Ira Block

Ira Block is a National Geographic photographer in the classic mode, a master at photographing anything, whether it be landscapes, people, artifacts, or complicated concepts.

It all started when he was a teenager in the basement of his Brooklyn home, where he and his father built a darkroom. "I loved working in that little darkroom, watching the images appear," he recalls. "It was magic."

"Photography was a great hobby, but the film, developer, and paper quickly got beyond my means. The only way I could keep on was by trying to sell pictures—I'd photograph people in the neighborhood and sell them prints. People actually bought them."

Block's enthusiasm led to after-school and weekend work as an assistant to a local studio photographer and then to the newspaper at the University of Wisconsin.

"I started off covering sports," he says. "There were always photographers from the local paper and wire services there, and it wasn't long before I got friendly with them. Then the Wisconsin State Journal hired me part-time. Photographing for a newspaper is a great learning experience. The photographers there were great and taught me a lot. I'd get an assignment, run out, shoot, come back, process the film and select the pictures two or three times a day. You could see right away what worked and what didn't. It was instant feedback, and a whole lot of practice. It was the time of the Vietnam War, so there was lots to cover."

Block ended up back in New York freelancing for Sports Illustrated and other magazines. Like many young photographers, he had his eye set on National Geographic, and it wasn't long before he wrangled his way in to see Robert E. Gilka, the Society's director of photography.

"Mr. Gilka gave me some film to shoot a buffalo roundup in Montana—he wanted to see what I could do. I guess it was good enough, because he started giving me work for World, the Geographic's children's magazine, and for the Book Division. In '77 I was assigned to a story about the continental shelf that they'd been having trouble with. I came up with the approach of looking for unusual things that were going on, not just the expected."

Looking beyond the expected has been a hallmark of Block's work for Geographic ever since, work that has taken him from the North Pole to the Australian outback and dozens of places in between. In all of his stories, Block has come up with unique images, but he starts out in the same place as everyone else: with research.

"First I get a map and look carefully at it to get an idea of the geography of the place and familiarize myself with its landmarks. Then I go through books and magazines to get a feel for what the place looks like. I need to see photographs—it's too easy for writers to throw in adjectives that may or may not be reflected in the reality. By the time you get to your destination, you should know what distinguishes it, why you are doing a story about it, and what the key elements are.

"When you arrive, pay attention to everything, even little details. Clothing makes a big difference. A person in casual clothes says one thing about a place, someone dressed formally, something else. By going to different neighborhoods and types of events, you get a rich and varied look at the people.

"I've noticed a very strange thing in the years I've been working for Geographic. It's getting harder and harder to photograph people in the U.S. and recently in Western Europe too. People are inside all the time—watching television, at their computers, or at a mall. I spend a lot of time trying to find out when they'll be out and doing things, when they'll be interacting with other people."

Whatever he is photographing, Block sees the challenge as the same:

"How do you make images that look interesting and dynamic but also respect the integrity of the subject? To do that you need knowledge of your tools and an understanding of and appreciation for light. And most important, you have to think, 'What is the character of the subject, and what am I trying to say about it?' The character of the place should determine everything—the light you photograph it in, the weather, the composition, angle—everything.

"Most people see an appealing vista and just shoot what they see, a wide-angle shot of a large expanse. But our eyes and brains work differently from film. Wide-angle lenses make things small, and you usually end up with a big, boring scene in which nothing stands out. You need some anchor, something to weigh the landscape down and be a reference point. Never be satisfied with what you first see. Work the situation over. Come back for better light. Try different angles, different lenses. Get your feeling about the place into the frame. Good photography takes work."

The reward of that work is not just in the photographs Block has made at the bottoms of oceans, the tops of mountains, cities, villages, laboratories, and factories. It is something more personal:

"My favorite kind of assignment is when I get to meet interesting people. When the culture—either the human or the intellectual culture—is different enough for me to be fascinated by it. When I can learn from it. When I walk away enriched."

Ira Block's Travel Photo Tips

  • Think about what you are photographing. If it's a bustling city, don't shoot on a Sunday morning when it's empty, but when there's lots of traffic and people on the streets.
  • Scout for vantage points. Looking down into both landscapes and cities can help give a sense of place, so look for hills, tall buildings, or anything you can climb.
  • Travel light. I usually carry two camera bodies and three zoom lenses. Often you can't move yourself forward or back, and zooms allow you to control the composition.
  • If you don't want to lug around a big tripod, carry a little one you can set up on a table or a ledge.
  • Don't make night pictures when it's pitch dark, but at dusk. The images will look like they were made at night, but you will pick up more details.
  • If you are taking film overseas, remove the film from the canisters and put it in clear plastic bags. This makes it much easier and quicker for the security folks. Send the canisters in your checked luggage so you can use them to protect the film later.
  • Take as much of your gear on the plane as you can. You want to be able to work if your bags get lost.

Text by Robert Caputo, from Photography Field Guide: Landscapes