The closing night celebration for the Newsweek coverage crew at the summer Olympic games in Athens hardly seemed like the venue for a life-changing decision, but such decisions sometimes come quickly to Dave Black.
People were giving toasts to the next two Olympics—Torino for the winter games in two years and Beijing four years out. “I was just keeping to myself,” Black says. “But I said a silent prayer. ‘Lord, will I go on to China?’ And the answer was very clear to me: No. I have something better for you to do.
“So I just spoke out: ‘I’m not going to Beijing.’ Everyone just stopped and looked at me. Talk about spoiling a moment!”
Black did serve on the Newsweek team at the next winter games in Torino, Italy, which he had already committed to do. “I had been cruising along. I enjoyed shooting the Olympics and all that went into it,” he says. “But it was very clear to me. Just as I recognized that God had made this career happen for me, that part of it was coming to a close.”
Years earlier, it had begun in nearly the same way.
A competitive gymnast on a scholarship, Black attended Southern Illinois University with a double major in graphic design and studio drawing. As a part of the design sequence, he took a black-and-white photography class. His professor saw so much in his work that he suggested Black switch majors—something he chose not to do in his senior year.
After graduating, Black became a gymnastics coach, but he would also bring a camera to meets and send out a few prints to other coaches. One day, he got a call from an official at USA Gymnastics, asking if he would be willing to step away from coaching to become the official photographer for the national gymnastics team.
“I was just standing in the office of the gymnasium,” he recalls. “I feel like the Lord had impressed on me, yes, this is the job I have especially for you. And I said, yes, I’ll do it. My boss even recognized the opportunity he supported the move. I packed my gear up and left the next day.”
Backed with all the training that an introductory black-and-white photography class can offer, Black launched a career that would include 12 Olympic games over more than two decades, not to mention other major events in almost every other sport.
Though he still shoots sports assignments, the Olympics were a major focus and that part of his career was coming to a close. He just didn’t know what was next.
“That’s how it is sometimes with the things that God shows you,” he says. “It’s funny how the big decisions like that seem to be easy for me. It’s the little things that bug me.”
As a sports photographer, Black learned that mastering challenging lighting was a competitive advantage. With the need for technical quality in magazine work—especially during the film era—being able to light a whole arena was a valuable skill.
If he could light an arena, why not the outside world? Black began working with high-power flash lighting in broad daylight. The approach allowed him to produce eye-catching images—often dramatic portraits of the athletes that were so familiar to him in his work as a sports photographer. With corporate sponsors hungry for great images of major athletes, the next phase of his career was born.
“When you do lighting, that opens the doors to work for anybody,” Black says. “I’ve gotten to the point that I’ll turn down a job if I can’t light it.”
Since commercial and advertising photography pays much better than editorial work, Black has the freedom to do more teaching. “I love teaching young photographers,” he says. “For me, it’s an extension of coaching from my days in gymnastics.”
In fact, one teaching opportunity years earlier led to the another big turn in Black’s career. In 1998, while attended a seminar he was scheduled to address, Black watched a newspaper photographer’s talk. The presentation contained a wide variety of work, including a single memorable product photo. The presenter said is was a “light painting.”
“I think it was a Nike running shoe. It was amazing,” he says. “It looked like an oil painting.”
After the seminar, Black drove home and went into his studio to try out light painting—long exposures in a near-black settings, with light “painted” by the photographer using highly focused flashlights.
“For me, this was the bridge that was going to connect the art I had done as a kid and in college with my photography.”
Over time the light painting canvas left the studio and embraced the great outdoors at night—a stand of aspens, an abandoned barn, a desert canyon—all glowing with painted color. He began showing the work at his lectures and embracing bigger and bolder light painting challenges.
People were noticing. Black was approached by Rich Clarkson, former director of photography at National Geographic. He was working with the book division of National Geographic on a photo book about Arlington National cemetery. Several other photographers were already at work on the project. The idea was for Black to approach the project using light paintings.
“I was stunned, but excited,” Black recalls. Arlington cemetery is closed at night, accessible only to military guards. Black would do his work over three nights, including the night of July Fourth, complete with an image of gravesites with fireworks over the Washington Monument in the background.
“Doing light painting over landscapes is physically draining. But the mental exhaustion of looking out at so many people, so many soldiers, was overwhelming,” he says. “At least once if not twice each evening, I would break down and cry.
“I would just sit there for a few minutes. To look out over all I was seeing, I just had a lot of pride and deep humility for the sacrifice that represented.”
The original plan was to use two images from Black, but he turned in 35 light paintings, all submitted as raw files with no post processing.
“That totally blew them away,” he said, “but all the photographers did that. They ended up changing the structure of the book and giving each of us a separate pictorial.”
After the book, Where Valor Rests, published, Black says he received hundreds of emails from family members of people buried at Arlington, thanking him for the photographs. The photos gave them closure, they said—“completing the clock” by showing them how beautiful the cemetery was like at night.
“No one ever wrote me like that after the Olympics,” he says. “Arlington is the thing I’m most proud of in my career, and it’s as far removed from sports as you can possibly get. Out of all the things I’ve gotten to do, this project stands alone at the top.”
Photographers always like to chase good light. They get up before sunrise, stay past the dusk, looking for the warmth that wraps their captured moments in beauty. In the middle of a successful career, Dave Black learned to bring in his own light and put it to work in making great images. Yet throughout his journey, the key was the willingness to follow a different kind of light, which led him to places he never could have imagined.