John Isaac, former head of the UN Photography Dept., has photographed over 100 countries over an illustrious career, but he never forgot his B&W roots.
An award-winning photojournalist, John Isaac worked at the United Nations, first as a darkroom technician, and worked his way up to Photo Editor and eventually Chief of the Photo Unit, retiring from the UN in 1988 after a distinguished 30-year career that included 26 years working for the Photo Unit. His photos have been published in numerous magazines, and he co-authored the book The Vale of Kashmir in 2008. He has also photographed struggles in Bosnia, Rwanda, Vietnam and the Middle East, focusing on the plight of the children. He still travels and shoots. “Photography is a way of life for me,” he told me recently..
Isaac, who has travelled to more than 100 countries and photographed some of the most remarkable moments in history, has been an Olympus Visionary, and currently uses Olympus cameras to photograph wildlife. While he is best known for his color work, he got his start as a black-and-white darkroom technician. As you’ll see, that never left him.
5 Questions for John Isaac:
MR: You’re best known for your color work, but you started out heavily involved in black and white. What prompted your interest in B&W?
John Isaac: My first job at the UN photo section was a darkroom technician. During that I did black and white prints from the UN archives for publications. During that time I also had the fortune to study under George Tice (Master Printing class) and attend a seminar with Ansel Adams in 1972.
I stumbled into photography. I won a major award in 1972 after taking photography as a hobby. At this point the UN Photo Department offered me a job transfer to work with them in the darkroom.
MR: What prompts your decision to shot in black and white, or to convert a color photo?
John Isaac: I feel most good images that you shoot in color will work as Black and White. But there are some that will look very dramatic when you convert, since today in photoshop you can convert like you used to use yellow or red filters during film days.
MR: You’ve taken pictures all over the world. Where are your favorite places to shoot?
John Isaac: I really do not have such favorites. I like to photograph everywhere. Right now it is New York City.
MR: How has the move from film to digital image capture changed your approach to photography as either a process and/or creatively?
John Isaac: I just love it. It is so much easier. No chemicals and Photoshop is such a wonderful tool. I exclusively use Olympus 4/3rd system. All my recent images were taken with their 5 megapixel camera. Of course all my recent work is with their OMD mirrorless cameras. It so convenient since I know what I m getting while I am exposing. I currently shoot with their new 16 megapixel cameras.
MR: Are there opportunities for qualified photographers at the UN or NGOs today? What kind of work could a candidate expect to do?
John Isaac: Yes, of course. They prefer young candidates with a degree in photography. But there is a pretty long wait, I think.
Portfolio: 40 Years of Photography by John Isaac