Don Rutledge has worked in 143 countries and all 50 states. His work has included assignments from the world famous Black Star picture agency in New York; to civil rights efforts (including documenting the work of John Howard Griffin for Black Like Me); to photo stories in Associated Press, Life, Look, Time, Newsweek, Forbes, Stern in Germany, and Paris-Match in France; and numerous publications in Canada, South America, Europe, and Asia.
It all started back in 1955, Don frequently wrote Howard Chapnick, the president of the Black Star Photo Agency. Don had observed the bylines of the photographers in magazines and saw that Black Star represented many of the photographers. Black Star told Don they wanted to see a portfolio before giving him an assignment. Don didn’t have a portfolio. During the time Don was corresponding, he gave them story idea after story idea.
Black Star was frustrated with the person who kept writing them so often. He had some good ideas, but can he take a photograph? They wrote back letting him know that they liked one of his ideas. They contacted the parties to see if they were interested. That first story was for Friends magazine. This was the magazine of the Chevrolet Company.
Don was so delighted with the response, he immediately contacted the people, shot story, wrote the material, and sent the package of contact sheets and material to Black Star. Black Star was quite upset. “We haven’t even talked to them and you have already shot the story,” was the reply Don received. They also informed him of the many holes in the story and how it would not work. This was their mistake.
Don contacted the people again and went back filling in the holes. This was Don’s really first time to have someone critique his work and guide him. The Friends magazine not only liked the work but wanted to use Don again.
This was the beginning of a close relationship of Don with Black Star and even more so with Howard Chapnick. Howard Chapnick is considered the “Dean of Photojournalism”, and is highly regarded worldwide in the photography business. “His strength over the years was his high sense of ethics and his religiosity, if you will,” commented Chapnick. “This carried through into his concern for mankind and the important issues. He tried to use photography to make people aware of the great problems in the world. He used it as a force for change; changing public perceptions and alerting the world to the problems that the world suffers like poverty and sickness.”
“One of his great strengths is that he was very observant of the world around him, not only in terms of the big stories, but the little stories, too. He had this happy faculty of being responsive to visually translatable ideas which could be made into saleable entities.”
Rutledge says, “Photography … forces us to see, to look beyond what the average person observes, to search where some people never think to look. It even draws us back to the curiosity we experienced in our childhood.
“Children are filled with excitement about their surrounding world: Why is the sky blue? Why is one flower red and another yellow? How do the stars stay up in the sky? Why is the snow cold?
“As the years go by that curious child matures into a normal adult with the attitude of ‘who cares anymore about those childish questions and answers?’ The ‘seeing beyond what the average person sees’ fills us constantly with excitement and allows us to keep the dreams of our youth.”
Dan Beatty, photo quality coordinator at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, worked with Don Rutledge on The Commission magazine where together they won numerous awards for the magazine.
“Don is the one person who has completely influenced the direction of the magazine. Before Don came we knew that there was a certain way we wanted to present the missions material in the magazine. None of us had a firm grasp on what direction we should go to achieve our goals. Don really provided the direction for us to go. Don never expressed any strong feelings about—in a critique type way—on the magazine. Just Don’s presence and constant example of someone who always strives for the best is what guided us along. He was constantly putting us into contact with different individuals in the field of photojournalism and layout and design. He felt these would be good influences on the magazine or influences that would help us along the road where we wanted to be with the publication.”
Beatty says, “I would not be doing what I am doing, at the level I am doing it if it hadn’t been for Don. He is an example of consistency and integrity in a field where that is not always a constant with the different people that I’ve met. He represented something that I wanted to achieve myself. He has been the biggest influence that I can think of on me personally and the different photographers that I have worked with along with Don.”
Joanna Pinneo based in Longmont, Colorado, is one of the nation’s top magazine photographers. She has won third place in the Magazine Photographer of the Year competition and has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her career started in the lab for The Commission and today continues to shoot assignments for National Geographic Magazine.
Pinneo says, “Don spent hours with me, going over my contact sheets and helping me see which pictures were successful and how others could be improved.”
“He worked with me on depth and layers and meanings. What to include and what not to include. He showed me how a millimeter can make the difference between a good photograph and a great photograph.” “It was just the kind of nurturing a young photographer needs to help figure out what’s important visually, as well as emotionally, when taking pictures.”
The foreword is written by Tom Kennedy, former director of photography for the National Geographic Society and now managing editor for multimedia, Washingtonpost.com Interactive, states in his foreword to the book that “Don’s photos sparkled with examples of human joy, tragedy, and daily life in between. . . . Don’s photos convey the power of God’s handiwork and His presence in our world. . . . I’m proud to have had him as a mentor on my life’s journey.”
Don is retired and lives in Midlothian, VA.
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