the artist

David Wells

David Wells

Albany, NY

David Wells

I am a former photojournalist who evolved from newspaper photography to magazine photography to recently making motion pictures. Along the way, my visual storytelling skills developed from simple photo stories to in-depth photo essays to complex documentary films.

Like most children, I loved stories.  Upon discovering visual-based stories, initially through picture books and later through magazines, newspapers, television, and film, I was immediately hooked. I have long assumed that my largely undiagnosed childhood learning disabilities in reading and writing probably drove me further towards stories told through visuals. The magic moment I discovered photography in high school enabled me to hurdle past the struggles I had experienced with word-based stories to become a visual storyteller myself.

My expertise in composing photographs was vastly expanded by studying the history of photography in college. There, I soaked in the compositions of expert photographers and veteran filmmakers, creating new images in response to what I saw.

After graduating from college and coming from limited means, I needed work that would enable me to live but also help me get better at visual storytelling. I worked initially as a freelancer and later as a staff photographer for various newspapers across the US for over five years, enabling me to ratchet up my skills. While making images for publications, someone else paid the high costs of the film, the chemistry, the darkroom, etc. I spent the next thirty years working around the United States and across the globe as a freelance photographer for a myriad of magazines. The growing magazine market in the ’80s and ’90s required highly skilled, largely autonomous, and self-motivated photojournalists to create color transparencies, the imaging medium of choice. Those transparencies required perfect composition and exposure. The clients paid for the film, the processing, and the travel expenses, so I continued to refine my skills in composing frames.

My still photography appeared in Fortune, Life, National Geographic, Newsweek, The Sunday New York Times, and Time magazine, among others. My project on the pesticide poisoning of California farmworkers was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine.

As a photo-journalist I was honored with two Fulbright Fellowships, an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship, and a Research and Writing on International Peace and Cooperation fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation. Besides awards from Pictures of the Year and Society of Newspaper Design competitions, my visual storytelling earned grants from the state arts councils of Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.  

With the arrival of digital technology, I transferred my skills to making digital images. With digital, my costs were reduced, allowing me to experiment even more as I continued to improve my composition skills. The most recent example is my multiple award-winning still image project, “Foreclosed Dreams.” That work started during the 2008 recession and explored what people left behind in their homes when those houses were foreclosed upon. 

Digital technology also lowered the cost of entry into motion picture storytelling. In 2014, I started experimenting with filmmaking, transitioning from full-time still image work to full-time work in motion pictures. Since then, I have worked as a cinematographer on editorial, commercial, documentary, and foundation projects. I have also worked as a film director. As an emerging cinematographer, my work has earned awards from Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, the Providence Preservation Society, Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, and the Derek Freese Film Foundation.

Working as a filmmaker/cinematographer has opened up a world of opportunities for me. It has reconnected me with my favorite part of visual storytelling: being in the field, living, documenting, and capturing the story. I bring my photographer’s eye, my mastery of lenses, light, angles, and composition to telling documentary stories. I aspire to tell stories which are visually evocative, where the atmosphere created for the eye is equal to the atmosphere created for the ear. 

Fast Facts

Name: David Helfer Wells


Place of Birth: Albany, NY

Bachelor of Arts in the Liberal Arts with a concentration in the history of photography from Pitzer College of the Claremont Colleges, Claremont, CA, 5/79

Notable or memorable instructors or mentors:
Michael Coppenger, Earl Warren Senior High School, Downey, California
Leland Rice, Pomona College, Claremont, California

Major influences/admired artists:
Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, W. Eugene Smith, David Burnett, Annu P. Matthew

Favorite materials or media:
Color Transparencies for still images and Digital Video for motion picture projects

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