He's been in the thick of violence (the L.A. riots after the Rodney King verdict) and on the receiving end of a steady gaze (choreographer Merce Cunningham, actor Sir Anthony Hopkins). On his own time, he has captured landscapes that evoke the vastness of America's natural beauty.
Wilson, a member of Duke Magazine's Editorial Advisory Board, grew up in a military family that moved frequently, a fact that makes his peripatetic lifestyle seem second-nature. He first dabbled in photography as a Boy Scout, while his father was stationed at the Aberdeen Proving Ground base in Maryland. On a troop trip to the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York, the take-up spool on Wilson's box camera broke, so he was forced to document the trip by buying postcards instead of snapping his own memories to keep. When he shared the disappointment with his father, the elder Wilson gave his son an Argus C-3 camera acquired during the Korean War.
Like most Americans during the 1960s, Wilson was deeply moved by the photojournalism in magazines like Life and Time, which brought the horrors of the Vietnam War and the urgency of the civil rights movement into homes across America. He also found inspiration in the work of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and other members of the famed West Coast photography collective known as Group f/64.
"I've always had a great appreciation for the land," he says. "I saw these stunning scenes and vistas, places unlike anything I'd ever seen. I was amazed that there were places on the planet that looked like that."
Despite his flourishing visual literacy, Wilson came to Duke thinking he would pursue a career in psychology. But the camera kept beckoning. He joined the Chronicle staff as a photographer and occasional writer, and found an inspiration in John Menapace, a photographer and teacher credited with creating a vibrant photographic community in Durham and throughout the South.
During summer breaks, Wilson interned with the Baltimore Sun and the St. Petersburg Times. In his senior year, he became a stringer for United Press International, photographing Duke sports events. After graduating, he worked at Raleigh's News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. He then made the move to Washington to work for the Associated Press, joining the tight-knit community of photographers covering the White House. A colleague who worked for The New York Times encouraged him to send his portfolio along. Wilson was offered a staff position and accepted, thinking he would be with the paper for only three or four years.
In reflecting on his work with the Times, Wilson mentions several subjects that stand out vividly: Jonestown, Guyana, days after the mass suicide of more than 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones; the 1985 eruption of Colombia's Nevado del Ruiz volcano that killed more than 23,000 people; a desperate New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; New York City in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. (Wilson supervised the team of Times photographers dispatched to take photos in the days that followed the attack; the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes for that coverage.)
It's a testament to Wilson's adaptability that he can switch gears seamlessly. In the summer of 2006, he was an embed with a Marine unit assigned to Iraq's Anbar Province. More recently, he headed to Wasilla, Alaska, to help the world learn more about a rookie governor tapped to run as John McCain's vice president. "I have a lot of leeway in which assignments I take on," he says. "I didn't have to go to Iraq, but I wanted to. For something like a war or a presidential campaign, I know how much work those assignments are going to be. But there are always rewards."
The notion that a photographer can maintain objective distance from what he photographs is a myth, says Wilson. While on assignment to shoot wildfires raging through California in 1993, for example, he came across a woman and her daughter sifting through the ashes of what used to be their house. "It was in the Malibu Canyon area, and the woman's husband had died several months earlier," he recalls. "She and her husband had traveled together and collected things from around the world in their travels. And now here she was, her whole life reduced to a single two-inch shard of pottery collected from the ashes—that's all that was recognizable. They had given me permission to photograph them but I stopped at that moment. It was too emotional for them and for me." (Just a few years earlier, Wilson had had to evacuate his own home during the Oakland Hills wildfires.)
In the thirty-five years since he began working as a photographer, Wilson estimates he's shot hundreds of thousands of frames. Yet he still brings a fresh eye to every assignment. "I try to talk to the writer ahead of time to see what they think they are going to do," he says. "And I try to learn as much as I can on my own about the subject.
"But I don't try to pre-visualize what I think I will find, because that can be dangerous. You don't want to focus so much on the thing you are sure about, the part of the subject you know about, and not see something unexpected that you hadn't planned on seeing."
Photographs by Jim Wilson, introductory essay by Bridget Booher.
April 1, 2009