American photojournalist Ira Block is probably best known for his work with National Geographic, for whom he has produced over 30 stories, on subjects as varied as dinosaur fossils in the Gobi desert and documenting Moche mummies in Peru, in addition to a major illustrated book, Saving America’s Treasures in which the National Geographic Society collaborated with the Clinton White House and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.. One of his particular specialities is location lighting, which often calls for imaginative improvisation. His most recent National Geographic story, Earth Before the Ice, investigated prehistoric global warming. His photographic exhibit Faces of Hope — portraits of survivors and images of objects retrieved from the aftermath of the World Trade Center tragedy — are part of the permanent collection of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. On the educational side, Ira taught the first creative, digital photography class at the School for Visual Arts in New York City, and works with National Geographic Expeditions, teaching and holding workshops around the world.
MF: How did you start in photography?
IB: I started in high school; my chemistry teacher was an amateur photographer and he got me interested. I built a darkroom in my basement and started working for my high school year book and newspaper. When I went to college I continued taking photos for the school newspaper and was eventually hired to work for the local newspaper and the wire services part time. It was then that I decided to become a professional photographer.
MF: And how did your relationship with National Geographic begin?
IB: After college, I came back to New York and was freelancing for many magazines, most of them foreign publications that used a lot of photos. An old friend from college got a job as a picture editor at the National Geographic and he opened the door for me to meet with Bob Gilka, the famous director of photography. Showing a portfolio to anyone at the National Geographic is a humbling experience; they have seen the best photographers and photographs in the world. But I had some ideas for stories and Gilka decided to give me a chance on a small project. After that things started to build, and Gilka liked to take people out of their comfort zone. A few months after my first project he asked me to accompany a Japanese explorer to the North Pole by dog sledge. I was a 28 year old who grew up in New York City and knew nothing about the Arctic, but the experience changed my life and taught me so many different things about myself, survival and interacting with people.
MF: Continuing with National Geographic for a moment, it’s been one of the great sponsors of editorial photography. How much influence has working for the magazine had on your photography?
IB: When you do photography at the National Geographic you are in a friendly competition with some of the world’s greatest photographers. As a result you are constantly pushing the envelope on what you can do and looking for ways to tell stories that will catch the attention of the readers.
MF: Have there been any drawbacks, or has it all been good?
IB: Though I am married I don’t have any children, and I think it would be hard to handle all the travelling if you had kids. There are moments when being away is difficult on your marriage and you have to learn how to handle that.
MF: There’s more talk than ever these days about storytelling in photography, and the photo story has been the main vehicle for many of us who’ve worked for magazines. Do you have any opinions about how storytelling should work, or could work better?
IB: I think there’s really less storytelling through photo essays now than the past. It seems like a lot of publications are trying to tell a story through more photo illustration, which requires heavy Photoshop work. Though I’m always moving forward with my photography and technology, photo illustration is not what I do. Lately I’ve been moving into video a bit which I never thought I’d do, but it’s a great way to tell stories. I especially like working with sound and mixing in different tracks to add richness to the visuals. Very odd coming from a still photographer like me!
MF: Yes, that’s funny. I’ve been going through the same process myself, and sound in particular is such a different world. Has this move into video made you re-think the way you plan and shoot features?
IB: Video has certainly made me look at my stories a lot differently. It’s really difficult to shoot videos and stills at the same time, one or both will eventually suffer. And video requires a totally different way of thinking and planning your story. To do video correctly you need to have a few people working with you, which demands a larger budget. I’m not sure how I will incorporate video into my editorial work, but I will definitely make it a part of my commercial assignments.
MF: The days of many general-interest magazines, plentiful assignments and generous budgets are beginning to look like history, yet this is what made big photo stories possible. How do you see the future?
IB: In a few years, ‘print’ general-interest magazines probably won’t exist as we know them. More than likely the magazines will be interactive and online. It’s just so expensive to use ink and paper to print magazines, plus the postage rates and other distribution costs have become prohibitive. Stories will still be told through pictures and good photographers will be necessary to shoot evocative images and develop relationships with people. However, where and how the images appear will change. And of course the web and tablets cry for video and multi-media. The need for photographers who can put stories together, get to interesting places no matter the logistics, and who can get people to open up for them will still be necessary.
MF: What are you currently working on, and what’s engaging your attention for the immediate future?
IB: I’ve been photographing an on going project on early Buddhism and heading off to Bhutan for my third trip. I’m also at the start of a book project here in the US about the Presidential Library system. And like every photographer I’m waiting to see what’s around the next corner.