Sam Abell’s photographs have a life of their own.
Whether capturing a scene amongst the stark crags of Newfoundland or the technicolor streets of Cuba, Abell’s pictures present far more than an image.
They encapsulate a visceral visual poem inviting the viewer to experience the world through Abell’s lens.
“I’ve always thought from the time I first held a camera in my hands, and felt how right it felt in my hands, that it was a dynamic invitation to be in life,” Abell said in an interview with National Geographic.
During Abell’s 31-year career with the magazine, his work graced the cover three times; even one is considered a remarkable accomplishment in the profession.
Just before ending his tenure at the publication, Abell taught his first of many classes at the Pacific Northwest Art School in Coupeville.
This weekend, the artist, photographer, teacher and lecturer will be leading his acclaimed master study workshop for the 16th consecutive year.
The class, for which prospective students submit a portfolio to be evaluated for selection by a jury, was full shortly after word of it was printed in the school’s fall brochure.
Prior to the workshop, at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 4, Abell will present a free lecture at the school. The lecture is open to all.
“It’s a gift he gives to the community,” Lisa Bernhardt, Pacific Northwest Art School executive director, said of Abell’s annual free lecture.
Though he could command a speaking fee at any venue, she said, he has formed bonds with members of the community and has come to feel a part of it.
He’s also one of the few instructors at the school who commands repeat students on a regular basis.
“He’s not like anyone you’ll ever meet,” Bernhardt said.
During her first year at the school 11 years ago, she said she didn’t personally meet Abell but did notice a palpable energy emanating from his students that was distinct from that of any other class.
“There was this electric energy in the school that I couldn’t quite define or describe,” she said.
Bernhardt said Abell’s classes are more of a mentorship than a workshop.
Abell has a remarkable ability to connect with people, both in the classroom and in the field, she said.
“He likes to say a photograph has a life. He takes a real philosophical approach to photography,” Bernhardt said.
Keron Psillas is a Portugal-based photographer who has worked as Abell’s assistant for over 10 years, and accompanies Abell to Coupeville during the week of the workshop.
Psillas’ work includes “Loss and Beauty,” a project presently being shown in galleries across the United States.
In an email interview, Psillas said she credits Abell with influencing her work in “innumerable ways.”
“I think it’s fair to say that ‘compose and wait’ is Sam’s mantra,” she said. “But aside from that, Sam is a poet with the camera. He is looking to speak to the essence of any situation with as few words/photographs as possible.”
His palette is often muted, she said, with subjects which are either introspective or encouraging of introspection on the part of the viewer.
“Everything is ‘just’ in the image, and yet it isn’t staid, it breathes softly,” she wrote.
Although she is not herself a photographer, Bernhardt said she has begun to see things differently since becoming well-acquainted with Abell and his perspective over the past 11 years.
So too, she noted that even non-photographers can benefit greatly by attending his lecture.
In honor of the 30-year anniversary celebration, some of Abell’s former students submitted photographs to be printed, matted and displayed at the school during his stay. Each of the 35 prints are uniform in size, and each will sell for $75, with proceeds benefiting the school.