Break with National Geographic

National Geographic is not generally where photographers start out.  By luck I did.  I was living in Challis Idaho in 1979 doing a summer job for the U.S. Forest Service, and pursuing a Master of Science Degree in Wildlife Resources at the University of Idaho.  Challis is a small town.  The Challis National Forest while huge in area, had a small enough staff that people got to know each other quickly.  My job was to do stream surveys, which involved noting the character of creeks at points on a map.  It was not challenging work, and my interest was in photography and hiking, which I got to do in my free time.   My  photography caught the eye of Forest Supervisor Fred Bills.  One day Fred called me into this office and said, "There are some people here from National Geographic.  They are staying at a motel in town.  You might want to talk to them."  I was on it like a dog after a cat.  There were only two motels in Challis and I correctly guessed which one.  I walked into the courtyard and spotted a man unloading suitcases from a station wagon.  He saw me out of the corner of his eye and went back in his room.  He had not finished with unloading the car, and had to come out.  I was ready with a smile, and portfolio case in hand.  The man was Rowe Findley, a senior editor with National Geographic Magazine in Washington D.C.  "I understand you are Mr. Findley and you work for National Geographic.  I would like to show you some pictures", I said.  Rowe Findley looked at me, paused and said "Yes, I do work for the Geographic, but we are really tired and I don't have anything to do with the pictures side of the magazine".  I continued to smile and give him a hopeful look.  With many editors that would have been the end of it, but Rowe Findley was a very kindly man.  After a long pause, he sighed and said "Well.......... I will take a quick peek"  I went into his room where he and his wife Virginia looked at my case full of 11x14 prints.  Right away he said, "This isn't what I was expecting at all.  Your stuff is good"  After spending half an hour with me, he handed me the business card of  Jon Schneeberger,  one of several picture editors for the National Geographic.  Findley was writing a story on the National Forests.  A contract photographer was assigned to the story.  This particular photographer was strong on nuts and bolts photojournalism, but weak on landscapes and nature.  I began getting bricks of Kodachrome 64 from National Geographic.  The deal was that the film was free, and when I finished a roll, I mailed it to the Geographic where they arranged processing.  If anything had potential they hung on to it.  I would get all the pictures back after the story was published and if anything was used I would get paid.  

National Geographic has a very long lead time on stories.  Over the months which followed I took pictures of mountains, old growth trees, bighorn sheep, moose, and wildflowers.  I stayed in contact with Findley and Schneeberger.  In March 1980 Mt. St. Helens awakened sending a puff of ash skyward.  As the Gifford Pinchot National Forest surrounds much of the area around Mt. St. Helens, it was a viable topic to add to the story on National Forests.  I knew the Mount St. Helens area well, having hiked it during my Weyerhaeuser days in the mid 1970s.  A  couple of trips on cross country skis produced some shots with an ash plume going up.  


In April 1980, free lance photographer Michael Lawton came to  Washington State with a loose connection to National Geographic.  Lawton's claim to fame was a panoramic camera he had built himself.  He had published photos taken with this camera inside the space shuttle Challenger.  Schneeberger thought it best that someone accompany Lawton on his outdoor adventure to Mt. St. Helens, and that someone was me.  At last I was on the Geographic pay roll!  By April 1980 the Forest Service had established a "Red Zone" around Mt. St. Helens and was keeping everyone out.  Journalists were allowed in for short supervised visits.  I remember a room full of journalists at which the Forest Service media folks were picking someone randomly to get a chance to go in to the Red Zone, with the understanding that their photographs and story would be shared.  Naturally nobody was happy.  Lawton had the chutzpah to figure out an alternative.  He poured over maps and figured out that YMCA Camp Meehan at the head of Spirit Lake was private property and therefore outside of Forest Service control.   We met with the Y director and got the okay to land a helicopter there and to use the cabins.    After a long wait for the right weather, we landed on the evening of April 10, 1980.  In retrospect this seems very foolhardy, but I had been assured by a Portland State University geologist that the worst that could happen would be a big wave that would slap the shoreline of Spirit Lake. 

