A Conversation with Ira Block

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Ira Block is an internationally renowned documentary photographer, lecturer, and workshop leader who has produced over 30 stories for the National Geographic magazine and its affiliates. Ira’s unique vision and outstanding lighting skills have made him the “go-to photographer” for complex assignments such as shooting ancient Greek artifacts, dinosaur fossils, and Peruvian mummies. He taught the first creative, digital photography class at the School for Visual Arts in New York City and lectures and teaches around the world. In addition to his editorial work Ira shoots commercial and corporate images, portraits, and advertising. Ira lives in New York City.

Lisa Lytton: You grew up in Brooklyn. You’re like the only real New Yorker I know.

Ira: And I am THE real New Yorker. There’s only one of me in all of New York.

Lisa: What made you want to be a photographer? We’ve known each other a long time, but I don’t know your photography backstory.

Ira: I was in high school and my high school physics teacher had a photo club. And I thought, “Hey, what better way to get a good grade in physics than joining this photo club?” I joined the photo club and then I thought it was pretty cool developing pictures and making prints. Suddenly my dad built a darkroom in our basement. So I had a real dark room and it was magic watching prints develop—I fell in love with the process. I started working with the school newspaper and the school yearbook. Plus, between you and me, what better way to meet girls than being a photographer?

Lisa: I so knew you were going to go there, Ira.

Ira: After that I went to college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I hadn’t planned on being a photographer, but I had a camera with me and wanted to take pictures. So I joined the student newspaper to have access to their dark room. As a staff member, I would photograph the university’s sports for the newspaper. When you’re at a basketball game, you’re sitting on the floor of the court with other photographers, including professionals that worked for the newspapers or the wire services. They started asking me, “Hey, are you the guy that did the picture last week?” One time the UPI photographer was going on vacation and he asked me to fill in. In the dark room at The Wisconsin State Journal I met the guys from the newspaper, who eventually asked me to come on part-time.

At a newspaper, you go out, shoot, come back, process the film, and make a print right away. From doing that you got to see your mistakes immediately and how to fix them because you remembered what you just did. Also, we were competing for photography awards with other great newspapers in Wisconsin, Minneapolis, and Chicago which kept our photography standards high.

Still, I would get assigned some of the crummy things like the Ladies Garden Club, taking group shots of people.

Lisa: The “grip and grin.”

Ira: Exactly. But the guys were doing it with multiple lights, multiple flashes. As a result, I learned how to do some lighting, as bad as that lighting was back then. I became conscious of light and aware of light.

Lisa: Newspapers are the great training ground… you are acknowledged as a master of lighting.

Ira: OK, long story. In New York I was doing freelance for a lot of the foreign magazines and I met Steve Raymer, a photo editor at the National Geographic magazine. Steve introduced me to Robert Gilka, the legendary photo editor. Gilka was from Milwaukee and knew my newspaper really well. I was warned not to show Gilka any pictures—he’d just seen too much—but come in with an idea. I told him about a roundup of buffalo in Montana that was on National Park land where they would round up the buffalos and tend to them and their babies. He agreed to let me give it a try.

I drove out to Montana, shot the roundup, and shipped the film back. I went down to see Gilka and he was looking grumpy. He started apologizing to me because whatever film they gave me came out of processing looking all green! I think they gave me young Kodachrome or something that originally started out green.

Because of that disaster he felt like he had to do something for me, so he sent me on another assignment. The magazine was doing a story on the continental shelf around the U.S. and they wanted something different. I just looked for any unusual thing that was going on with the continental shelf, any oddball things. I found them. I shot them. And after that I was golden.

Lisa: Gilka was legendary, for his high standards and his grumpiness. But that was the beginning of over 30 stories with the Geographic.

Ira: For my next gig, there was an archaeologist somewhere down around Williamsburg, Virginia that we were trying to work with. He was difficult, so they asked me, knowing that I do have a little bit of charm, to try and go down and work with him.

To shoot the archaeology I had to get back into lighting because you need to make things that don’t look good, look good with light. Learning to do artificial lighting makes you even more aware of natural lighting. And that’s taken me from archaeology to the streets of New York today. I’m not using artificial lighting, but I’m just looking for natural lighting that’s interesting.

