“rocking with Elvis…”



"Thirty years ago, the work of David Douglas Duncan possessed my soul and pushed me over the edge to a life in photography. To have him at our seminar was like getting to rock with Elvis", says National Geographic’s Director of Photography, David Griffin, above right….. 93 yr. old  DDD ,above center, rolled into the annual NG Photographer’s Seminar in early January to  "jam" with the best, for the best….

for the last 30 years or so, National Geographic Magazine has hosted the "world of photography" in its plushy Grosvenor Auditorium named after Gilbert H. Grosvenor  grandfather of Gilbert M. Grosvenor ,left below, son of Melville Bell Grosvenor and  Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the National Geographic Society…still with me ???  the Grosvenor dynasty descends from Alexander Graham Bell,  the inventor (indirectly) of the ubiquitous, it drives me crazy  cell phone,  having invented the "crank it up" telephone in 1876.  By 1888 Alexander was among 33 other elite scientists and explorers who founded the soon to be non-profit National Geographic Society whose "mission" was literally engraved in polished brass as  "a Society for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge"…

even for those of you who have never been to the Washington D.C.  Society Headquarters you may imagine an atmosphere where there are more black shined shoes than Vans or cowboy boots…."formal" might be a fair description and , yes, a bit more bureaucratic than a California think tank….lots of memos and meetings…..i mean, the Geographic is in the Federal Village and only 6 blocks from the White House….WASHINGTON seeps through the walls…i mean , it is a magazine, not a space shuttle launch!!!  ..but, what would you expect?

what you might not expect is what you get at the annual Photographers Seminar….this year, besides the headliner David Douglas Duncan, were presenters  Alec Soth, Jodi Cobb, Larry Fink,  Eugene Richards, Paul Nicklen,  and Debbie Fleming Caffery  ….. the audience was, of course, just as impressive with  William Albert Allard,  Amy Vitale,  David Burnett, Kristin Ashburn, Robert Clark, Amy Toensing, Ira Block,  Steve McCurry, Richard Barnes, Maggie Steber, Mike Yamashita, Franz Lanting, Nina Berman, Stephen Ferry, Chien Chi-Chang, Callie Shell,  and Chris Johns who turned in his cameras three years ago to become  Editor of the Magazine…. and many many  other "famous photogs"  who will not be upset that i did not mention them (i hope) ….and so so many editors and biz  superstars throughout the world, like Jean Francois Leroy, Director of Visa P’our L’Image in Perpignan, France, left above….

this Seminar  is a true "gathering of the tribe" and is a major "tour de force" and "feather in the cap" for National Geographic….set up originally by Robert E. Gilka (see my story on "bosses") it continued under the guideship of Susan A. Smith, Associate Director of Photography for many years….now, David Griffin is the titular director, but he doles out lots of deserved credit to Susan and the Society "diplomat",  Michael Nichols, now officially Editor at Large for the Magazine….the Grand Master of all master of ceremonies is none other than photographer Vince Musi who also does the honors at Look3, Festival of Photograph…Look3 was  created by  the same aforementioned  tireless humanistic natural history former but always  Magnum photographer, Michael "Nick" Nichols…lots of stuff going on "down there" folks…do not underestimate ever the power of what is going on at National Geographic…

"rock with Elvis"??  i do not know about that but,  well, David Douglas Duncan changed my life with an inscription he wrote in my authors copy of "War Without Heroes"…way  back when i was 23 and we were on the same week long seminar program  together … in 1970  DDD wrote  to DAH " David, you will have a fabulous life"…..thank you David….you set an example and gave me words to inspire….could there have been any greater gift???

but now the Photographers Seminar is over…my biased ramble is over….it is time for you to speak….what do all of you think??  does National Geographic Magazine "deliver" on it’s "mission" imperitive???




58 Responses to ““rocking with Elvis…””

  • Panos might have some critical words about the Nat Geo:)

    David, you hate this sort of stuff, you know, meetings, memos, etc…how did you ever stand working at the Nat Geo?

    Question, would you ever take the job as the Editor of the Magazine? That would mean hanging up your camera…….