On the morning of April 11, Lawton and I left our cabin at Camp Meehan in the dark.   We eventually reached a big open area, probably an old burn, which Lawton had picked off the map.  It afforded a great view of Mt. St. Helens, but we had missed the prime light by many hours.    Lawton had wisely put a sleeping bag and tarp in his pack in addition to his camera gear, figuring he might need to spend the night.  I went back to Camp Meehan that night.  I was probably the last person ever to stay at a summer camp that had been around for decades.  The morning of April 12, 1980 was clear and cold.  Lawton set up his panoramic camera.  I found a place up the hill from him where some trees hid him from view, and shot with my 4x5 camera.  We both shot until the light went flat. 

           Mt. St. Helens: April 12, 1980, June 30, 1980, July 17, 2006 

Mount St. Helens continued to rumble and drew a crowd of journalists in anticipation of something big.  What happened was far bigger than anyone other than USGS geologist David Johnston could have conceived.  I was in Portland on May 18, 1980.    In the days that followed I got to ride in a army helicopter into the blast zone.  It was like visiting outer space.  Mount St. Helens became a National Geographic story unto itself.  There was some discussion at National Geographic about which photos would fit the new lay-out the best, my 4 x5 images or Lawton's panoramas.  On June 30, I was flown into the site Lawton and I had snowshoed to in April in order to shoot the same view I had taken before.  I was accompanied by Rowe Findley.  I got satisfactory pictures, and my before and after shots went into the lay-out as a pair.  Lawton meanwhile went back to Mt. St. Helens with a new arrangement with Discover Magazine.  Discover came out months before National Geographic.  The panoramas dramatically captured the devastation and got a lot of attention.  National Geographic management became envious of Discover.  Bill Garret, Editor in Chief had my photos removed from the lay-out and replaced by Lawton's.  It was a huge disappointment for me, but I am sure Lawton was pleased.  I did end up with two photos in the 64 page article which ran in the January 1981 issue.  I was hired back the following summer to assist another staff photographer Steve Raymer in a follow-up story, which ran in December 1981.   In the follow-up story I got five pictures published including two double page spreads.  The National Geographic Mount St. Helens stories were a huge entry into photography.  The editorial staff made early returns on photos they did not want.  Many of these were published all over the world. 


One of the National Geographic folks who showed up in Vancouver, Washington was staff photographer Robert W. Madden.  I first met him in a restaurant- the Inn at the Quay in Vancouver.  He had long frizzy hair, a thick bead,  and wore a tie-dyed t-shirt, not what I expected from a National Geographic photographer.  Bob took me in.  We both had something to offer each other.  Bob was on a eighteen month assignment to shoot the pictures for a book on the Pacific Northwest.  I knew the Pacific Northwest in far great detail than Bob.  He knew photojournalism inside out.  I understood nature and landscape photography, but knew little about how to photograph human activities.  Although Bob's appearance had a hippie flavor, he had a way with connecting with all sorts of people from business tycoons to cowboys.  He wore a belt with a buckle that said "God, Guns and Guts Made America Great" just to confuse people.  Bob got me into National Guard helicopters and other situations I would never have the chutzpah to ask for.  

The Mt. St. Helens stories put me on a high, and I was sure I was off to a career as a National Geographic photographer.  I made a trip to the east coast and had an appearance with Bob Gilka, director of photography.  Bob Gilka was the antithesis of Bob Madden.  He wore his hair in a marine corps flat-top and was gruff.  He looked at my pictures and told me that National Geographic was not the place for anyone to start a career.  He preferred to hire people who had cut their teeth working on a daily newspaper.   He was right, but It wasn't what I wanted to hear.  I didn't seek a newspaper job.  Since that time I have had pictures published  in the National Geographic on two occasions.  One was a picture of sandpipers on the Washington coast which was run as a two page spread in the October 1992 issue.  The other came about in 2000 when it came time for a twenty year anniversary story on Mt. St. Helens.   At long last those 1980 before and after pictures got in the Geographic.  The sandpiper picture was requested by Gilbert Grosvenor chairman of the board to go outside his personal office.   As for the National Forest story, it was overshadowed by Mt. St. Helens.  It did get published, but with no pictures of mine.    In retrospect my skills in photographing people and human activities in 1980 were not all that good.   They have improved in the nearly thirty years since.  As for the National Forest story, I really did have something to offer from those bricks of film.  I have learned that the determining factor in what gets published, isn't necessarily what is the best picture, but what follows a particular story line.   Besides getting a lot of pictures published, the Geographic experience taught me the importance of context in pictures, and how to think like a photojournalist.