Lisa: In your New York street work, it’s all about a city in movement, and finding both the interesting unusual moment, and the light.

Ira: When I teach and I talk to students, I always tell them if you walk into a situation that seems a little boring with nothing going on, the first thing to do is look for the light. Shoot where the light is; that will make your photo interesting. What I do now is look for light.

Lisa: Your 9/11 series uses light in an emotional way to connect to the survivors of that tragedy.

Ira: It was the tenth anniversary and everybody was focusing on those that were killed during the attacks. We came up with the idea to focus on the survivors, those people that got out. To do studio portraits, I used not only lighting but lighting modifiers, like soft boxes and strip lights. Not only to light the subjects, but to create a catch light in the eye. The catch light helps draw you into that person and can say something. It can create an emotion.

Lisa: I can tell from your pictures of New York that you really love the city.

Ira: I do, but New York is a tough place for me to shoot. I’ve been here for so long that I get desensitized to what’s going on around me. That’s why as a photographer, you go halfway around the world to see some other culture. It stimulates you more.

Lisa: You teach workshops. What do you tell students about storytelling and composing photographs?

Ira: When you shot film as I did, and you couldn’t look at the back of a camera, and you only had 36 frames, you had to be so much more careful about what you were looking at and your composition. With digital you’re more able to change immediately because you’re getting instant feedback. You think, I’ll just shoot a couple pictures and when I get back I can crop it or fix it in post-production. Coming from a film background, I am much more careful about how I shoot. I want to get it right in the camera.

And to me, shooting is part of the experience. When you’re shooting, you’re interacting with people. There’s smells, there’s noise, there is all this going on that becomes part of your taking that picture. Part of the joy of photography for me is being there shooting. Not coming back and sitting in front of a computer.

Lisa: You’ve got the right personality for it.

Ira: I like dealing with people. I like the interaction. It’s part of my personality. My photography is my personality and vice versa. And dealing with people is part of the fun.

There are other photographers that aren’t good with dealing with people, and they can do very good set-up shots with models because you don’t have to get into people then. I’d rather deal with people that are real, get to know them and make them comfortable, and shoot like that.

Lisa: You obviously make an emotional connection. You can tell the difference in the photos.

Ira: No one seems to care about the difference anymore. Most people just want to get their images up on social media and then move on.

Lisa: The single image posted on Instagram is very enjoyable because of the immediate feedback, but it doesn’t tell a story. When I’m flipping through Instagram, it feels like picture editing. It is a quick visceral reaction of likes and dismisses: Nope, nope, yes.

Ira: For most people I don’t think they even realize that, that when they pick something they like, they’re in edit mode.

Lisa: Let’s talk more about how you tell a story. It’s on my mind because our Ingage app is custom-made for storytelling. It’s about taking still images and video to make a meaningful narrative, whether it is about your business or your creative work.

Ira: Storytelling is what I’ve been doing since I started. Whether I’m looking for one image that tries to tell a story, or multiple images that get a bigger story told, you’ve got to think more about your imagery and what you’re shooting.

People on social media are subconsciously looking for those moments even though they’re not aware, like when someone looks goofy or when an animal looks a certain way. So they’re starting the storytelling. But storytelling takes a little more of a commitment and time and energy and thinking. If Ingage makes it simpler to tell a story, it’s going to attract more people who are not professional and are hesitant to make that commitment.

Storytelling is easier for me because I’ve been doing it for so many years. For the average person to understand what a story is, it’s a little more difficult. When I look through the viewfinder and something feels right, I snap the shutter. But when I do a workshop and analyze my images for the students, I realize that I operate basically by rote or by instinct.

Lisa: What is your passion project right now?

Ira: Well, I just finished one of the projects I wanted to do personally. That was my Cuban baseball project, which will come out next year as a book. Now I’m looking for other things to do like that, where I could work on my own, shoot the way I want, and fulfill certain things I want to fulfill, but still work hard at it. And I’ll keep pushing myself. Sometimes some people start believing their own BS and think that because they shot a picture, it’s got to be good. I’m still self-critiquing and have no plans to stop.

Click here to view Ira’s interactive Ingage story; comprised of a selection of some of his favorite photos taken in New York City.

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