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Jerry Wolford, one talented SOB

by Brian Clarey

My first impression upon wandering into News & Record photographer Jerry Wolford’s exhibit at the Greensboro Historical Museum: This guy’s got a lot of nerve.

Let me explain. A sometimes unspoken competition exists between we members of the print media, one that generally stays within the boundaries of our respective roles. For example, I love running a Greensboro news story that I imagine will make N&R reporter Joe Killian say the F-word, or nailing a column and thinking, This one’s gonna make Jeri Rowe clutch his pearls.

Reciprocity happens when I read something in the N&R or the Winston-Salem Journal that absolutely knocks me out and I’m all, How the hell did those bastards get that one?

The competitive vibe doesn’t generally cross into photojournalist territory — any pretensions I have about occasional photographic excellence in this paper pales in comparison to Wolford’s work. Guy’s an animal. I’ve seen him silently stalk a subject like a tiger in the bush, snipe a game-winning shot from across a basketball court, lay flat on the ground to create an angle. I’m pretty sure at last year’s city meet I saw him no less than three places at the exact same time. He’s Batman.

But from the moment I stepped into his 25-year retrospective exhibit, A Storyteller’s Eye, I realized that a single one of Wolford’s photos conveys more emotion, imagery and straight-up story than I could in a dozen columns.

He makes all of us, shooters and scribes alike, look like pikers. He’s so good it pisses me off just a little.

Take the shot of Obama staff at an Elm Street restaurant the night he was elected. A side piece isolates four individual celebrations going on the very moment the results became final, as fine an example of journalism as art I’ve ever seen.

Bastard. The exhibit pulls material from his early years at the Asheboro Courier-Tribune, fresh from Randolph Community College with a shiny new degree and significantly more hair. The images are stunning: a shirtless prisoner at the 100-year-old county jail in 1987, a man on the ground delivering a final kiss goodbye to his brother, who had just been murdered, before the paramedics brought the body away.

Even then Wolford had that ability to make editors say, “How the hell did he get that shot?” before slapping it on the front page.

Part of it is his approach. Like I say, the guy’s a ninja, wielding the camera like a weapon, constantly changing his point of attack. Wolford gets down and dirty. All the great ones do — he’s just better at it than most.

Not every photographer can get a shot of a man standing at his door strapped with a Guitar Hero axe while being questioned by police. Not everyone can turn a scene of a woman changing her washline into a piece for the ages. Wolford even makes the waterskiing squirrel interesting, catching the little guy just as he looks into the camera before being yanked across the water.

As an aside: I hate the waterskiing squirrel story; I see it as emblematic with what’s wrong with local journalism. Every year the waterskiing squirrel comes to town with the boat show, and every year every damn media outlet in town descends on this sideshow like it’s a visit from the Pope.

You know what I think? I think every squirrel is a waterskiing squirrel when you strap popsicle sticks on its hind paws and glue a tow-rope to the front ones. And I think there are dozens of them, sitting in cages backstage, awaiting their turn after the current waterskiing squirrel dies of a heart attack from being yanked across the surface of an above-ground pool.

I have no confirmation for this theory. Anyway, Wolford made me rethink the waterskiing-squirrel story. And before I made my exit, even though he wasn’t there in the room with me, he delivered one final insult to my career.

In 2011, Wolford created a photo essay called “Bike-shop boys” that ran in the Sunday N&R, an amazing story about a group of neighborhood kids who built a bike from spare parts for one of their own. The pictures create a strong sense of character, time and place, and a piece of text binds it together. It’s good writing, with a strong lede, great scenes and solid use of verbs. The byline is Wolford’s, that sonofabitch.

A Storyteller’s Eye: The Work of Photojournalist Jerry Wolford, runs through Sept.

8 at the Greensboro Historical Museum. See more of his work at jerrywolford.com.

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