It’s high noon, July 1995. For the past 40 minutes, William Huber—driving a white Lincoln Continental through the badlands of South Dakota—has been engaged in a mental tug of war with himself. Some 45 miles back, he saw, and somehow failed to photograph, a tin-shack watering hole he now can’t stop thinking about. He wants to return, but makes a last-ditch effort to capitulate to his sensible inclinations. The harsh noon light would never yield a good shot, he tells himself, and the round trip would add 80 minutes, none of which he has to spare, to his travel time.
But Huber is there in the first place, driving alone after attending a wedding in Minneapolis, because of his love for Terrence Malick’s Badlands, a movie that “takes time to understand,” he says. “I love to carry around with me some-thing that doesn’t reveal itself easily. I guess it’s like love in many ways. Compelling and impossible to completely understand.”
For Huber, the coalescing of moods and conditions that move him to take a picture presents as compelling an enigma, one whose intrigue he’s loath to dilute by attempting to comprehend it. Which is why he turns around his lumbering rent-a-car, without completely understanding why, in order to take a picture of the Jack-Ass Inn. The resulting photograph diverges somewhat from his typically soft-lit landscapes, but it still exudes what his agent Marilyn Cadenbach calls “quintessentially William Huber.” There’s a bone-deep sense, that is, of time standing still. And in that stillness is room for viewers to enter the image and create their own narrative—to wonder, for instance, about a bar owner who would name his establishment with bawdy, scatological irreverence, then paint a careful dash on otherwise haphazard signage between the words, “Jack” and “Ass.”
Huber’s pragmatism lost to the artist in him that day, but a practical streak has helped him translate a passion for the art of photography into a thriving business. Since opening his Boston studio in 1986, Huber has developed a portfolio of high-profile campaigns for Nike, Chopin Vodka, Sony, Emirates, Nikon, L.L. Bean and Johnnie Walker, to name a few, while he’s produced editorial for such sought-after magazines as Travel Leisure, Departures, Outside, Mother Jones, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Wired, Forbes and Audubon.
But then, the word “practical” is a deceptive one. A practical photographer wouldn’t have returned seven times to a ballpark for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners’s award-winning Niketown campaign in 1997 because the light, by his evaluation, wasn’t right. And in itself, it wasn’t impractical when Huber, on a 2003 advertising shoot in Siena, retrieved his camera from his hotel because he saw a museum interior he wanted to shoot. But a practical photographer—realizing he was due at the air-port in only a half hour—wouldn’t have nonetheless returned to the site, running full-tilt through the streets because he was unwilling to let this one get away. Huber is almost pain-fully discerning about who and what he’ll shoot, but once he’s moved to do so, there’s very little that will thwart him.
Not even parental strictures. In his Saddle River, New Jersey, household, Huber’s father—a Sunday photographer who later established a tabletop studio—declared the closet in which he stored several cameras off limits to his brood. Huber was ten when he began smuggling out a Polaroid 800, shooting the sky, plates of food and bugs as inspiration struck. His father forgave, and Huber went on to assist at the studio during high school, but he didn’t embrace the prospect of a career in photography until later. Huber, whose appetite for fine art and film seemed impossible to sate, maintained the position that he would one day sculpt and paint in Montmartre. At the suggestion that he consider an adulthood of self-sufficiency, Huber sublimated a gnawing sense that the idea might have some merit in order to evince teenage contempt for such establishment thinking.
That shadow of doubt about life as a starving artist, however, led him to the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, which offered both a renowned photojournalism curriculum and the opportunity to study studio art, film and art history. The friction between art and commerce troubled him until his sophomore year, when he recalls reading a magazine article that inspired a critical shift. In it, Joni Mitchell, that reigning empress of the anti-establishment, went against the counter-cultural grain to say that her prosperity—about which she’d been ambivalent for years—had in fact given her true freedom as an artist. “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois,” said Gustav Flaubert, “so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Mitchell’s modern-day echo of the sentiment liberated Huber to pursue a career in photography with abandon—as he did from then on—buoyed by complete certainty: Art and success need not be mutually exclusive.
