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Photographer helps pupils focus

Published Sep. 26, 2005

(ran PW, PS editions of Pasco Times)

Former National Geographic photojournalist Bob Sisson offers his advice and insight to Gulf High photo students.

It isn't every day that Gulf High student and aspiring photographer Mike Rowe gets to pick the brain of a professional photojournalist.

So when he laid out his portfolio before Bob Sisson on Tuesday, he was a bit apprehensive about what the venerable photographer would say about his efforts.

"Any criticism is good criticism," Rowe said, spreading out his pictures.

Turns out, Rowe didn't have much to fear. Sisson, who spent 40 years shooting pictures for National Geographic, told the teen he has a good eye. He said he especially liked a double-exposure shot Rowe took of his girlfriend and a wall designed with spiraling bricks.

"I was trying to keep her at the center of the picture, but I wanted the spiral to draw you in," Rowe said.

"You're right," Sisson said, nodding. "It works. Congratulations on this picture."

Sisson, now retired and living in Englewood, had visited with Gulf High photo students in November and gave them an assignment: a list of things to photograph. On Tuesday, he was back, making the two-hour drive to critique their work and offer some pointers.

"Somebody was nice to me once when I was young and trying to break into the business," said Sisson, 76. "I consider (coming to Gulf) payback, which is something we should all do."

Tuesday was Sisson's fifth visit to Gulf. It started last year when a former Gulf High photo student contacted Sisson on the Internet seeking advice on how to pursue a photojournalism career. The two exchanged e-mails, and before long, Sisson was invited to speak to Gulf photo students _ an offer he readily accepted.

During his November visit, Sisson asked the students to photograph some fairly abstract things: silence, candlelight, sponges. His goal is to get young photographers to understand that good pictures are the result of thoughtful planning, research and creative thinking.

"When you get an assignment, you have to think, when you're looking for pictures you have to think, when you're pressing the button you have to think," he told the students. "Think before you take the picture."

Sisson's career as a staff photographer for National Geographic took him throughout the world and into the oceans. He has photographed everything from wars to revolutions to spawning salmon. He now spends much of his time teaching photography in Florida.

As Sisson reviewed the students' portfolios, he invariably started each critique with the same question: "What were you thinking when you took this picture?"

Some students didn't have an answer. Others, like Rowe, talked excitedly about their lighting techniques, their experiments with exposure times and how different types of photo paper bring out different qualities in pictures.

"He knows so much, I just wanted to listen," Rowe said of his desire to have Sisson critique his work. "He's done it all, and he can teach you his secrets. It's an awesome experience because we can share his knowledge."

This photograph, taken by Bob Sisson for a 1947 National Geographic story, shows a train engineer and a conductor comparing their watches. "Only watches which have been examined and certified by company inspectors are used. They are checked against standard clocks and must keep accurate time within 30 seconds a week," the original caption said.