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Legendary Photos: The Stories Behind 9 of Sam Abell’s Iconic Images

Composing, waiting, capturing
Photo of umbrellas in Japan

Have you ever wondered about the stories behind some of the world’s most iconic images? Our series “Legendary Photos,” features photographers from Canon’s Explorer’s of Light program, past and present, giving us behind-the-scenes insight on how they captured these unforgettable moments.

For this edition of Legendary Photos, photographer Sam Abell shares the stories behind nine of his classic images.

(Editor’s note: You can see previous installments of Legendary Photos on Gregory Heisler here,  Ryszard Horowitz here, on Art Wolfe here, on Walter Iooss Jr. here, and on David Hume Kennerly here.)

Emperor’s Spring Garden party, Tokyo, 2000 (Above)

The assignment was “The Japanese Imperial Palace,” the deep and solemn center of Japanese culture. And it would have been an interesting assignment if I had had any access. But I was blocked every day and in every way. The reason: I was not part of the “deal” between the resident photographers and the Palace. In exchange for following the rules, sanctioned photographers had exclusive access. That meant no one else did. As a consequence, any image I got was a “work around.”


On the important occasion of the Emperor’s Spring Garden Party the writer and I thought we’d arranged just such a work around. It was an official invitation from the American Embassy. But shortly after arriving we were discovered by our Palace minder. He exploded in anger. “How did you get in here! You must leave! Be gone forty minutes before the Emperor arrives! And do not move from this spot!” I turned and looked at the spot I was prisoner to. I thought, “I can work with this.” The scene – extending across the immaculate, just-laid lawn to the planted pond to the twin towers – set up well for my aesthetic. I composed the picture and waited. 

In a complex choreography like this, trying to time every stride is impossible. So, I concentrated on one crucial detail – the blue umbrella at the center of the composition. If and when it came “clean” then the rest of the picture had a chance. It came clean and the rest of the picture worked. “Compose the picture, Sammy, and wait,” as my dad told me years before.

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