The rigorous training at the Newhouse School equipped him with virtuosic technical facility. But he began to realize that his success as a photojournalist would be too much predicated on the speed with which he got to a scene of some catastrophe, not necessarily the sophistication of his imagery. After a post-graduate year assisting on advertising shoots in New York, he headed south. That Huber’s creative fulfillment should lay in the annual report work he took up in Dallas might seem counter-intuitive, but Huber is driven by a desire to extract beauty from that which doesn’t hold its promise. First as an assistant, and later through the Dallas studio he established in 1984, Huber infused photographs of gritty, industrial sites with surreal magnificence. His factory-worker subjects awed him. “It was the monotony that got me so much,” he says. “Watching someone do the same thing every day, like cut the bad spots off the potatoes at the Frito-Lay factory.” Recalling this years later in his Boston studio, Huber actually shudders.
Huber’s life and work, in fact, could be seen as a reaction against the hazards of monotony. When he speaks of travel as the medicine we all need, the sickness he alludes to is that of sameness. Finding no comfort in the familiar, he turned his attention away from annual reports in 1991, developing an oeuvre of landscape photography, among other genres, that earned him critical acclaim. In 2000, Huber began working on a series of portraits poised to do the same, while most recently, he’s undertaken another series depicting gun owners and the places they store their weapons.
To be sure, a William Huber image is immediately recognizable. His landscapes are contemplative studies, vast in scale and intimate at once. He prefers cool to hot light, and a palette of silvery blues and greens. But beyond these hallmarks, he’s suspicious of imagery that relies too heavily on style or technique. At heart, he’s a purist, aiming to create images whose resonance transcends their immediate era, a quality he admires in the work of William Eggleston, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans. “It’s easy in photography to use technique to tell a story,” he says. “But when you get a really good picture with minimal tricks and technique, then you have an extraordinary image. Then you have a picture the viewer can believe in.”
Much of Huber’s time is spent searching for faces a person might want to look at forever. This is even the case over lunch at a café near his studio, when a dark-haired waitress, whose slightly too-long face is neither homely nor pretty, takes his order. “She’s got a very interesting face,” he says, when she’s out of earshot. “I can’t quite place it.”
It’s likely that Huber can’t place it because the allure of all the people he shoots rests below the surface. One would pause before identifying the woman in his portrait, Tricia, as beautiful. If she’s beautiful at all, Tricia is so only to the extent that beauty can disarm. Stylist Suzanne Rubin, who works with Huber on his portraiture, describes his subjects as people who live in a world of their own making. Huber met one such subject during an early morning shoot for Sequoia in 2000. In the woods north of Seattle, Huber caught a glimpse of Dave—a large man whose strange, plump face is more womanly than woodsman-like—helping the crew clear away foliage with a hand-axe. As Huber learned, Dave also happened to be a 43-year-old Boy Scout leader.
It’s a potentially disturbing scenario, this Gothic figure—a hulking, middle-aged man who works with young boys—roving the dawn-lit backwoods with an axe. And Huber, who lists Grey Gardens and Picnic At Hanging Rock as among his favorite films, is attracted to the dark side. But his are not freak-show images. On meeting Dave, Huber was most interested in the fact that this man’s gentle kindness and sharp intellect completely upend the impression he gives. Dave, Boy Scout Leader is a raw, simple portrait of a person who seems unaware of the world that churns around him. “If you can get your subject to be unaware of the camera,” Huber says, “then you might get some truth out of who they are.” That’s what Huber looks for, after all, not any deviance from the norm that a lesser artist might yield to exploiting.
Rubin describes her friend as, “a gentleman photographer,” the kind of artist, she explains, with whom you can discuss politics, art, philosophy and film. “There’s an understanding and a great love of all things in the world,” she says. “It’s about being in and of the world.”
When Rubin uses the term gentleman, she isn’t refer-ring to his personality; Huber has an edgier sensibility than that characterization would have it. Rather, gentleman photographer underscores Huber’s sophistication as a thinker. So, too, does the phrase perfectly capture the refinement of Huber’s approach as an image-maker, in which he allows the complexity of his subjects to emerge with complete integrity, giving viewers a picture, as he well put it, to believe in. In this sense, Huber’s photography truly is a gentleman’s kind, showing a genteel sort of regard for both subject and viewer. ca