My Beginnings

Photography runs in my family.  My grandfather, Earl A. Marshall and his brother C.L. Marshall, along with their uncle Norm Seaman were taking photos of Oregon on glass plate negatives starting in the early 1900s and on through the nineteeen twenties.   In the nineteen thirties they switched to roll film.   Many of their photographs are in the collection of the Oregon Historical Society.  My father, David B. Marshall is a wildlife biologist.  As a kid we lived on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon.  Dad took his photography seriously, and his photos still have importance in Fish and Wildlife Service archives.  I was given my first camera when I was seven- a box camera which took black and white photos.  That was over fifty years ago, but I can still remember the packaging the prints came in from a lab in Portland.  It had a windmill for a logo. 

When I was twelve years old, and living in Portland, Oregon I got a 35mm Exa for my birthday.  This was soon replaced by an Exacta.  I still have the Exacta.  On the bottom it  is stamped with the words "U.S.S.R. Occupied".  The company was located in East Germany.  Photographing with an Exa or an Exact required far more thought and attention than today's cameras.   There was no built in light meter.  One had a separate hand held meter.  To take a picture, one had to open up the aperture to focus, close the aperture to the appropriate f-stop, set the shutter speed, cock the camera and press the shutter button.  I mainly shot Kodachrome slides.  The ASA (ISO) was 25.  Obviously this was not a set-up for action photography.  It was great training for using a 4x5 field camera which I took up later. I had the Exacta through college at Oregon State University.  I also purchased a Mamiya C-33 twin lens reflex camera, which I took black and white with.  I probably didn' t make the most of my undergraduate years in college.  I was fascinated by water and the things that lived in it, so enrolled in a Fishery Science program.  I learned little about what I had come to know about.  The dry academic approach to looking at nature was hard for me to relate to at the time.    My best grades came in courses outside of my major:  zoology, botany, english, and humanities courses.  I took a course in photojournalism taught by a Professor Zwahlen.  I never scored a grade higher than a B on any assignment.  At the end of the quarter the grades were posted, and I had an A.  I was astonished.  I went in to see Professor Zwahlen.  He told me, I was only getting Bs, because I was not doing photojournalism, but my work was so good he could not in good conscience give me anything but an A.


West of Timberline Lodge 1969, Lime Mtn. Lake 1966, Glacier Lake in Wallowas 1968

At Oregon State there is one course which made a huge impression on me.  It was not for credit, and was offered through the "Experimental College" kind of a hippy establishment within the university.  It was in black and white landscape photography and was taught by a graduate student in the art department.  He had studied under Ansel Adams and worshipped him.   We did serious dark room work, trying to make the most out of each negative.  The philosophy of Adams resonated with me.  Adams was not out to produce a pile of pictures.  He chose his lighting carefully, composed meticulously and understood the mechanical side of cameras also.  In the lab Adams went to great pains to produce the best in every print.  His prints are archival and live on long after his death.   I understood for the first time how photography could be a respected art form.

When I was in my early twenties and had a real job, I bought an Olympus OM-1.  That was a great camera.  I took my first published images with it.  Kodachrome 64 was my film of choice.  I was living in Centralia, Washington and working for Weyerhauser as a forestry research technician.  The job situation was not a happy one for me, and I never bonded with the town of Centralia.  I lived for weekends when I could be out exploring the South Cascades and Olympic Mountains  in pursuit of photographs.