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Photographer Sam Bass has spent a lifetime capturing moments

February 13th, 2012 10:14 am by Staff Report

Photographer Sam Bass has spent a lifetime capturing moments

Sam Bass is an award-winning photojournalist and, in 1972, was selected "Photographer of the Year" by the National Press Photographers Association, an honor he shared that year with a National Geographic photographer.

By Pam Cox

Sam Bass views life through the lens of his camera.

As a former Navy Captain Chief Petty Officer Vietnam-era combat photojournalist, Bass spent years with two cameras hung around his neck and one over each shoulder, all poised to capture that moment in time that could never be replicated. Over the years, a camera became an extension of Bass, one which moved easily from his stories and award-winning images of America’s young warriors and the devastation of war to document the simple joys in life of a budding young artist.

Bass described his time in Vietnam as a "crucible." As a member of an elite Navy combat photographic team operating out of Saigon, he had orders that allowed him to travel to any Navy-related story in the theater.

"This was an unique and unusual experience for a military photojournalist... a bitter-sweet experience, as most ‘crucible’ experiences tend to be," he said.

Ironically, Bass entered the military without a real interest in photography. "I was more inclined towards journalism and marketing," he said.

In the early 1960s, Bass was a young Navy journalist who as luck would have it was introduced to photography by one of the "most innovative public affairs officers in the Navy." His boss convinced the photo officer to issue Bass a Leica kit, which included an M2 body with three lenses - 35mm, 50mm and 90mm. "They basically turned me loose with a camera, and my boss realized I had some real talent with a camera," he laughed.

His boss arranged for Bass to attend the Los Angeles Art Center School commercial photography program. While attending the program, he built a portfolio that gained him admittance into Syracuse University, which had developed a highly-intensive photojournalism program specifically designed to build a group of professional photojournalists to tell the Navy and Marine Corps story.

As a photojournalist, getting to Vietnam was Bass’ primary goal in working so hard in the Syracuse program.

"For any photojournalist, military or civilian, the only place to be in the mid-to-late 60s was Vietnam and Southeast Asia," he explained. "We covered everything from carrier and inshore interdiction operations, to Mekong Delta small boat, gunship and special ops. For a combat photojournalist, it was as Dickens has said.. 'the best of times, and the worst of times.'"

Bass spent almost 17 years in the Navy and always refused a commission because he would have to give up his cameras. He ended up in the 11th Naval District in San Diego, the largest naval district in the country, and served as the media relations chief.

When the POWs returned from North Vietnam, Bass helped coordinate Navy public affairs at the naval hospital and was involved in many of the debriefings with Navy POWs, such as Captain James Stockdale and other naval officers who had been prisoners for up to eight years. This part of his Navy assignment gave Bass closure of his Vietnam experience. "It wasn’t real healing, but it was closure."

After leaving the Navy in 1974, Bass spent several years as a freelance photojournalist working for a variety of regional and national clients.

He is an award-winning photojournalist and, in 1972, was selected "Photographer of the Year" by the National Press Photographers Association, an honor he shared that year with a National Geographic photographer. This prestigious award is presented annually by the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

It was his love of a woman that eventually led Bass to Northeast Tennessee. After spending time in the Philippines working in the financial services industry, an old friend asked Bass to join him in Kentucky to help with a land development. "It was a chance for me to get out of California, and I was glad to see California in my rearview mirror," Bass laughed.

It was there he met Cheryl Lawson, a Kingsport native who grew up in Big Stone Gap, Va. Cheryl’s sister was married to Bass’ partner in the land development. The development didn’t pan out, but he found the love of his life, Cheryl Lawson. The two were married and moved to Kingsport in 2009.

As a long-time photojournalist, Bass resisted the "digital" age.

"Getting into digital was traumatic for me," he said. "There is a permanence and sense of comfort with film that doesn’t exist with digital. To me, ‘digital’ was an intangible gossamer-like image floating somewhere in cyberspace."

He did not pick up a digital camera until 2006 when Panasonic and Leica collaborated on the Lumix and perfected the technology. Today, his portfolio is a combination of fine art film and digital photography.

Bass will forever be a camera and film kind of guy, but he has found the convenience of a small digital camera that he can place in an ankle holster allows him to continue capturing that elusive "moment in time," whether he is walking through his yard or attending Fun Fest’s Trash Barrel Paint-in.

His work is exhibited and sold through several local galleries - Blowfish Emporium, Bristol; White’s Mill, Abingdon; Nelson Fine Art and GreenStone Gallery, both in Johnson City; and Cindy Saadeh’s Gallery in Kingsport; and the Local Artists’ Gallery in Rogersville.

He additionally shares his knowledge of fine art photojournalism through workshops and field trips with budding photographers. For more information on Sam Bass and his work, visit his website at

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