Photographer Spotlight – Billy Howard
Tell us about yourself…
I grew up in Raleigh, NC and had a lovely childhood and didn’t even mind my few introductions to the Raleigh Police Department. I briefly played the accordion, for which I should have been arrested, and thankfully for generations of friends, I stopped that pursuit. My father was in ad sales for a newspaper in Oswego, NY where he said the only things to do were drink whiskey, freeze to death, and figure out how to get out of Oswego, NY which he did when his boss decided not to take a job at the Raleigh Times. Dad took his train ticket, showed up in Raleigh, and took the job. Then upon meeting my mom, took her too. They were happily married for 64 years. I’ve been happily married for twenty years to my amazing wife Laurie Shock, who I met through her work as a book designer, producer, and publisher. I realized working with her was what I wanted to do more than anything. I’ll be 113 years old when we reach 64 years, but you have to have goals.
How did you discover your love for photography?
My father always had a cool camera with a leather case which I saw as a revered object. He had a unique style of holding the camera which almost always resulted in a smudgy out of focus finger in the corner of every photo he took. That’s how I learned about having a personal style. A high school friend’s father taught a short photography course my senior year in high school, I printed my first photo, and was hooked. I became the yearbook and newspaper photographer in college but didn’t think of it as a realistic career, my parents agreed and I began my career as a reporter for a small weekly newspaper. While I like to write, I was always envious of the photographers and after a year they let me switch from reporter to photographer and within another year was the chief photographer for the newspaper’s daily flagship paper. The publisher hated photographers so there were always openings for advancement.
Who are some of your favorite photographers? (Past or Present)
There are iconic names of course, like Kertész and Erwitt, but the first photographer that really captured my imagination was Dennis Darling. I saw a series he did on motorcycle gangs and other outlaw sorts in a popular photography magazine and I immediately knew I wanted to be able to do that. As good fortune and grace would have it, years later Dennis was living in Atlanta and we became friends. His work is still the gold standard.
You recently transitioned from Medium Format film to the Hasselblad X1D II, can you share with us your experience with this process?
I had been shooting with a Hasselblad 500CM for over 30 years and loved the unique feeling of the images I was able to get. I have a client that I’ve been working with for over two decades that also liked that look and every few months, I would order some Fuji Provia film and take portraits for them. One day I was going to get my film processed and the lab was closed. Then I discovered all the labs in Atlanta were closed. Over the last few years it has been more and more difficult to get quality processing so instead of tearing my hair, what is left of it, out, I made the jump into digital medium format. I was surprised at how well all my Hasselblad equipment held its value as well as a Mamiya 7, which I sold for more than I bought it for 20+ years ago. That money went straight into the Hasselblad X1DII, which to me is camera poetry.
Can you describe a photographically challenging situation that you were confronted with that you were able to resolve on the fly?
I was working with the Centers for Disease Control in South Africa and was sent into a coal mine to illustrate new safety measures. They told me I couldn’t take my flash because any electrical spark could ignite methane gas and blow up the mine. I thought this was a good policy and left the flash above ground. I descended 90 meters in an elevator large enough to transport trucks and then got into a truck and drove 7 kilometers into the mine. I have never experienced that level of dark before and shooting without a flash seemed daunting. But as I observed the scene I noticed the miners headlamps lighting whatever space they were aimed at so I asked them to become my human lighting gear and would have them aim at people or objects I needed to shoot. I got my photos and didn’t blow up the mine, so good ending.
In your photojournalism work, which photographic systems do you use? Why?
I use a combination of Canon 5D Mark IVs, my Hasselblad, and occasionally a 4X5 rail camera, each has qualities that make them perfect for what I want to achieve. The Canon is a workhorse and I’ve shot up to 3,000 frames a day on some of my commercial shoots for educational clients. I love the speed and ease of their zoom lenses covering almost every focal length I need in two lenses and bodies making the ability to capture quickly evolving scenes effortless. I love adding the Hasselblad into the mix which gives my clients something they weren’t expecting.
What is your favorite underrated photographic tool? Why?
I have an old film loupe that I used to edit film on a light table and it perfectly fits over the back screen on my camera, allowing me to see clearly the shots I am taking for focus, exposure and color, something that is very difficult on a bright sunny day when shooting outside, and hard enough inside with eyesight that isn’t what it used to be. It is always around my neck when on assignment.
How has your career grown and evolved over the span of 4 decades?
After working for the newspaper I was asked to start the marketing photography department at Georgia Tech and soon after became the director of photographic services at Emory University and after ten years there, started my freelance career. I realized early in my career that I didn’t want to only photograph assignments to capture photographs for someone else and I began to seek projects that meant something to me personally. Some friends asked if I would coordinate a photography exhibit to go along with a fundraiser for the Task Force for the Homeless and I gathered 33 photographers who had all documented the Atlanta homeless population and published a book of the work, “Can You See Me?” which ended up raising $10,000 for the Task Force and the Atlanta Food Bank. In the mid 1980s, a friend died of AIDS and I started photographing People with AIDS and letting them write their thoughts down on the photographic print, as I had seen Duane Michaels and Jim Goldberg do. The resulting book, “Epitaphs for the Living: Words and Images in the Time of AIDS” became the first full length photographic documentary book on the AIDS crisis. All of the negatives, prints, and correspondence from that project are now housed in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University. Since then I have always tried to have personal projects that balanced out the commercial work. I received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship that allowed me to document the Carter Center’s efforts to eradicate guinea worm disease in Ghana and have published books and had traveling exhibits on children with cancer, people with disabilities, the visually impaired, and teens with mental health issues. The ability of the camera to allow me to enter into the lives of these extraordinary people has profoundly impacted my life, something I never would have imagined in my early twenties as I embarked on this journey.
If you were behind your camera and could choose anything you wanted to be in your viewfinder, where would you be and what would you be looking at?
I would be anywhere in the world looking through my viewfinder at my favorite subject, my wife. She protests and hates having her photograph made but she married a photographer so I have no sympathy.
Why did you select Capture Integration as your equipment partner?
More than simply selling you gear, Dave and the team at CI really want you to succeed, they feel more like mentors than merchants. The decision to buy the Hasselblad system was a big financial investment and they walked me through all of the details, letting me experience both the Hasselblad system and the Fuji medium format system before making my decision. While the Fuji is a workhorse and I loved it, the Hasselblad feels more like poetry and as I begin to be more selective on assignments, I wanted a camera that would inspire me. I would not have gotten to that point without the support of the entire team at CI.