I. Wilmer Counts · 1996
You could say that Will Counts first saw the road from Little Rock to Bloomington through the viewfinder on a Brownie Hawkeye camera.
It was that Christmas present from his mother when Counts was a boy during World War II that ; OK, we’ll say it here and get the pun out of the way, would give him the focus for the rest of his life, that would open his eyes to the wonder of photography, that would lead him first to capture memorable and historic news photos and later lead him to teach hundreds of photojournalists who now define news on film throughout the nation and world.
Now, some 50 years later, still with strong traces of an impish twinkle in his eyes and a boyish giggle in his voice, Counts has traversed the road from Brownie to Speed Graphic, to twin-lens reflex, to 35-millimeter, to multi-media slide shows, to color photography, to digital photography, to computer manipulation of photos and, most recently, to visual images on the Internet.
Those years also saw Counts’ career ascend from a first job as an assistant in a photo studio, to a job as a news photographer who would make historic photos, to a career as a teacher and trainer of journalists, both those who report with cameras and those who simply understand the communicative power of a telling photograph.
As it turns out, that road between Little Rock and Bloomington has been well traveled indeed.
From that job in a Little Rock photo shop, Counts moved to a graduate assistantship at Indiana University, to work and study in the Audio-Visual Department. He earned his master’s degree in education and audio-visual communications from I.U. in 1954.
Then, after two years as production supervisor at I.U.’s audio-visual center, Counts returned to Little Rock to take a job as photographer and Sunday magazine editor for The Arkansas Democrat..
It was in that job that Counts captured history on film and forced a state, region and nation to look at their hatreds in the mirror of his photos.
While covering the unrest surrounding the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, Counts photographed an African-American man being kicked in the stomach by a white man.
The picture moved on the Associated Press wire and made the front page of the nation’s newspapers. It is said that after seeing the photo, President Eisenhower ordered federal troops into Little Rock to restore peace.
For his photo coverage of the integration crisis, many believe, Counts should have won the Pulitzer Prize for news photography that year _ and undoubtedly would have had it not been for the politics of competitive newspapers. The AP and the Democrat both nominated Counts’ work, and the photography committee unanimously accepted the nomination. But the overall Pulitzer committee turned down a prize for Counts because it was awarding a Pulitzer to an editorial writer for the Arkansas Gazette, the Democrat’s competitor in Little Rock.
Still, Counts’ photos won other awards, among them the National Press Photographers’ spot news photo of the year. And those photos told much about the times . . . and something about the man behind the camera.
"It wasn’t just that they were photographs of beatings and confrontations," writes Jon Dilts, associate dean of I.U.’s journalism school in Bloomington and Counts’ collaborator on a recent photo project. "It was that they were photographs made with the pain and pride and shame that only a southerner could bring to the story of the American Civil Rights movement. [Arkansas] Democrat readers knew it, the Pulitzer Prize nominating committee knew it and John Stempel, chair of the Department of Journalism at Indiana University, knew it."
Six years later in 1963, after a stint as an AP photographer and picture editor in Chicago and Indianapolis, Counts joined Stempel’s department, first as a lecturer and later as assistant and associate professor. In those roles, he directed and developed the photo and visual communication sequence during a period of phenomenal growth in journalism at I.U., where he would stay for 32 years.
"During his first four years on the faculty at I.U.," Dilts says, "[Counts] earned a doctorate, became Encyclopedia Britannica’s expert on photojournalism and began to revolutionize the teaching of news photography. In 1979, American Photographer magazine selected Indiana as one of the best photojournalism programs in the country. Counts had by then already begun to produce a series of multi-media programs for classroom instruction that were clearly innovative. In so doing he put Indiana a decade ahead of almost every other journalism program in the country."
Scott Goldsmith, one of Counts’ photojournalism protégés from the early 1980s, told writer Robb Hill a few years ago why Counts was so effective. "One of my favorite parts of Will’s teaching method is that he did not dictate a particular style of photography to his students. He gave us parameters to work in but never made us do it his way."
Counts explained it this way: "I have not . . . been [as] concerned with technique as I have been with images that are produced by the students.
