A Personal Perspective
Former State Artist Laureate Gary Samson is a virtuoso of photography and film.
Fine-art photographer, educator, and documentary filmmaker Gary Samson creates deeply personal portraits of people using traditional methods.
The state’s seventh Artist Laureate, Samson has recorded the world’s changing landscapes and captured the spirit of the hardworking people he meets since 1971. To spotlight New Hampshire’s history as an industrial hub for textile manufacturing, he documented the life of immigrant workers at Manchester’s Amoskeag Mills in photography and on film. Several other documentary films about New Hampshire’s people followed.
His portraiture reveals the delicate, personal collaboration between photographer and subject, like the haunting photo of Brianna with outstretched hands, or the straightforward image of portrait photographer Lotte Jacobi. While manager of photography at the University of New Hampshire, he made a film about Jacobi, and spent six years archiving her 47,000 negatives.
At the Kimball Jenkins School of Art in Concord, Samson educates students about large-format photography and wet-plate photography, which is a 19th-century process that creates images on light-sensitive glass or metal using various chemicals.
His photo exhibition “Creole Soul” recently opened at Seacoast African American Cultural Center, and his work is in high demand. Samson’s photos remain in permanent collections and museums around New Hampshire, including the Currier Museum of Art, UNH Art Museum, and St. Anselm College. They are also at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and in private collections.
Samson says one key way to capture a subject’s direct gaze is to remove distractions. He keeps the shutter on his cameras—usually a Hasselblad, Wisner, or Leica—obscured and the environment quiet when taking intimate portraits.
“I try to give people as little direction as possible, and let them be who they are at that moment,” Samson says.
Samson recently reflected on his favorite photographs, his role in preserving New Hampshire’s history, and his own legacy.
New Hampshire Home [NHH]: Who are some photographers you admire?
Gary Samson [GS]: Paul Strand was really a remarkable photographer. As a teenager, Strand studied with Lewis Hine, a social documentary photographer who documented child labor and the construction of the Empire State Building. Strand was really a remarkable photographer. Matthew Brady documented the Civil War using the wet-plate process. Some photographers do one thing really, really well. Ansel Adams did some commercial work, but his passion was the landscape, the environment. Lotte Jacobi photographed a who’s who of the 20th century: Robert Frost, Eleanor Roosevelt, JD Salinger, Thomas Mann, and Albert Einstein.
NHH: Tell us about your friendship with Lotte Jacobi.
GS: In the mid-1970s, I had the opportunity to make a film about her life. I don’t know if she was even five feet tall—she had this commanding presence. But I was young and easily intimidated. We became great friends, and she came to really trust me. She decided to donate her entire negative archive to the University of New Hampshire.
NHH: How did you create your portrait of her?
GS: I was using the window (for ambient light). It was a really dark December day; it was extremely overcast. But because I was using a really fast lens, I could shoot wide open and have a high shutter speed to still-freeze the action. I positioned my chair, and I just let her pose for me. The light was just so beautiful.
NHH: How did you make the image of the cowboy?
GS: This is a portrait I made for the New Hampshire Project of a young man who worked on a horse farm in Goffstown. He looked like he walked out of Montana. He had piercing blue eyes, and I could tell he was a little shy. I very gently said, “I would love to photograph you.” And he said yes. And he just stopped and stared into the camera. Every fiber of his body was about his love for horses. When you see a moment, you have to capture it. For me, photography is my way of communicating to viewers.
NHH: What projects are you most passionate about right now?
GS: I have been doing an extended portrait of four women—Brianna, Maya, Milena, and Hayley—called “Unburdened Beauty: A Decade of Nude Portraits.” Having come to know these four women over a decade, their generosity of being available . . . I feel like that has changed me as a person.
NHH: Tell us about the photo where Brianna is looking directly at the camera.
GS: We were walking around on her family’s farm. And she shed her dress. And she went into that beautiful and mysterious pose. It’s really one of my favorite photographs of her and of images that I’ve made. To me, it was completely about her. I just thought that was a magical moment.
NHH: What are other new projects you’re excited about?
GS: Recently, St. Anselm College and library raised money so that I could make a film about French Canadian photographer Ulric Bourgeois, who for 50 years photographed Manchester and its people. For over 40 years, I’ve wanted to make a film about his life and share his photographs. Because I’m also of French-Canadian descent and a photographer, he’s a hero to me. I’m hoping to start that in the summer.
NHH: What has made your career so successful?
GS: Even when I was in the darkroom, even starting out, my passion was photography as a fine art. I was looking at Ansel Adams, I was looking at Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz. Dorothea Lang, the great photographer from the Depression-era, made the greatest photographs of people suffering. These people have found a way to express themselves through photography. I’m not so good with words, but maybe I can say something about the world through my photographs.
NHH: Does digital photography help portrait photography?
GS: Digital allows you the ability to retouch the photograph or to edit the photograph. I’m always looking for a quality of light. I feel like film can render that more subtly, more beautifully, than digital sometimes.
NHH: Are traditional photographic methods coming back?
GS: I think more people are curious about film. Because I started shooting film when I was 16, it’s what I know best. And it’s something that I have great affection for. So I’m just more inclined to use film. It’s part of who I am. I really love the tactile aspects of traditional photography.
NHH: What are the advantages of using large- and medium-format cameras?
GS: Shooting film with a view camera is part of a long tradition that goes back to the 19th century, the beginning of photography, and I really like being connected to the historical roots of the medium. It also slows me down. It gives me more time to think about how I’m going to present or interpret the subject to the viewer.
NHH: How do you define what an artist is?
GS: True artists are completely thrown into their art. They’re emotionally tied to their art. An artist is a composite of all the experiences in their life. For me, all the experiences that I’ve had have been filtered down, so that I see the world in a particular way. I’ve had so many great opportunities given to me. I could have a portrait of Brianna on the wall, but that photograph might represent 2,000 photographs that I also had to work hard on. This is all that I have after I’m gone. It’s my legacy.
Photography has been my passport to travel and learn about the world. It’s allowed me to meet people. I’m grateful that I could take advantage of that, and grateful to have met really fascinating people that have changed my life and made my life that much richer.