Interview with Bill Elmore

Bill and I discussed his ongoing Terre Haute Heroes Project on July 3rd, 2008. The work discussed in the interview will be featured in the Swope’s fall exhibit: Terre Haute Heroes Project: photographs by Bill Elmore, (education gallery) October 17, 2008- January 3, 2009.

LP. Bill, I know you have done combat photography. How did that come about and when was it, what were the circumstances?

BE. Yes, I was a Navy photographer in Vietnam.

LP. How long were you there?

BE. I was in the Navy for 4 years roughly.

LP. Were you already a photographer when you went into the navy?

BE. Yah, in fact right around the corner here in Watson’s studio (on Ohio street where Sacopulos law offices is).

LP. I know you had a cover of a magazine related to that-.

BE. One of my images was on the cover of time magazine in 1975. It’s not a big deal it’s a weekly magazine and hundreds, thousands, of images are in it.

LP. I feel this Terre Haute Heroes Project is some how related to that experience. Both involve courageous individuals and adrenaline inducing situations. Do you think this is a continuation of that earlier experience?

BE. shot for the Terre Haute Tribune when I got back from the service and photo journalism is always something I have liked doing.

LP. Have you always been drawn to action and danger?

BE. I don’t know, probably, yah.

LP. Are there specific visual qualities that draw you to this type of content as a photographer/ artist?

BE. There is a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, Eddie Adams. I met him in a bar in Australia, we were both drunk, and I asked him what his secret to success was? He said “f8 and be there “ (meaning set the f-stop on your camera to 8 and get out to where things are happening)

LP. (Do you see yourself as an artist or as a photographer? Or both or what?

BE. Photography came to me through failed attempts at being a painter. I was studying painting (poorly I might add). It was suggested that I take pictures of [various subjects…] and tack them around my easel and sketch from them. (This was in high school). Did you plan to go to art school after that? I took some classes at the Art Institute in Chicago. Pretty much given up formal art education. I think photography is an art. Yes I do see myself as an art photographer; every good photographer is an artist.

LP. How is this project similar or different from combat photography?

Terre Haute Police Department #2, color photograph, 2005
Terre Haute Police Department #2, color photograph, 2005

BE. I’m trying to think of a polite way to put this: 90% boredom 9% excitement and one percent terror. Its amazing how much time the police spend doing paperwork and stuff that seems mundane and boring, but necessary. It’s amazing to me- I’ve seen police handle themselves in situations that I would just blow a gasket… I hope to show…how they train and train until they are prepared for anything… when you watch them free someone in a car in minutes when it would take you much longer with the same tools. I wanted to show all the training they go through, the dedication they have. These guys are sometimes out there on there own time doing training.

LP. You grew up in Chicago? What brought you to Terre Haute?

BE. I was born here and most of my family is here. My parents had moved to Chicago. When I graduated from high school I came back here and then again when I got out of the service.

LP. As a commercial photographer you do a very different kind of work; can you talk a little about the difference?

BE. There about as different as you can get and still be photography, in the field you can’t control the light, the subject, or any of the conditions, in the studio your building from the ground up.

LP. How did this Terre Haute Heroes project get started?

BE. Short version is in the 1980s (my brother-in-law is a cop) I took some pictures of him. One day I thought that it would be cool to follow someone around and take pictures. It’s been in the back of my head since then; I always wanted to show people that it’s not all eating donuts, so I contacted the [Terre Haute] chief of police and the fire department. They were completely cooperative; it’s amazing how cooperative they were.

LP. How did you approach this body of work, as documentation, as art or in a totally different way?

BE. I thought about that a lot. I originally was going to do it in b/w film, do it photo-journalistically like the news. But about that time we went digital. And I changed it a little bit when I started looking at the images; I began to notice all the colors, the expression in it. So I am doing it, kind of, in both ways.

LP. Are there issues with safety, both yours and the responders? Did they give you limitations of access?

BE. Yah, I had to sign wavers and I stayed in the car till they told me I could get out. I found that limited the way I shot. I pretty much stopped shooting at night with the police because I could not use flash. I arrive and cover the scenes like the news media does.

LP. Some of these images are disturbing. I guess just like emergency responders you must have developed some kind of immunity or numbness – are you ever overwhelmed by the intensity or severity of the situation?

BE. On this project no, I purposely stayed away from the sensationalism kind of stuff. I tried to not shoot that. I was trying to show what these guys do. Nothing like in Vietnam? No nothing like in Vietnam.

LP. I know some of our readers will be interested to know what kind of photo technology you used.

BE. I shot some fire photos with a tripod by the car. I would Open the shutter for 3-4 min go around and shoot things with another camera and come back and close the shutter. For the most part everything on manual, hand metered everything; I did not use the auto exposure on the digital camera. All the pre processing was done with Photoshop CS. For most of the images the only enhancing done was cropping, a little dodging and burning here and there, but for the most part pretty much the way it was shot other than some set up shots.

LP. What shots were set up?

BE. I did portraits of some policemen and firemen in the studio and award presentations, and scenes in the department to show the work environment.

LP. And the logistics of this type of job?

BE. I would Carry a tripod in trunk of car and have my camera bag ready. Try to keep equipment to minimum: two cameras, two lenses and a flash and a light meter that was it.

I still miss the feel of film; I went kicking and screaming into digital. In Vietnam I carried a number of cameras and other equipment and loads of film. None of the cameras had batteries. The jungle will suck the life right out of a battery.

None of this project would have been possible with out Jahn [Enlund his partner] she was instrumental in financing, in organization, even driving me around, and picking pictures (from the slew of images shot). She is also the one who pushed me kicking and screaming into digital photography.

Terre Haute Police Department #22, color photograph, 2005
Terre Haute Fire Department #22, color photograph, 2005

LP. Are there any little stories that stick out in your head?

BE. I hoped the stories would be evident in the images. There were some pretty funny incidences, but one of the things I have problems with in this project is personally I don’t want to impinge on peoples privacy. Its not about sensationalism, or the criminal or the victim, it’s about the dedication of the emergency responders.

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