Technique can be learned individually. People come from all kinds of backgrounds into photojournalism programs with all kinds of technique levels. If you tried to get everybody to the same level with technique and such, you really wouldn’t have time to get down to the nitty-gritty content."
Counts taught that nitty-gritty not just to photographers, but to word people too. Counts always insisted he was teaching photojournalism not simply photography. These weren’t just nice pictures he taught his students to appreciate; these were pictures that told stories, that captured what he called "decisive moments," much as he had captured such moments at Little Rock Central High School.
And Counts always has called it making a picture not taking a picture _ the difference being more than semantic. One makes a picture by understanding what it needs to illustrate and what information it carries and how those are influenced by the photo’s composition, by its angle, by what it includes and by what it leaves out. One takes a snapshot for the family album.
Pictures should tell the truth, he always said. Don’t crop them to leave out something that would change a reader’s perception of a situation. And never flip negatives to make a person face into a page layout! Would you flip a fact in a story?
And to would-be page designers, he would always impress how a powerful picture, well-cropped and rightly sized, is the foundation for a strong page design.
But for Counts, teaching wasn’t enough. In addition to the dozens of slide show presentations he assembled to illustrate his and other faculty members’ academic work to scholarly audiences, he undertook two major photo projects _ one that revisited the southern lifestyle of his youth in Arkansas and one that celebrated his adopted state.
In the 1930s, Arkansas’ Farm Security Administration took pictures of farm families throughout the state. It was the Depression, and times were hard. Counts saw those hard times first hand, growing up in Plum Bayou, a community of small, government-built farms south of Little Rock. His father was one of the first homesteaders there, and they lived on that farm until World War II.
Forty years later, Counts revisited Arkansas periodically, looking for people who appeared in the photographs made during the 1930s. He found several, and produced a book, "A Photographic Legacy," that juxtaposed his photos with those from the `30s.
In 1992, he designed and published a book on Indiana’s courthouses: "The Magnificent 92," named for the state’s 92 counties.
Dilts, his colleague in that project, says, "From the beginning, [it] was a project intended to show off the uses of color in photography, the power of personal computers as publishing tools, and, only incidentally, the history and architecture of some wonderful, historic buildings.
"[But] `The Magnificent 92′ was a consuming project. Not only did Counts make the photographs, he directed every step of production. He became a computer wizard, finding ways to transfer files through the computers of three different, incompatible manufacturers. He supervised marketing and gave lectures on the fine points of book publishing. He traveled the state talking to anyone who would listen to him about the photographs and about the courthouses."
The kind of growing enthusiasm he showed for that project always came out in his dealings with students. And with that enthusiasm came a self-effacing good humor that endears him to many former students.
Indeed, many students from that era see Counts as the member of the I.U. journalism faculty of the 1970s and ’80s who was most human, most unashamedly vulnerable, least pretentious, most self-effacing. Those qualities also made him one of the two or three most influential _ that among a faculty that counts five other members among this hall of fame: John Stempel, Ralph Holsinger, Gretchen Kemp, Richard Yoakam and Mary Benedict, all legends in their own right and all with loyal followings of former students.
And now they say he’s retired. Technically, he is. "But he hasn’t retired from photography," Dilts says. "He is still shooting, still experimenting and still planning the next project _ probably something on the Internet."
Last May as he was retiring from I.U., his colleagues and former students threw a bash for him. Counts wanted it to be a casual affair, and it was: a reunion party at Nick’s English Hut, a display of his photography in Ernie Pyle Hall, an open house at his home and a dinner at the Monroe County Courthouse.
Coming back to honor him were photojournalism students who now do for a living what he taught them to do as a calling: make photos that tell stories. They work for National Geographic, the AP, as free-lancers. A couple have won Pulitzers.
Not a bad legacy for a boy who started with a Brownie Hawkeye.
Will and Vivian Counts have four children: Claudia Counts, an enterprise editor for AP in New York; Wyatt Counts, a freelance photographer; Bob McRae, a radio news director in Vincennes; and Katie McRae, who has no association with journalism.