Lessons from the National Geographic Archives

I have a battered National Geographic camera bag that I drag through the airport while on an assignment. I’ve been asked by gregarious TSA officers if I worked for the magazine as they inspect my gear after it’s flagged by the scanner, which happens more often than not. I have to sheepishly admit that I’m still only a fan.

Like any good dilettante, I’ve dabbled in photography, whether it’s just stalking birds at the feeder or taking travel snapshots. As a filmmaker, my photo and documentary gear is basically the same. I’ve occasionally been paid for still images or shot some to illustrate my articles or books. I once had a darkroom in a spare bathroom. But I’m aware of my limits and have a long way to go to even achieve basic competence. Photography a distant third behind writing and filmmaking in my list of creative pursuits.

Like most lower-middle-class Midwesterners, I grew up in a house full of National Geographic magazines. For my parents, who didn’t attend college, it was a window into science, nature, international travel and culture. It was a university inside a yellow rectangle. It taught me about composition, visual storytelling and good writing.

Now I am working on a documentary film about a pair of National Geographic photographers, and I’ve been learning much about what makes a great visual storyteller. I’ve been following the careers of Chris Johns, one of the world’s greatest wildlife photographers (and the only one to be come editor in chief of the magazine), and his daughter Louise Johns, who is carving out her own path in the difficult road of surviving as a freelance photographer today. I’m learning that great photography takes dedication, patience, humility, the fine art of being present in a moment and lots and lots of time.

Recently, I was able to spend time at the National Geographic headquarters and archives interviewing staff of the Magazine and the Society and took a peek under the hood of the institution that holds some of the most famous photographs on the planet. Here are a few things I took away:

1. Take a whole lot of photos

Chris Johns and Sara Manco review slide film at the National Geographic achives.

Freelance and field photographers at the Geographic work with photo editors. The photographers submit a lot of photos to their editors. In fact most of them are contractually required to submit every single photo that they take. In the old days of 35mm film an average story might take 30,000 pictures, all of them archived in a climate controlled basement chamber. Renee Braden and Sara Manco, NG archivists, gave us a tour. They also dug into the boxes for some of Chris Johns’ old stories. He joined us to look at images and even handwritten notes he hadn’t seen since filing the story decades ago.

A photo editor sorts through each photo and pulls a few hundred “selects,” which are eventually winnowed down by the editorial team to the dozen or so that make the final print story.

Today, in the age of digital, a photographer might make 100,000 pictures or more for a single story. And the photo editor will take time to look at each one to try to find the narrative. If you want to shoot like a Nat Geo photographer, you’re going to have to shoot a lot of photos.

And if you find yourself having to make a lot of pictures to find one that’s worth sharing…don’t worry, you’re in good company. That’s the same thing that the pros do.

2. Photographers aren’t the best judges of their own work

We met with photo editor Susan Welshman, now retired, who has edited both Chris and Louise. Susan told us that photographers aren’t the best judges of their own work and that they often have trouble finding the thread of a story. When she makes a selection of photos, often it becomes a revelation to the photographer just as it will be for the reader.

This was the cover debut for Chris Johns

Chris told us of shooting his first cover for the magazine. It was an unlikely assignment to make a cover image: a story about soybeans. None of the other photographers wanted it for that reason. After some weeks on the project, he turned in his first rolls of film to Susan. Back then, photographers had no LCD screens to instantly review their shots. They had to send their film off to Washington, D.C. and their editor would tell them how they were doing.

For the soybean story, Susan told Chris, “you haven’t got it.” She didn’t see the story yet emerging from the processed film. Nobody wants to hear that their work isn’t measuring up. We artist-types can be sensitive creatures. But Chris responded as he should: he pushed harder, searched deeper. He spent more time exploring the subject from new angles. This led him to documenting geisha culture in Kyoto, where soybeans are often incorporated in the ceremonial use of food. He made a closeup photo of a geisha practicing eating tofu with chopsticks. She had to accomplish this delicate task without getting a trace of lipstick on the tofu or the chopsticks.

That closeup turned into Chris’s first cover. An an atypical image from an unlikely story that only happened because his photo editor pushed him to go farther. It caused a stir, with some readers claiming that it was “too sensual.” It was certainly distinct from the covers from stories of African wildlife for which Chris would become known.

