Cary Wolinsky began working as a photojournalist for the Boston Globe in 1968 while completing a degree in journalism at Boston University’s School of Communications. By 1972, he was providing freelance photographic essays to many national magazines, including Natural History, National Geographic, and Smithsonian. His photographs have been printed in hundreds of publications throughout the world, and is best known for his international, historical, scientific and cultural photographic essays published regularly in National Geographic magazine since 1977. His numerous stories include; Sichuan: Where China Changes Course, Inside the Kremlin, Sir Joseph Banks, The Greening of the Empire, The Power of Writing, Australia A Harsh Awakening, New Eyes on the Oceans, Diamonds – The Real Story, What’s in Your Mind and, The Down Side of Being Upright.
His fine art prints are n the collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, Massachusetts, the Fogg Museum and the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Tikotin Museum in Haifa. I’ve known Cary for many years (we first met in Australia on separate assignments, he for National Geographic, I for the Smithsonian), and for me he epitomises the thinking photographer, able to initiate and carry through big stories, always full of ideas.
MF: We first met in Perth, Australia, more years ago than I care to remember, and that always reminds me of your photograph of a sheep that you had sheared down one side of its body only. To me, that was quintessential Wolinsky – a neat and original visual idea that was also elegantly executed. Could you take us a little way through that assignment?
CW: Wool was the second story I did on textiles. The first was about silk. It took me two years to convince the editors at the Geographic that the project might interest readers. I revised my proposal four times before it was accepted. The finished story ran 52 pages and got a great response.
That made the story on Wool easier to sell. After I did the research Editor, Bill Garrett called a story conference. I pitched my ideas before a room full of editors from every department. Bill interrupted me one point to declare that he didn’t like sheep and ask if I could do the wool story without sheep pictures. I had to think about that for a moment. I told him I didn’t think I could, but I would promise that any sheep pictures I took would floor him. That set the bar high from the start.
It seemed easy enough. To show how much wool a sheep grows in a season just shear off half the wool and have the sheep stand sideways. Knowing nothing about sheep I figured I’d have this picture done in an afternoon. Here’s the plan: find a sheep that is wearing one season’s wool. Hire a good shearer. Give the sheep half a haircut and…
The shearing season had started early in New Zealand. But I was determined to find a few sheep that hadn’t been fleeced. We drove and drove. It seemed we had landed on an island populated by nearly naked sheep. Then…
“There…on the right…in that yard.” I was jubilant. Robin Kidd, the “gun” (New Zealand parlance for “the best”) shearer, who had already determined that I was an obsessed lunatic, groaned at the sight of five very over-weight sheep that looked like they had been sleeping in ill-fitting pajamas for a year. I banged on the front door of the little farm house and explained my mission to the woman who owned the sheep. To my amazement, she believed me. Having no dog, four of us chased the fat, bobbing sheep around the yard finally bringing them down with flying tackles. It took all four of us to lift each sheep onto the back of a pickup.
The shed was quiet. The five sheep huddled in the corner of the shearing pen looking like they would very much like to leave. Robin pulled one of them upright so that it was sitting on its rump. The sheep slumped into a catatonic state. Robin grasped the shears then hesitated. He had removed so many sheep jackets as whole fleeces he couldn’t figure out the moves he needed to do just half. He pecked away with the shears. Dirty wool fell all around. Done. He released the sheep. It bounded to its feet, swayed a bit, then toppled toward the still woolly side. The now unbalanced sheep lay helpless on its side, feet bicycling in the air.
The next try was better planned. A grazier (Australian for sheep farmer) near Melbourne agreed to hold, unshorn, 100 “hogs” until I arrived. ( A one year old sheep is called a hog…go figure!) We converted the sheep shed to a studio. I had painted a huge canvas with waterproof paint (easier to clean up) to use as a seamless background. 99 young Merinos tried to hide behind the one in front as I went about the task of choosing which would become famous that day. I invited the cutest, cleanest hog to visit the well-lit studio to be half undressed for all the world to see.
