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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Don’t Prove...Improve!

Sharing ideas, techniques and feedback gives us all a way to move forward photographically

Labels: ColumnBasic Jones

Sentinel Dome, Yosemite National Park, California. Dewitt Jones’ first spread in National Geographic, April, 1973.

My first published photograph was in National Geographic Magazine. Crazy, huh? Yes, it was. True, I had a master’s degree in filmmaking, but I had never spent much time with my still camera. I was living in Yosemite, working on a film on John Muir, when one day I happened to meet an NGS writer who was doing an article on the same man. “Do they have a photographer for the article?” I asked. He said he didn’t think so.

I rushed to the nearest pay phone (it’s still there, just inside the door at the visitor’s center) and called Bob Gilka, head of photography at the NGS. I didn’t know him well, but had met him when I showed a film I had made on a kayak trip in Japan at the Geographic Lecture Series.

“Bob,” I blurted, “I’m already working on a film on John Muir...have been for six months...know everything about him...you should let me shoot the story for the magazine!” There was silence on the other end of the phone. Finally, Gilka grumbled, “Send me some samples of your work.”

I had about 20 rolls of film in my van that I had shot over the last six months. I pulled the best images and sent them off, never really thinking I would hear back from him, much less get the assignment. But, hey, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?

Well, much to my shock, Gilka did get back in touch with me and simply said, “You’re hired. Come to Washington. We’ll get you orientated and tell you what we want you to do.”

Muir once said that Yosemite was the “sanctum sanctorum” of the Sierra. For me, National Geographic was the sanctum sanctorum of photojournalism. Soon, I stood, excited and terrified, in the cavernous lobby of the Geographic surrounded by fabulous photography and magical artifacts from expeditions to the far corners of the globe.

Upstairs, Gilka ushered me into his office, sat me down and said in his gruff way (which I would later learn was simply cover for an incredibly kind and caring heart), “Look, if you work here, you’re part of a team of photographers that are the best in the world. I believe that, and you’d better believe it, too. You don’t have to prove yourself, not to me, or to the other photographers. What I do demand that you do is improve yourself. Every day, strive to be a better photographer, a better visual storyteller. And everything you learn, share it openly with the other photographers here at the NGS. Improve and share; if you do that, you’ll do fine. If not, you won’t work here long.”

I was still reeling from his words when he walked me down to Bruce Dale’s office (then and now, in my opinion, a god of photojournalism) and said, “Bruce, this is Dewitt. He’s new here. Show him the ropes and teach him everything you can.”


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