George W. Gardner was born July 22, 1940 in Albany, New York. His parents separated when George was four, and he was brought up by his mother. In high school, George took his first - and last - photography course, a short-lived formal introduction to photography that was discontinued after 12 weeks for lack of interest, including Gardner's. After graduation, George headed for the woods, and spent the winter as a trapper.
"Trapping is pretty grim," he says. "Ain't no way to live. So I finally decided I would take photographs of animals instead of killing them. I remember seeing pictures in magazines, outdoor magazines of the sort we don't have anymore, and I said to myself, 'That's easy. That guy got paid ten bucks for that picture.' I figured I would do pastorals and hunting and fishing pictures, and it would be an easy way to make a living.
"Of course, from there where do you go?" Gardner says, chuckling. "You go to college."
Gardner decided upon the University of Missouri. Although initially attracted by the reputation of the school's photojournalism courses, he eventually decided to major in anthropology. He learned his photography by doing it. As a freshman, he applied for a spot on the yearbook staff; asked if he'd done yearbook photography in high school, he lied and said yes. He became the yearbook photographer at $2 per picture, and subsequently photo editor of the college newspaper. "I realized that the photojournalism program would be a good thing to stay away from unless you wanted a job with the Topeka Journal or the Geographic, and I didn't see myself at either place. Besides, I was already doing pretty well."
So well, in fact, that even as an outsider he won some 25 awards in the photojournalism school's own photography competitions, as well as the major portfolio award, two years running. The latter prize: a week in New York with Lifemagazine. When he graduated, he moved to Wilmington, Delaware, and "became a freelance photographer. Took pictures and sold them."
Then, as now, George Gardner was an itinerant chronicler of the American scene. Photojournalist Bill Pierce once referred to him as the "gypsy photographer, roaring in and out of towns on his motorcycle, camera at ready." I don't remember encountering a motorcycle, but I did ride in a beat-up Peugeot. These days, he does most of his traveling in a 1947 Cessna 195, a postwar business plane he considers better suited to his hard-hauling ways than his earlier Piper.
Although he accepts an occasional assignment, Gardner seems constitutionally incapable of making his living in traditional ways. Never without a camera (I know he photographs while driving and flying, and often while eating), he travels around the country photographing whatever he finds interesting, which turns out to be almost everything. To look at most of Gardner's photographs is to know, not where he has been sent, but where he has been.
Early on, he sold his pictures to university magazines, company publications, the USIA, and TransAction, a unique social anthropology journal that published some of the best photography of the 1960s. Now, the bulk of his income comes from his substantial file of stock pictures, which seems to have become an important resource for educational textbook publishers.
The ways George finds to make a living are also the ways he finds to maintain his independence. He avoids illustrating other people's ideas, and tends to photograph what he wants, when he wants. Therein lies much of his power.
"I would like to think you just go out and stumble onto amazing things," he says, "and sometimes it happens that way. Usually, though, I go where I think the possibilities are good. Sometimes it's obvious, like going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or to Naked City, Indiana, where once a year people pay money to watch naked men and women cavort. You don't need a degree in art or photojournalism to know you can come up with one or two good pictures in such places.
"I always have another hundred things in mind that are off the beaten track and worth a day or two to photograph. If I'm out in that direction, I might take a look. I've photographed an awful lot of people who friends of mine thought were interesting. The father of a friend of a friend turned out to be a fascinating fellow who lives on 400 acres of Iowa farmland that he paid cash for. Probably never filed a tax form in his life. Lives with his wife and his girlfriend. Not too many people do that. Makes his living through a weird combination of trading and shoeing horses, breeding coon dogs, and training coon-hunting mules. A mule will go places a horse or car won't or can't. You come to a fence at night with a horse, you're dead. These mules are trained to jump over fences from a standing start. Then the rider just climbs over and gets back up on the mule and goes on down the road. That's your basic elderly coon hunter. This guy buys mules for $500 apiece, trains them for a few months, then sells them for $1,500 apiece. And there are 300 people in Iowa who think it is worth the money. Where else but in America?" The story eventually sold to Harper's Weekly, and George had another picture...
George understands American enterprise, and how the frontier mentality has adapted to industry, technology, and dangerously diminished resources. He knows how Americans work to live, and his vision cuts across and through cultural and economic strata. He comprehends the American dream as few artists do, probably because he shares it to an extent himself.
"America is my place," Gardner explains. "I have no choice, and I have always felt that. Anyplace else, I'm just a tourist, I don't connect. In America, I feel as if I have some deep notion of what's going on. I am trying to get at what I think about America. I can feel this country.
"But the connection between me and it is tenuous enough so that I really do have to pay attention. Otherwise, I will lose it. So I don't relax."
Gardner is connected to the land literally as well as figuratively. For the past twelve years he has owned a small farm in upstate New York. He now rents out the farmhouse that he lived in while hand building a three-story dwelling in the huge barn that came with the property. Both houses are heated entirely by wood in winter. Around the barn, George has constructed a maze of hutches in which he raises rabbits that he sells to a local gourmet restaurant and in the back are clusters of beehives that produce the honey he bottles under his own private label. He and his tenant also raise vegetable and chickens and sometimes there are pigs.
"I think being a farmer is fascinating," he says. "It fits in nicely with photography. Most physical labor is like farming: you are out there forking the hay and letting your mind drift here and there. In photography, with the weight of the equipment and the constant moving about, the physical labor is, in fact, about as severe. But there's the added factor of concentration. I couldn't physically do the kind of photographs that I do, seven or even five days a week, every week. I'd be wiped out. The people who try to do it burn out and disappear.
"Concentration is the one thing I bring to photography that the average kid who walks through the door doesn't. I can go to an event like Mardi Gras and focus for eighteen hours. Most people can't focus on anything for more than three seconds. And photography, like flying, requires total concentration; it can take everything you have. The great tragedy of photography," says Gardner with a grin, "is that if you can't do it, you don't die."
"Do you consider photography work?" I want to know.
"I've always known that if you wanted to do something, you probably wanted to do it for about ten per cent of what was involved in doing it. The rest is just work. But it's not a problem for me.
"I think you must get pleasure out of the act of photography, and to do it on a more or less continuous basis over a period of years, you have to love it."
"When you began," I ask, "did you ever think about art?"
"Go to museums and look?"
"Not then. I read a lot, and photographs struck me, somehow, as something more than just spaces between type."
"Are you interested in journalism?"
"No, I'm interested in pictures."
"Are you interested in facts, conveying facts?"
"Not in pictures."
"Do you view your subjects as real people?"
"God yes. Sure."
It strikes me that George W. Gardner would be a perfect subject for one of his pictures.
— From the introduction to America Illustrated (©Jim Hughes, 1982)
George W. Gardner still lives in his barn in upstate New York, traveling whenever there's reason or a break in the weather. He recently returned from a trip to the west coast on a modified 1977 R75. During the trip there and back again, he passed through Allegheny, NY; Defiance, OH; Peoria, IL; Decorah, IA; Blair, NE; Rock Springs, WY; Reno, NV; Klamath Falls, OR; San Francisco, CA; and many others. The most recent exhibition of his work was held at Deborah Bell Photographs in Chelsea, Manhattan