Shearing sheds are hot, dusty and, if the truth be known, a bit bloody. Electric shears are similar to those that barbers use but a lot coarser. Under all that wool Merino sheep have loose, wrinkled, ever so soft, and sensitive skin. When shearing a mob of several thousand sheep, shearers don’t waste much time avoiding wrinkles. Otherwise clean, white, nearly naked sheep are spotted with little red shaving nicks. I couldn’t very well put a half shorn sheep with bloody shaving nicks in front of 40 million National Geographic readers.
As a result the first sheep never achieved stardom. Nor did the second, the 19th or the 27th. We tried shearing them front to back as well as side to side. The well planned, half day photo shoot was trying the patience of not only the generous grazier but of the 12 motorcycle shepherds who locked arms to create a human fence around each sheep while I attempted to make a picture.
In the end it was sheep number 30 that became a star. Remembering how my dad temporarily patched his shaving nicks with a bit of tissue (I now use an electric shaver), I took a wad of wool, patched the nick on number 30′s neck and got set up to make a picture. The motorcycle shepherds locked arms. The camera shutter clattered and 72,000 watt-seconds of flash bathed number 30 in light with a happy popping sound. The picture ran as the lead shot in my National Geographic article about wool. Number 30 went on to hire an agent and is looking for new bookings.
MF: I think there’s a sitcom in their waiting to get out. I suppose if I had to summarize the way I see your work, it would be on the lines of large, thematic stories that need detailed research, with the results being quite deliberate, inventive imagery. Would you say that was fair?
CW: About large, thematic stories…. I grew into this kind of coverage. I started at National Geographic pitching my own story ideas. It was a discouraging process. The editors were bright, well traveled and a bit jaded. The magazine had been around for a hundred years. It had been everywhere and seen everything. If a magazine could have a personality, the Geographic’s was rich, fussy and arrogant.
It is not enough to be a good shooter. You have to have well developed ideas for stories. You have to know your subject cold and be able to articulate what the coverage would look like. You had to demonstrate that you can be trusted to deliver a National Geographic story as they understood it.
One of my first assignments for the Geographic was a story proposed by a congressman from Wisconsin. He suggested we cover the Ice Age Trail, a hiking trail that followed the glacial moraine. I arrived in Wisconsin to discover that most of the trail existed only in the imagination of the congressman. The writer was to arrive in a few days to hike the trail with her dog, and I was supposed to photograph her. I called the editor to report the problem. He told me I had a choice – I could give up and head home or I could go out and make a story out of it. I wasn’t about to give up. But, I wasn’t sure what to do next. I spent several days talking to geologists who were able to help me visualize the land covered in mile-high ice. I came up with a plan to change the concept from ‘On the Ice Age Trail’ to ‘On the Trail of the Ice Age’ – a story about the physical and cultural legacy of Wisconsin’s glaciers. The writer wasn’t pleased at first she but eventually came to like the idea. With that I came to understand the joys of developing a concept story and I was hooked.
Not many Geographic photographers wanted to take on abstract projects that required a lot of research. I liked doing them. Big projects had big budgets. That meant there was more time to make discoveries, more time to focus, more time to learn the subject and cover it well. Several of the stories I worked on required coverage in nine or ten countries. Navigating the research, idea development, Geographic’s internal politics, scheduling, logistics, and shooting was a rollercoaster ride but it was also a lot of fun.
About research…. I love the challenge of trying to interest someone in something they didn’t know they could be interested in. A story is a puzzle. No matter what the subject, I start with a mountain of research. I want to find something that surprises me. By doing the research myself I am more likely to find ideas that can be expressed visually. When I’m in the field, there is a better chance I can connect the puzzle pieces. By knowing the subject well, I can better support the writers and editors when I hand off the project to them. In the end, the package is more cohesive.
Deliberate, inventive imagery is often what concept stories require. I have this piece of information and there is nothing obvious to photograph. I read that a modern sheep is a “man-made wool-growing machine.” Great concept! What do I photograph? I am researching a story about color. I learn that, for hundreds of years, the great master painters of Europe used ground up Egyptian mummies to make brown paint. Terrific story. But, if I want to tell it, I’ll have to figure out how to make an image that will stop the reader. To do that, I try to make images that are iconic, full of questions and contain a touch of humor.
