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UPSTREAM CREATORS: Photographer William Abbott

May 16, 2016

Freelancers: those who swim against the mainstream to reach a place where they can live and work in accordance with their own visions and perceptions of existence, a place that corresponds to their inner natures. They are - in one way or another -  creators: not only visual artists, musicians, photographers, composers, and writers, but also instrument builders, architects, furniture designers, entrepreneurs, small shop owners, hair and makeup stylists, cobblers, chefs, anyone whose reason for being has need of independence to evolve. This choice makes for an unpredictable life, seemingly free on the surface, but requiring resilience and courage.


Featured in this first of a series of articles about freelancers is William Abbott, a photographer who chose to ride down this often difficult and sometimes dangerous road full of radical curves, ups and downs, thunder and lightning, surprises and epiphanies. The people and places that have given shape to his journey are indelibly imprinted in his images.

 "Snow on Panamint Mountain Range." Death Valley, Ca. 2008 (Film)  © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.


Subjects of Abbott's photographs are often the dramatic and fantastic landscapes he has seen in North America, and more particularly in California. He was born in Fort Bragg, California on the Pacific Coast, on February 29, 1944 and grew up in Carmel Valley on the Monterey Peninsula. In 1969, he went to live in Hawaii for ten months. These grand and green places (undeveloped at the time) with their hills, valleys and precipices overlooking the Pacific Ocean probably influenced the way he would see things, teaching him about proportion and composition.


When Abbott returned, he moved to Southern California to study fine art at the Laguna School of Art and Design in Laguna Beach. His choice of camera changed from 110mm to 35mm; he wanted to document the different media in which he was working. According to Abbott, the fine art classes that he took helped "develop his eye for balance, colour and design, and optimized his grasp of line and balance."


 "Study in Patterns No.89,  Anaheim, CA, 1988 (Film) © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.


  "Three Windows," Monterey, CA. 2007 (Digital) © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.


While taking classes in fashion design where he "couldn’t make a pattern to save my life," he realized that it was the art of photography that intrigued him. Abbott remembers: 


Watson Cross was my instructor and saw more potential talent in me than I did myself. He got me into Choinard’s where I learned a lot of different ways of making art, including painting and print making.


In 1971, he enrolled at the Choinard Institute in Los Angeles. His career in photography really started while he was still a student there:




I would take photos of the models at school, not really knowing much about cameras at that time. I knew if I had the needle of the meter in the middle, I would get a decent photo.  I would drop off the film that I had shot during the day at a Fotomat and pick them up on the way to school the next morning. I would go through the photos and decide what was good and bad, teaching myself a lot that way. I gave the prints to the girls and soon after that, one of them came to me and asked if I would do a portfolio for her. I ran off to the library, looked up the word "portfolio," then went back and said “Sure”… and so started a career as a photographer. But the girls being very attractive, I did more trades than make any money!



  "Patterns in Rocks," Point Lobos, CA, 2007 (Digital)  © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.



Moving back to Northern California, he majored in photography at the San Francisco Art Academy (1973) and the San Francisco Art Institute (1974). Before that, he had applied for entry into the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, CA …


... but there was a four-year waiting list, so I applied at San Francisco Art Institute and got in. I took photojournalism, studio lighting and darkroom techniques. One of the instructors and I just didn’t get along at all. I would shoot a photojournalism story, go home, process and print the negatives either being late or not showing up for the class that day. When I showed my work, all the students were very impressed with what I did, but the instructor would only look for ways to put my work down. After two semesters, I left the Institute and applied at the Art Academy, where I got in. Who did I have for instructor the first day of studio lighting class? The same guy...! I needed a job, but couldn't find anything. Someone said to me, "Why not pick lettuce in the Salinas Valley?"  So for a season, I did just that and let me tell you, it was the hardest job I ever had. Won't do that again...


 "Pier Pilings," Outer Banks, NC, 2014 (Digital) © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.


In 1980, Abbott exhibited his work for the first time, in Carmel, California. Although he was selling his photographs, he still had to find supplemental income. In the 60's he had earned money in many incongruous ways, including: driving 24-foot flatbed trucks, being a machinist for Rockwell and a painting contractor, even working for a company that heat-treated the skins of napalm bombs in Vietnam. By the time of the exhibition, he was providing technical support for software and hardware companies. Still room on his head for more hats, he also drove delivery trucks, framed pictures, and worked in construction. But his most pleasant and reliable bread-and-butter jobs have been working as a bartender, chef, cook, or waiter:


For the most part, the restaurant business was good to me over the years, and in the 60's, 70's and 80's, it was easy to get a job in a restaurant. In the early 80’s, I had my own art supply shop and did photography for the local newspaper, graphic design, and that is when I first got into computers. In the 90's, things changed and I did more things in the computer field: desktop support, IT administration, consultancy for such companies as McGraw Hill, AT&T, Lucent Technologies, and others.

