National Geographic puts photographers on view

MAGAZINES

July 30, 1995|By James Warren | James Warren,Chicago Tribune

In "The Bridges of Madison County," fictional photographer Robert Kincaid calls National Geographic about a photo he's pitching for a magazine calendar.

"We're ready for you anytime," he's told, a response which apparently makes real-life National Geographic folks chortle.

As "Reel to Real" in its August issue makes clear, no single photo will get you in the door of the magazine, bastion of grand photography. "We need to see an entire body of work," says an editor.

Indeed, an entire body of work done for National Geographic comprises an exciting, exhausting and possibly hazardous set of experiences as this wonderfully engaging account of life inside the magazine makes clear.

For starters, the magazine runs only about 70 stories a year. Getting into the magazine is a long shot. And speaking of odds, get this: "In 1993 our photographers shot 46,769 rolls [of film], about 1,683,600 frames. That year 1,408 were published. A .001 batting average."

The magazine doesn't skimp, whether on the lookout for great white sharks off Australia, covering monsoons in Nepal, or profiling Nepalese honey hunters.

For a 1993 story on dinosaurs, a photographer and assistant traveled 250,000 miles with 42 cases of luggage, as well as "nine cameras, 15 lenses, 25,000 watts of strobe lights, and a football-field-long roll of black velvet as a backdrop for photographing museum pieces."

Their airline fees for excess baggage alone "ran close to six figures."

That still pales by comparison to deep-water photographer Emory Kristof, who shipped 15 tons of equipment to a lake in Siberia for a 1992 story: 171 crates carrying, among other things, a satellite dish, a rubber boat, two remotely operated vehicles for deep-sea shots and a diesel generator.

Six pictures were used.

The tales of what National Geographic photographers endure to get a story, professionally and personally, are better.

Steve McCurry was in a small plane that dropped into an alpine lake in Yugoslavia, leaving him with a detached retina; Joe Scherschel had to fend off hippos with a paddle on the Nile; others have been arrested or placed under house arrest in faraway lands; Jodi Cobb was saved from abduction by a Bedouin chief in Jordan only when a colleague ransomed her for money; and a gorilla tossed Michael Nichols down a hill in Rwanda.

Challenges can be more subtle, as Ms. Cobb found in shooting a story on Saudi women. Because photography is taboo in their culture, Bedouins allowed her to take their photos only if no man was around to watch.

But, if there are danger and cultural tensions, there's also romance in the field.

Bill Allard, 43 and just separated at the time, was standing on church steps in Ayacucho, Peru, for a story. An attractive woman ambled by. "The last thing I needed was a serious relationship. And it was the first thing that happened."

She didn't speak English, but he fell in love anyway, pursued her, and now they are married and living in Virginia with their 7-year-old son.

Several others met their wives while on assignment, though "the poignant, and more typical, reality is that the long stretches away from home (often three and four months at a time) can strain a marriage and family bond to the breaking point."

Divorces are not uncommon. As Mr. Allard puts it, "The true romance is the job."

Yuppie evolution

The July 31 Newsweek falls short in convincing one that, "We are witnessing an epochal moment in American sociology, the birth of a new class," namely yuppies-turned-fat-cats, including round-up-the-usual suspects like designer Donna Karan and Katie Couric.

Revolutionaries'

The Aug. 16 New York Review of Books has a fine essay by Northwestern's Garry Wills on the "new revolutionaries," including militia members, which is most provocative for delineating a growing, troubling consensus (albeit for different reasons) between the left and right on government going awry.

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