The takeaway: have someone else review your work. Listen to their criticism not with your fragile ego, but to learn. Susan Welshman modestly claims that she has no special talent for photography, and she is unsure why she even got her first job at the Geographic. But this belies the fact that she’s mentored some of the greatest photographers ever to pick up a camera.

3. Shoot fewer photos

Because rules were meant to be broken, there may be a case for shooting fewer photos as well. Susan Welshman told us of Loren McIntyre, who would go on an entire assignment with a single roll of film. That sounds risky, but in an digital era of wantonly blasting away, it’s a good reminder that a decent shot still requires thoughtful, deliberate intent, not just random accident.

We also saw examples in the archives of glass plate photography. Surviving negatives are rare because…well…glass breaks. And it was also delicate work with in the field. Glass is heavy and delicate. You couldn’t bring an endless supply. Exposures took a long time to compose, and you had to use a heavy tripod. So photographers from the late 1800s and early 1900s had to be very careful and intentional. It’s a far cry from the “shoot 100,000 photos” rule.

So, inspired by these tales of restraint, Saskia Madlener, my cinematographer on the project, decided to spend our last evening in Washington filming a limited number of shots. We wanted to make exterior images of the buildings and ambient scenes of the capitol city for an establishing sequence in the film. We decided to make only 18 shots each, taking turns. We rented bicycles and spent the next few hours traveling around the city. It was a fun exercise. I’m not sure if we ended up making better images than if we’d not given ourselves a limit. But it definitely did lend an extra weight to ever shot. Here are a few:

4. You don’t need to have a pedigree to work for National Geographic

This was one of the biggest takeaways. Supporting us on this shoot was Kevin Coalwell, a former student and a up and coming filmmaker. Kevin had recently moved from Oregon to New York City, and so when we needed camera support he jumped at the opportunity to join us and took the train down.

Being a recent graduate and a NYC transplant, he was of course wondering what he might be doing for the rest of his life. Did he make the right choices? How would he find his path into the fiercely competitive field of visual storytelling.

So we asked that question of everyone we interviewed: how did you find your way to National Geographic? And the truth was, it was largely by accident. Sadie Quarrier, the Deputy Director of Photography for the magazine, was a writer and English major who began as an intern at the Geographic. Susan Welshman started out as a news photographer working mainly in black and white before becoming a photo editor for the world’s premiere color photography magazine. Kaitlin Yarnall, the Chief Storytelling Officer for the National Geographic Society, began as a cartographer, having studied geography. Everyone was surprised where their paths had led them. Most of them said that their jobs hand’t been invented yet when they’d graduated.

Kevin Coalwell films cutaway shots in the National Geographic layout room as Photography Director Sadie Quarrier gives a tour of the latest issue.

But for those who want to be a photographer for the Geographic, the path is more daunting as it ever was. And even the route that Chris Johns took in the 70s and 80s…starting out as newspaper photographer, becoming a freelancer and then working on staff at Nat Geo…no longer exists. Newspapers are in decline. There are no more staff photographers at the Magazine. Freelancers have a global competition. The market for digital photography is saturated. Royalty revenues have dropped.

So what should an aspiring photographer do? Kaitlin insists that freelancers now need to be businesspeople. The days of sending photos to an editor and collecting a check are gone. They need to learn how to read contracts carefully and market themselves and their work.

We spoke with Amy Toensing, an establish photographer who has done a number of stories for the Geographic. Amy considers herself a “visual journalist,” not just a photographer. She teaches at the New School and she also makes documentary films to supplement her still photography work. Sadie Quarrier also advised young photographers to both specialize in their subjects, become known for something, but then diversify in skills. Learn to shoot video, use drones and employ camera traps. One might even say that it’s good a bit of a dilettante in this area of media fragmentation.

So these are just a few things I learned from the National Geographic archives. What’s most fun about being a nonfiction storyteller is that you get to poke around in places few others see. To look under the hood of an institution I’ve long revered from afar, is certainly a privilege. To be able to delve into other people’s worlds and experiences, to explore and discover…and to sometimes get paid to do it…is, for me, the main reason to pursue the difficult life of a storyteller.

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The National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. is decked out in Ukraine colors.

Published by David

Writer (Vintage), filmmaker (Three Days of Glory and Saving Atlantis), bookreader.

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