There is now a website, The Photo Society, which has gathered working National Geographic photographers together under one roof on the internet. Now, getting any group of photographers together to do anything, in unison, is difficult. Getting this particular bunch of disparate personalities, egos, interests and formidable skill sets on the same page to act collectively and all show up at the same time requires something roughly akin to an act of congress, or perhaps even a forcibly worded subpoena. This is a collection of passionately individualistic people, who, in the field, spend a lot of time alone, working things out for themselves. They rely on instinct, not press releases, resolutely avoid the pack, and seek out the path less traveled, all in hope of an angle or perspective on a story that has not been seen before. They bridle at uniformity, being utterly, confidently convinced that their vision is the truth of the matter, and that vision is pursued relentlessly, often at great risk. Our rare gatherings are lively indeed, and vaguely reminiscent of the wild Celtic street celebration seen above, shot by the endlessly talented Jim Richardson.
As youths, in school, we were most likely deemed unruly, headstrong, and destined to engage in a lifetime of problematic, irritating behavior. Or perhaps become photographers. (Is that redundant?)
The price of admission to this website is actually being assigned and doing a National Geographic story for what is routinely called around the shop, “the yellow magazine.” Because of the degree of difficulty associated with doing this type of work, the photojournalists presented here constitute an exclusive club indeed. By my count, 86 all told. This group has done the core visual work for what is routinely referred to as the best picture magazine in the world for the last 30 years. What the Photo Society is doing here is drawing back the curtain a bit. What most folks understandably respond to are the pictures in the magazine– at turns stunning, daring, pictorially mesmerizing, thoughtful, searing, emotionally wrenching and always story driven. What they don’t see is the risk, physical and otherwise, the emotional involvement, the intensity of commitment, the first steps and ball games missed back home, the marriages set adrift, the financial brinksmanship routinely engaged in, the utter solitude of the decision making process in the field and the fevered, interior second guessing that induces in even the most confident of individuals. It is not, in short, for the faint of heart.
The site has been created and maintained by the hard and generous work of a gifted few, such as Randy Olson, George Steinmetz and Stephen Alvarez, who have done a great deal of the heavy lifting. They continue to develop it as an ongoing gallery, a repository of essential work. If one is aspiring to be a storyteller with a camera, it is a necessary resource, and should be a frequent stop on your internet travels.
There are flat out geniuses on the site, photographers whose work has informed and changed the way generations of shooters have looked at the world and approached doing stories. For instance, Bill Allard, whose stubborn, gruff independence as a visual communicator has inspired readers for 40 years.
And David Doubilet, an utterly indispensable underwater photographer, whose risk taking and visual daring defined the craft for generations.
And Lynn Johnson, whose quiet sympathy for people has created an archive of nuanced, subtle observation about the human condition.
There are also photogs who have literally created their own niche, driven by a singular passion for a place or people. George Steinmetz, who routinely straps the equivalent of a lawn mower engine and a ceiling fan to his backside and runs off cliffs to get airborne, has done aerial views of most if not all of the world’s deserts.
And Gerd Ludwig, who has specialized in Russia, the Eastern version of the wild west, and has risked greatly to define the ongoing tragedy of pollution and radiation contamination in the former Soviet Union.
What I love about the site is an area called “vignettes,” where the Nat Geo photographers share pithy, brief descriptions of their time in the field. If you peruse it even casually, you’ll notice it runs vividly counter to the imaginings that perhaps abound out there about the life of a National Geographic photographer. Contrary to myth, lore and legend, it is not a lifetime of abundance, first class air tickets, and luscious sunsets in exotic locations. Take a look below. It doesn’t read like a travel brochure.
Make a visit, if you would. It’s a rare and rich grouping of images, and a look at the ornery, gifted folks who created them. More tk…