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Four Field Photographers Who Defined National Geographic

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Young boy in fur holding mask, Alaska, 1958

Photo by Thomas Abercrombie/NGS

These men are still spoken about in hushed tones here at National Geographic: Maynard Owen Williams, Luis Marden, Volkmar Wentzel, and Thomas Abercrombie.

Together they spanned almost a hundred years at National Geographic, their pioneering work as field photographers contributing much to defining this great institution. The stories and anecdotes about them are the legends of this place.

odyssey-photographers.jpgA selection of their photography has been published in a new book from National Geographic, “Odysseys and Photographs: Four National Geographic Field Men” (National Geographic Focal Point; November 11, 2008; $40).

Owen Williams was in the field from 1919 to 1953, chronicling times and places that would soon change forever — from tribal life in Greenland to the giant Afghan Buddha statues that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

“For more than three decades, Williams crisscrossed Europe, the Middle East, and Asia,” writes Gil Grosvenor in the introduction to the book. Grosvenor is former editor of National Geographic magazine and current chairman of the Society. His father and grandfather were also editors of the magazine.

Williams, adds Grosvenor, “ranks among the most prolific and influential contributors in our history. There is hardly an issue of the Geographic in the 1920s and ’30s that does not bear the stamp of his pictures or words.”

Luis Marden appeared on the scene in 1934. “A brilliant young man fascinated by color photography … He pioneered new techniques in underwater photography and made a habit of discovering new species of flora and fauna around the globe,” Grosvenor writes.

German-born Volkmar Wentzel, who worked for National Geographic from 1937 to 1985, captured exquisite portraits and pageantry in Asia and Africa as well as the first complete image of Mount Everest from the South — a shot reportedly used by Sir Edmund Hillary to plan his historic ascent.

Wentzel was a model of Old World courtesy and charm, Grosvenor writes, “possessing the diplomatic skills of Williams and the creativity of Marden.”

Tom Abercrombie, whose charisma and grace gained him unprecedented access to Middle Eastern societies in the latter half of the 20th century, introduced millions of readers to exotic cultures that few Westerners had ever seen. He worked at National Geographic from 1957 to 1994.

“I still see Tom Abercrombie as something special,” says Grosvenor, “the last and perhaps greatest of the writer-photographers of the [magazine's] old Foreign Editorial Staff.” Abercombie was, in Grosvenor’s opinion, the first of a new generation of photojournalists who made the magazine’s photographic staff the best in the business.

“Odysseys and Photographs” is part of National Geographic Book’s new Focal Point imprint, which draws on the Society’s photographic archive of more than 10 million images and the work of photographers around the world.

A selection of 65 images from “Odysseys and Photographs” is on display at the National Geographic Museum, 1600 M Street, Washington, D.C., until Sunday, January 4, 2009.

Photographers from top to bottom: Maynard Owen Williams, Luis Marden, Volkmar Wentzel, Thomas Abercombie.

Photographs from the book:

odysseys_p029.jpgMan with beaded hat and necklace, Benares, India, 1921

Photo by Maynard Owen Williams/NGS

odysseys_p011.jpgPeople carrying car across waterway, Nepal, 1950

Photo by Volkmar Wentzel/NGS

odysseys_p216.jpgSilhouette of man and two donkeys walking up a mountain, Ladakh, India, 1977

Photo by Thomas Abercrombie/NGS

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Cover of “Odysseys and Photographs: Four National Geographic Field Men”

Related NatGeo News Watch entry:

Photographer Sam Abell Talks About “The Life of a Photograph”