" Railroad Ties," Savannah, GA, 2015. '(Film)  © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.



Basically autodidact since leaving school, Abbott has explored and developed his art ever since, setting up studios on the Monterey Peninsula and then in Southern California, New Mexico and Arizona. Each gave him new ideas for the next. Once he had acquired the savoir faire required for running a studio well, he then decided to broaden his experience and professional activities. Moving to Lambertville, New Jersey, in the 80's, he opened an art supply shop which he called "Abbott Graphic and Art Supplies" (AGAS). Then he changed the name to "Abbott Enterprises," offering services in photography, graphic design and computer assistance.


In the end he realized that he had taken on too much, so he decided to just focus on photography, calling his enterprise, "Abbott Photography," and went back to working in a studio... thus coming full circle. Eventually, Abbott settled in Greenville, South Carolina, where he found new inspirations for his photographs there and in other parts of the South:


  "Lights in the Village, Greenville West End,"  Greenville, SC, 2015 (Film)  © William Abbott.  All Rights Reserved.


  "Corner Store," Charleston, SC (Film) 1989 © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.


  "Appliance Store," Savannah, GA, 2015 (Film) 2015 © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.


A common thread runs through the fabric of much of Abbott's work since the 70's. He is fascinated by places and objects that go unnoticed. Whether neglected or abandoned, they are no longer of interest or of value to anyone. But Abbott finds poignant beauty in the “unconsidered,” and the photographs in a series he calls "Broken and Abandoned: Surviving Traces" exude stoic and silent abandonment, tinted occasionally with irony:


 "Favorite Armchair," Huntington Estuary, Huntington Beach, CA, 1986 (Film) © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.


  "Hot Ice," Highway 26, Greenville, SC, 2014 (Digital) © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.


  "Lost Sanctuary," Winstron, NC, 2014 (Film) © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.


   "Hide-A-Bed, Not-So-Hidden," Everglades, FL, 1985 (Film) © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.


In my work I like to capture visually the essence of moods and transport the viewer to a place in time outside of  the present. I choose to photograph from my heart, which is very different than working with your head. When I see a scene that stirs my soul, I photograph it. Since I have been making images for over forty years, I instinctively see texture, light, and shadow with a value scale and composition which create a satisfying photograph to me personally.


  "Structure Study No. 8," Liberty Bridge,  Greenville, SC,, 2007 (Digital) © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.




"Disposable Flowers, Kitchen," Costa Mesa, CA, 2008. (Digital) © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.


Mainly using cameras in large and medium formats, Abbott prefers the purity of traditional film photography, especially in black and white. He develops all of his film manually and then crafts each print by hand, as did the masters of the golden age of photography, in a way that fewer and fewer do today. Abbott is always concerned with achieving the highest quality possible from the beginning to the end of the process; he uses Epson Models 3800 and 7900 to print his digital images, with Epson Ultra Chrome K3 Archival inks and Ilford Gold Fibre Silk papers, that have the same look and feel as traditional Baryta photo papers.


 "Abandoned Crane Truck,"Bishop, CA, 2003 (Film) © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved.



Abbott's work has been honored with many awards, including:

  • Best of Show at the Carmel Artists Fair 1995 (Carmel, CA)

  • Best of Show and First Place at the Monterey County Fair 1996 (Monterey, CA)

  • First Place in Black and White Photography at the Orange County Fair  2006 (Costa Mesa, CA)

  • Best of Show in the Orange County Art Fair Showcase Galley 2008 (Santa Ana, CA

  • People's Choice Award at the Architecture Show, Upstate Visual Arts 2010 (Greenville, SC).

He has exhibited in galleries all over California, Arizona, New Mexico, North Carolina, Illinois and in Europe: Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Japan. Since moving to South Carolina, he has regularly been invited to show his work there. Abbott draws on the life springs of renewal, freedom, energy, serenity, power and constant change - therein lie his inspirations. Says Abbott:


I’m always glad when my images are well received by others. I hope they create emotions that reach out to people and encourage them to look differently at their surroundings. A photographer’s negatives and files are in a sense his autobiography. More resides there than he is aware of; as fragmentary and incomplete as the archaeologist's potsherds, they can be no less telling.



“Wheat, Road with Moon,” Salton Sea, CA, 2007  © William Abbott. All Rights Reserved. 

Courtesy of Sally Gordon-Mark.


All quotations are from William Abbott, who gave his permission for the use of his photographs to illustrate this article. Any other use is strictly prohibited without his consent. To discover more photographs, visit his website:



© Sally Gordon-Mark. 2016 All Rights Reserved.






















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May 16, 2016

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