MF: You have an interesting combination of skills that remind me of high-end print advertising. By that I mean a sequence that goes: conceptual approach > image ‘ideas’ > clean lighting and pared-down composition.
CW: I’ve always looked to the movie and advertising industries to see how they solve creative problems. They know they need powerful images to get attention. They are under enormous pressure to innovate. Every now and then some truly amazing imagery emerges. I borrow ideas and apply them to photo-illustration concepts. I get the help of assistants who normally work on commercial shoots and adapt techniques to make pictures that tell stories.
MF: I absolutely share that with you. I learned a lot from my early years in an advertising agency about approach and concept, and I subscribe regularly to a Hollywood industry magazine, Cinefex. You seem particularly comfortable in a studio setting, which is not at all common for reportage photographers. That seems to give you the possibility of control that some of your ideas demand. Or am I focusing too much on just one aspect of your work?
CW: My love of photography started while I was at school in Boston. News was breaking around me. The Vietnam war was on. We were burning draft cards, rioting in Chicago, and impeaching the president. My heroes were W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson. On assignment for the Boston Globe, I photographed Ted Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember capturing a wonderful moment when Daniel Ellsberg surrendered to authorities and his wife was looking on.
But I was also deeply moved by the work of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Hiro. When I began shooting feature work for National Geographic it was their imagery that inspired me when I had to photograph an object in a museum or create a dramatic portrait.
MF: Interesting that you mention Hiro. Ever since way back when for the ad agency we flew from London to New York to have him do a shot (and I wasn’t a photographer then), I’ve admired the precision and surreal elegance of his work. He was Avedon’s assistant, wasn’t he? But you’re talking about two contrasting schools of imagery, photojournalism and photo-illustration.
CW: Yes, each of these approaches to photography tests different skills. The best photojournalists have good street muscles (instincts, reflexes, patience, confidence, coolness). The picture is out there. It is a fact. The photojournalist hunts and captures it. It is wonderfully unpredictable. A photo-illustration begins in the mind as an idea. The photographer builds the image on a blank canvas. It can be a thrilling flight of the imagination and great fun to execute.
National Geographic has always used both approaches. Photojournalism keeps the magazine grounded. It is about life, emotions and moments. It is real. To do stories about ideas, science, archeology, the magazine used photo-illustration. An idea can be sketched before it is photographed. It can be planned (and budgeted). Both have downsides. From an assigning editor’s point-of-view photojournalism can messy. Unpredictable means hard to budget. It can fail. Photo-illustration can be over-thought and over-worked. It attracts committees of “helpers.” It can arrive stillborn.
Over time I was more attracted to generating and executing ideas than to being on the hunt. I focused on building the skills I needed for that work and I love it.
MF: Were you influenced at any stage by the work of other photographers?
CW: Artists and photographers who inspired me? There are too many to count. I mentioned some already. Gene Smith and Irving Penn were probably my first and most constant sources of inspirations: Smith because of his brilliant eye and passion for story, Penn because of his imagination and iconic style. There is a wide variety of artists from other fields I look to for ideas but one that has been a constant source of inspiration is designer, Issey Miyake. Issey infuses everything he does with art – from designing clothing to serving a “casual” lunch in his studio.
As I write this I am looking at my well-worn books that contain the works of photo-artists that are burned into my memory. Here is a partial list photographers who have inspired me at some point in my life:
MF: You seem to enjoy photographing animals. I’m thinking of the sheep, chimpanzee, monkey putting on lipstick, iguana wearing a facemask……
CW: Let’s not lead anyone astray. I am not a wildlife photographer. Many of my animal photographs are of domesticated animals. I photographed a water buffalo in the Ganges River in 1972. That creature’s eyes got me hooked.
I’ve worked with all kinds of animals in the field and in the studio including rats, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, cows, sheep, chimps and deadly scorpions. I did a portrait of Jackie Bibbie who holds the record for being in a bathtub with the most rattlesnakes. The snake handlers brought the rattlers in Tupperware boxes and poured them out on the floor. Jackie got into the tub and stayed motionless as each snake was gingerly placed around him. The tricky part was getting the snakes out from under him when we finished.
