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Tuesday, November 1, 2005

60 Minutes With Chris Johns

A conversation with National Geographic's first field photographer editor

OP: What many readers have come to expect from National Geographic is that there's always one or more pictures that are visual surprises, photos of something stunningly new or taken with an entirely fresh viewpoint. Of course, we're biased, but it seems that the photographers in the magazine have always overshadowed the writers; photographs have always been the magazine's cache. Is that safe to say?

CJ: This is the way I would categorize it: We're a storytelling magazine; we try to tell stories that people will receive no place else and give them context to help them understand a very complex world. The way we do that is hugely visual. Certainly, we pride ourselves on beautiful maps and great artwork, as you just saw with Chris Sloan [one of the men who brought in Tut's head]. Still, the strongest part of our foundation is great photography, but also great images. They can't be just a series of what we call point pictures, to make a point. There has to be lyricism, memorable pictures that don't just show you what it's like to be there, but what it feels like to be there, or to be that animal or that person, or in that landscape. Photography is a real driver in our storytelling, and it also motivates our relentless pursuit of excellence. Every issue has to be better than the one before it. To me, it's analogous to the way I used to feel in the field. Every day when I woke up, I would think, How can I make the best pictures of my life? I've got to do better than I did the day before. It's the same every day I walk into the building at National Geographic.

OP: National Geographic always has been a fertile ground for new, budding photographers. Of those who have remained on staff at the magazine, all are reasonably advanced in their careers. Where are the future nature and wildlife photojournalists?

CJ: There are a lot of exciting photographers out there. Our new director of photography, David Griffin, and assistant director Susan Smith are making a much stronger push than we have in the past to identify young, emerging talent. They're not necessarily age-specific either. Often photographers start to find their traction in their 50s. We're open to different and passionate ways of seeing things. We're very open to international photographers and much more diversity in ethnicity, race and culture to make our magazine richer and to take a leadership role in photography.

OP: With all the "senior" talent out there and with all that has been done by so many with so much ability, the bar has been raised so high that it must be difficult for new photographers to distinguish themselves.

To quote one of my best friends David Allen Harvey, "the cream rises to the top." I know that a photographer has breaks in his or her career, but the best photographers keep doing great work and getting better all the time. It's up to us to identify that talent. It may be more competitive, and a lot has changed with digital photography. I think that a photographer can grow more quickly with digital photography; they can get more feedback. Once you've made the initial investment of a camera, a computer and some memory cards, you don't have the ongoing expenses that you used to have. Digital photography is a great opportunity for photographers of all skill levels.

OP: Has National Geographic gone digital?

We use whatever medium tells the story best, but we're increasingly finding that digital works really well for us. We'll have a parallel track of shooting film, but increasingly we're publishing more digital photography and, in many cases, we're making pictures with digital photography that we couldn't make on film. It's a technology that we want to embrace and that's why we hired [senior editor of technology] Ken Geiger from The Dallas Morning News, who's a terrific journalist with excellent technical expertise.

OP: Have the natural history photographers been among the slowest to adapt or adopt?

CJ: Some of the reasons for that have been simple things like battery charging, dust, camera reliability, being in remote places or the inability to charge a computer to download. Most we find are shooting digital, unless they feel they can still accomplish the assignment better with film. It has rejuvenated careers. I think it's wonderful to see a veteran photographer like Bill Allard who's just nuts about it, or David Allen Harvey who just shot some work in Africa for us. It's all digital and you know David's on fire!

OP: Your tenure as editor-in-chief comes at a time when media is more visual than ever before and young people are less inclined to read than watch television or surf the Internet. Do younger photographers see pictures differently, or take pictures differently? Is there a difference attributable to the MTV generation of quick learners, instant gratification, news bites?

That's a good question. There have been some huge technological advances. When I was at Oregon State University, I used to go out on the overpass of Interstate 5 and practice focusing on passing cars so I could get sharp pictures of football. When I started photographing wild dogs in the mid-'90s in Botswana, that's the first time I really jumped into autofocus photography with both feet, and it took me a while to learn how to use it. You could make pictures that you couldn't make before. And it may be with young photographers that it takes them less time to become comfortable with new technology because of the environment in which they've grown up. I want all different kinds of visions, and the reality is that younger people, probably because of their background, see differently.

OP: Many of the modern-culture magazines have promoted the "snapshot" look. Perhaps it's an outgrowth of reality TV.

CJ: Who would have guessed a few years ago that people would be using cell phones to take a picture, and this sort of technology has certainly promoted the snapshot mentality. Occasionally there may be some room for that in our magazine. But we've all been around long enough to see a lot of styles in photography come and go, the flavor of the month. At National Geographic, we're pretty well-grounded in photography that's steeped in great storytelling, pictures that you can't forget.

On the other hand, when you speak of reality TV, we have to be careful that our pictures don't look too produced, too slick. That's one of the many beauties of Nick Nichols' photography, that there's an edge to it. There was a point in my career when I was keen to take "perfect pictures." Perfect pictures don't interest me; what interests me are energetic, curious, fascinating pictures. A photographer who works for us has to go out and take risks, calculated risks. I'd rather that the pictures be a little rough, but more honest, more revealing than postcard cliché or calendar perfection.

OP: Those pros who have migrated to digital have commented how digital is useful, allowing photographers to see the result, know they have the shot. But this safety factor also can promote complacency. "I've got the shot, so I'm done, I can move on."

CJ: It's an interesting point and something that we struggled with at first with those who were reluctant, who were skeptical about digital photography. Many said, "It's not so good because the photographer will know what he or she has." There's a real mystery to shooting film and shipping film from Timbuktu into D.C. You keep hammering at it because you're never quite sure, you're a little insecure. What I've found with shooting digital is quite the opposite. I would look at the picture and say, "That's a bit better than I thought I got, but I can make it better." Then, when I've refined it to where I want it, I can move on. So I've found it to be an incredibly useful device for growth and for keeping myself honest in the field. It's a terribly useful tool for the future of photography and for photography here at National Geographic.

Professional Influences

Larry Burrows, www.pownetwork.org/bios/b/bx13.htm

Robert Capa, http://photo-seminars.com/Fame/capa.htm

Philip Jones Griffiths, www.noorderlicht.com/eng/fest03/homage/jonesgriffiths/

David Hume Kennerly, www.kennerly.com

W. Eugene Smith, http://photo-seminars.com/Fame/eugesmith.htm


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