Sad news this past weekend. The passing of John Loengard, LIFE staff photographer, and later, DOP of the same. We have lost an astute, observant mentor and picture maker. He was a wonderful photographer, with an acute sense of the peculiarity of the moment at hand, and how to render that effectively enough to make you pause, make you look, make you think. As an editor, that was, I believe, his mission. Make you think while you had that camera in your hands.
He was not an easy picture editor to work for, ’nuff said. Acerbic, occasionally biting, congratulatory in a reserved, almost grudging way. Never effusive. If you did well, he meant for you to take the lessons of this good job you had just rendered and extend the lessons thereof to the next job, where he would expect better, greater things of you. He could dismantle the artifice of a take in seconds, pointing out that the picture you felt so clever to make did not advance the story or intrigue the reader.
He and his amazing deputy, Mel Scott, ever the friend of the photog, made for one of the greatest picture editing tandems in magazines. They did the good cop, bad cop thing to a tee. You could come from John’s office feeling like you had just stood in front of a judge who gave you 15 to life for aggravated photographic mopery and reel into Mel’s office where he would calm you down, gaffer tape together the shards of your confidence, and send you off.
Thing about John was that he could see things in yourself as a photographer you did not know you had. The fanciful ideas about pictures he offered up in his office (which ranged from mildly incongruous to flat out ridiculous) were not really serious notions to be shot, but instead were the lighting of your own interior fuse. And, in the editing process, he and Mel would find salvation in your take, surprising and excellent pictures that breathed life into a story. Pictures you didn’t think you had, or didn’t think much of, so blinkered we can be as photogs, shuffling continuously through the dusty sense of our ongoing failures, like Pig Pen with a camera.
I made the above portrait of John, who preferred a look down view into the camera, for an author portrait, and as a thank you to him, and also, a tip of the hat to his style of shooting. John was a big proponent of horizontal portraiture, and was unafraid of cropping, sometimes violently, across someone’s head, into their forehead. He writes about it in Pictures Under Discussion, one of the more thought provoking tomes ever written about photography. I like to think, especially now that he is gone, that there is a silent nod here between the two of us here in this photo, from editor to photographer, teacher to pupil. Lessons that live on.
And, we shared a laugh or two along the way. Rest in peace, John. I will miss our conversations.