MF: The National Geographic is a high-profile vehicle for documentary photography. And you’ve been associated with the magazine for a long time. How beneficial has the relationship been for you? Has it had drawbacks?
CW: Let’s start with the drawbacks. There were a few. The work is addictive and hard on families. Many of us rolled one assignment into the next and spent much of the year on the road. There were a lot of broken marriages.
Management always wanted more rights to the photographs. The battles were constant, demoralizing and draining. The photographers’ interests were too disparate to make it possible to work together over the time it takes to resolve these kinds of questions. The result was an acrimony that cast a cloud on the relationship.
But, it was the “greatest job in the world.”
I worked actively for National Geographic as a freelance photographer for just shy of 35 years. I had missed the golden years of Life Magazine but got to experience some of the best years of the Geographic. I worked for two brilliant editors, Bill Garrett and Bill Allen. Garrett was tough, gutsy and had great instincts for a story. Allen was determined to keep science in front of the public. Under Garrett I shot culture. He trusted me to take on complex coverages. Under Allen it was science. He gave the freedom to explore new ways to tell stories.
There were many things that made the Geographic special. There was time and money to do expansive stories. There was support from a group of unusually talented researchers, picture editors and technicians. When you are in the field for months at a time, it is easy too lose track of how a story is progressing. Before digital, photographers shipped unprocessed film every couple of weeks. The editor saw our work long before we did. We depended on reports from Washington to know how things were going. Editors had to be good at letting us know when our pictures failed without crushing our spirits.
This long-distance dependence on our editors created a kind of bond that is hard to describe. We lived very different lives. We were in the field 24/7. They were at a desk 9 to 5. But, we came to learn that these were the people where pulling for us. They were the ones who would get us out of jail. There were tears and laughter. To me, it felt a lot like family.
There was one thing above all else that set the Geographic apart. It was the tradition of allowing the writer and the photographer to own their story. You knew if you landed the assignment, there was a trust that you would deliver something special. Once you left the story conferences and budget sessions behind you, it was up to you to build the coverage. There was a great sense of empowerment and responsibility that came from this policy. The result was the magazine had a kind of vitality and variety that made it quirky and interesting.
The competition for space was fierce. The pressure to make great images could be killing. I remember a photographer friend calling me from the field with one question. “Is this as hard as it seems?” It is. If you stuck with it you got better. The National Geographic photographers pushed and helped each other. There was no one else who could.
I came to understand that being in the field was as good as it gets. Editing, presenting, and layout could be a slog. But, fighting for my work through publication was part of the responsibility I had to my story and all the people who helped make it happen. When the magazine finally appeared it was inevitably anticlimactic. The reward was you got to do it again.
MF: And I see you have an interesting ‘Anatomy of a Story’ feature on your website, on… http://www.carywolinsky.com/main_set.shtml?gallery_new.shtml. What projects are engaging you now?
CW: Many. I retired from National Geographic in 2006 and helped start the Center for Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University. We offer courses in photography, video production, graphic design, game design, 3D animation, web design, and sound recording. We’ve grown to serve more than 500 students on our campuses in Waltham, Massachusetts and Washington, DC. We are all digital all the time and focusing on the convergence of media.
I am still shooting photo-illustrations for science magazines (but seeing them struggle).
We’ve run a family business since 1980. (trilliumstudios.com) My wife Barbara is a graphic designer and my son, Yari Wolinsky who is an editor, helped us expand into film. My time as a National Geographic photographer proved to be good training to become a film producer. We are making documentary and dramatic films.
This summer National Geographic photographer Bob Caputo, my son and I will launch PixboomBa (pixboomba.com) a website to help budding photographers make better pictures.
And, I am collaborating with three young women (identical triplets) on a project called TRIIIBE (triiibe.com). There will be an exhibition of TRIIIBE work at Boston’s Gallery Kayafas in April 2010.
MF: Well, we hear a lot about photographers these days having to make transitions – from old ways to new ways - but you’ve managed that seamlessly. Thanks, Cary, and I’ve been following your Trillium site with interest.