strong a composition in that mix as I should have been doing. You don't want a wobbly stool. About three years ago, as I was dealing with this visual realization, I saw National Geographic legend Sam Abell talk about his photos. He demonstrated how his images have photos nested inside photos, and this really made me reexamine how I "see" while shooting photos. I was really struck with his Montana cowboys photo.

He talks about it in this video.

I am normally all about a very clean image that jumps out at you. This is really the kind of image that is needed to read small on newsprint, so you can see how the newspaper environment can shape you for good and bad. I began to incorporate some of Sam's ideas into my style, and now toggle between the clean and focused look and a more layered look. This image is really a hybrid of the two methods. I have other key elements in the frame, but the image's key point of focus is obvious. Back during this visual transition time, I made a change and bought a 24mm lens and forced myself to work at making that lens my core way of seeing the world. No more 16-35mm. Working with that lens made me more disciplined with composition. I was sort of fanatical about it -- I know I used the 24mm at times when I needed to shoot wider, but I forced everything through that 24mm. I was still not really concentrating on layers as much as just the composition. This was on a 1.3x body, so I was really working at a 32mm equivalent focal length. That crazy process was challenging and made me think and move more during the composing process than I had since the 1980s. I really think that zoom ring will make even a great photographer lazy.

I carried my fixed lens journey forward, and put the 70-200 in a bag and replaced it with a fast 85mm. Now, I have to be closer to my subjects. I keep the same general proximity to my subjects and alternate those two lenses. I really change my angle of shooting more now than ever. The "floor angle" view with the 85mm is such a great way to see things. I actually shoot about 75% of my non-sports images with those two lenses. I still use the zooms for those news situations where you have to have all that focal length range, but they are never my first choice. Last year I finally started using a full-frame body, and this was the most amazing thing. I really can't put into words what that has done for my photography. I think some of Sam Abell's ideas are working into my images more too. So, now I have a newfound way of thinking more about my compositions and finally the full use of my lenses.This convergence has really helped me put it all together. After getting the full-frame body, I have gradually started working my 16-35 back into the mix. Things just seem to click on all levels now. I really hate I lost a decade on "cropper" camera bodies. If I had it to do over, I would have bought the first full-frame body that hit the market. The one big piece of advice I can offer is never stop being willing to change how you do things visually. I have been so fortunate to have had such great North Carolina photographers' work to use as influences during my career and a very supportive director of photography. I can't wait to see what lessons come next.

TID:

What have you learned about yourself in the process of making images like this?

JERRY:

I learned a lesson I seem to have to learn every few months: Don't be complacent. Your next assignment is always its own living breathing entity and is not connected to any before or any after it. You really have to treat every assignment like it is the "great one" you have been waiting for your whole life. I really try to work that way, but sometimes I fall off the wagon.

TID:

What have you learned about others?

JERRY:

I am always amazed how you can connect to some people in mere seconds, while with others there's never a connection even after days of trying.

TID:

In conclusion, what advice do you have for photographers?

JERRY:

I guess I would just say that over all my years it does seem that spot news works in waves or aftershocks. There is a primary wave of action and we often miss that. Then there are second and third aftershocks that can be more subtle or maybe even more intense, but you have to be aware of that, wait and be ready for it. It is easy to think since you missed the primary event that there are no more photos. This is often just stubborn thinking. I think feeling a sense of failure on missing the primary action can often lead a photographer into not keeping an open mind for what follows. You need to anticipate the flow of the scene. Some of your best news photos can come after the blue lights are turned off and your patience is turned on.


 

::Bio::

Jerry Wolford’s camera and personality make a magical connection with the people and places he encounters. Though he has stood an arm’s length from history hundreds of times, he feels his strengths lie with documenting the lives of everyday people. Wolford earned his Associate Degree in Photojournalism from Randolph Technical College in 1986. He landed his first job at The Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, NC, and the next year joined the staff of the News & Record in Greensboro, NC. Wolford is the North Carolina Press Photographers Association’s 2012 Photographer of the Year and has received numerous, state, regional and national professional awards. His photographs have been published by magazines, newspapers and websites around the world.
 


All images that appear on The Image, Deconstructed are subject to copyright laws. Any unauthorized use is strictly prohibited. Images on The Image, Deconstructed are used with permission from the copyright holder and are for educational purposes only.