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How Did I Become a National Geographic Photographer?

I see it’s been almost two months since I’ve posted a blog–a long time. It isn’t that I haven’t been writing, I have, quite a bit. But not for my blog.

We’re back in Virginia after a long drive from Missoula, Montana, a town I already miss. We stopped in Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska on our way back and in that order although it doesn’t seem the logical way to go from western Montana if one consults a map. But it’s the way we went and now we’re here at our Afton, Virginia home again after almost four months away.

As much as I miss Montana it’s good to be back here in the woods of Nelson county in central Virginia’s Rockfish Valley. We came in accompanied by rain all the way from Indiana. The leaves are all down and wet,  the aroma of the woods surrounding our house is an intense, earthy, fragrance; nothing else quite like it. Oaks, poplar, maple, gum, hickory, and locust, a seemingly endless variety of trees all stripped of their summer garb creating a carpet of amber and gold hues on the forest floor.

Driving back I thought a bit about an evening in Missoula when I was speaking to about 60 University of Montana students in an evening class called “Montana Writers Live,” conducted by my friend Robert Stubblefield, a member of the formidable Creative Writing faculty.

I read to them some excerpts from a book of fiction I started years ago, set aside for some years and have returned to and worked hard on this past year. It’s something I hope to finish by the end of next summer. It’s the first time I’ve read from my fiction and I think it went well. There was a long period of Q and A following my reading and I did my best to answer their questions. They were not all about my fiction, of course, many were about my long career as a photographer and writer for National Geographic magazine, a career that will reach 48 years this coming June.

One student asked, “How did you become a National Geographic photographer?” I answered as best and as honestly as I could, relating back to the day I got an unexpected appointment with Bob Gilka, Director of Photography at National Geographic. The appointment came through Yoichi Okamoto, at that time the head of all photography for the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, D.C. where I’d gone to see someone about a possible job after I would receive my degree from the U of Minnesota, several months later.  I wanted to be a magazine photographer but I was married, had four small children, and needed a job, and in reality, it could be any job, despite what I wanted at heart.

Okamoto went on to become the first official White House photographer under President Lyndon Johnson. I didn’t go to U.S.I.A. to see Okamoto, I went to see someone else about a non-photographic job and that didn’t go all that well.  The interviewer was an obese, cigar-smoking bureaucrat.  I knew Okamoto worked there and when my interview was over I asked if he was in and if so would he look at my portfolio. He was, he did, and he called Gilka on the spot, telling him he should look at my work if he “wants to see a good people photographer.” I saw Gilka the next day and walked out of his office with the offer of a paid summer internship which led to a contract position at the end of the sumer and 6 months later to a staff position which I worked at for a couple of years before deciding to seek the freedom of the freelance world.

After explaining to the students how all that had taken place, I emphasized how difficult it would be today for that same procedure to happen. One just doesn’t walk in off the street to get a job at National Geographic anymore. That was almost half a century ago when there were many more magazines being published that used good photojournalism. And the number of really fine photographers was not nearly as high as I believe it is today. So it’s much tougher to do what I did so long ago. But not impossible.

Days after my reading at the University of Montana, on a drive somewhere, my wife Ani, who is not shy about voicing her opinion about some of the aspects of my professional life, commented to me that I shouldn’t make it sound so tough for a young person to break into the profession. She seemed to think I’d been too negative and that bothered me because the last thing I want to do is to step on the aspirations of young photographers who seek to do what I’ve done over the years. I didn’t think I’d been that negative. I do try to be honest. The Geographic is a tough nut to crack; there is tremendous amount of competition for very few assignments. They no longer employ any staff field photographers. When I first went on the staff in the mid 1960′s there were almost twenty on staff. Jodi Cobb and I were the last two photographers to hold regular staff positions and ours were terminated in July of 2008. Since that day, I have been a part of the huge freelance photographer population as well as a part of a much smaller group of regular contributors to the Geographic.

I would never tell anyone you can’t get there from here, regarding getting to photograph for National Geographic. But, if that’s what you want, you have to want it really bad and dedicate yourself to developing your eye and photographic abilities to the very best you can, and then try to do even better than that. Don’t worry about being better than anybody you know personally or whose work you admire. Simply try to be better tomorrow than you were yesterday. You are not so much in competition with others as you are with yourself. Be your own toughest critic. Show only your best and develop your self-editing abilities so you know just what your best is. Beyond that, if you’re a documentary photographer, which I assume anybody who wants to work for the Geographic probably is, I’d suggest not spending all your time looking at other photographers but to look at other artists, painters, in particular, painters throughout the centuries. See how they take space and divide it, portion it out; how they capture your eye and attention with their use of a given space. How you put your pictures together is what will separate you from others, not in any revolutionary way, but in the way  you draw or do not draw a viewer in to your pictures. It’s not rocket science and it’s not necessarily even a craft now that digital imaging making prevails,  but it can be an art.

So, if you want it badly enough, self-critique your work severely enough, and I don’t mean to go off the far end and become a despondent wreck–after all, they’re just pictures–you will grow. The whole thing comes down to being ready if the opportunity arises to show what you can do.

I’m not sure how they look at portfolios at National Geographic today.  I know they do, but I’m not sure just how or through whom.  I’m seeing some good work in the magazine today by photographers who’s names are not familiar to me.  You can still get seen there and if you are ready, somebody may give you that first great chance. But you need to be ready.

I’m not sure that’s a big help but I hope it might be.

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3 Responses to How Did I Become a National Geographic Photographer?

  1. Bill, as always thanks for your words of wisdom.
    Started re-reading Five Decades just this week.

  2. Great post here thanks Bill…particularly the reference to painters and dare I say it sculptors….always a strong correlation to sculptors myself…….

  3. Pingback: miguel

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