    DAVID SAID ABOVE:(i mean at “the house of sand and fog”)


    this is a great topic…i think i should do a whole post on it….
    …thanks for thinking and thanks for being honest enough to bring it up…..

    cheers, david

    Posted by: david alan harvey | February 10, 2008 at 02:24 PM…”


    Now i live in L.A… for 11 years.. My true opinion as a white looking american.. Enough with the immigrants….
    They should go back to their countries… about “african americans”???? …
    Sorry but why did they come here?… what made them leave beautiful Africa to come here in the first place…? Was it the love for money????… who knows…
    but people vote for the Republicans… lets built more churches,
    lets dedicate our life to the Lord, JESUS. I am recently “saved”…
    Lets take away from our youth the “dirty” music like RAP…
    NO MORE DRUGS… more playgrounds, libraries… there are “good”
    magazines out there like the “NATGEO”…full of “Alex Webb’s ”
    photos”… arresting “mexican-hispanic” immigrants… How did the “SNITCH” made it there in the first place…?


    Ryan, thanks for bringing it up…. and that’s the reason you are my friend…and not only…
    I “dig” your hispanic-lebanese upbringing… bitch…
    Your “genes” know more than the average greek or white idiot…!

    I (panos), want to admit that i never thought of you as a “WHITE” motherfucker… buddha has no color….

    people , sorry for my RACISM, but fuck the white world…

    hey… M Shapiro… can i get arrested for being racist in public???

    Posted by: Panos Skoulidas | February 10, 2008 at 08:33 PM

    “NIKOS ECONOMOPOULOS” is greek “MAGNUM” photographer…
    He is honest enough to shoot, record, the areas that “he knows well”
    Things connected to his heart…
    Tourists in your own lives… hiding behind your cameras…
    You are a SNITCH… if you dont get into it yourself…

    Posted by: Panos Skoulidas | February 10, 2008 at 08:47 PM

    Nachtwey shoots for the world at large, not the starving war torn cultures.

    …MShapiro… yes he does.. but if you ever visited his website…
    which im sure you did… somewhere in the beginning he says that the “EVENTS YOU WILL SEE , SHOULD NOT BE REPEATED…”

    you see what he is saying?

    NACHTWEY… for me is the EVEL KNIEVEL of photography…
    He left MAGNUM when he realized that a CANON MARK II is better than a LEICA M6…
    HE THINKS IS THE “ULTIMATE EXTREME”… he is what “JAY-Z “is for
    HIP-HOP…. but if you ask me i would rather hung with “NAS”…
    … so FUCK “NACHTWEY”… sorry i didnt mean it….
    … i was suppose to say fuck “JAY-Z”…

    Posted by: Panos Skoulidas | February 10, 2008 at 09:00 PM


    In wroclaw. Nice to see that sombody on the world want to learn polish langage. I’m Impressed.
    I love what you wrote in your blog “about me”.
    great works. Keep going!

    Posted by: Marcin | February 10, 2008 at 04:08 PM…”

    What’s so impressive Marcin???

    Look at Ryan’s skills… he speaks GREEK, GERMAN, SPANISH , ENGLISH, GERMAN, DEMONOID1, AZUREUS2,… CZECH…and lately he started… RUSSIAN… just to read DOSTOYFSKI… what do i know!???

    and , by the way , why do you ask about scanners… advice…?
    and why do you waste everyone’s time by asking that crap…
    if you already decided… or bought what you wanted?
    Dude, TIME, is valuable over here????
    Pleazseee, get involved… or go use the scanner you just bought…

    seriously RYAN and MARCIN?:…, what’s so impressive about speaking more than one tongue?????
    Its a survival… thing ….

    Posted by: Panos Skoulidas | February 10, 2008 at 09:23 PM


    Posted by: Panos Skoulidas | February 10, 2008 at 09:35 PM…

    NATIONAL GEO… the magazine that will save the world…
    I think DAH should be proud of using “NATGEO” as a “train” or “vehicle”… in his amazing career… I think DAH is smart…
    still, though… fuck NATGEO!!!!!!!!

  • RAFAL…

    when i wrote this post i KNEW Panos would be ALL OVER THIS!!

    i would never take any JOB….and any kind of “desk job” would kill me…HOWEVER, i do have an incredible amount of respect for those who do it and do it well…a different type of creativity for sure, but creative nevertheless….the world needs more good editors than it needs more good photographers…

    how could i “stand working for Natgeo”????…i was philosophical as always…i realized Natgeo was a RESOURCE, if NOT an END..i got whatever education i have because i was allowed to travel the globe and learn learn learn….sleep on the ground with nomads and dine with kings…and use my little leica to perhaps enlighten at least some people..i am not at all “lofty” about this, but at least it was and is SOMETHING of value….i looked over the “negatives” and figured the balance tilted towards the “positives”….besides, i did get a reasonable “body of work” out of all those assignments (most of which were my own ideas)…another thing: photographer input is more respected at Natgeo over any other magazine by far, by far….too many memos??? too many meetings???? yup….but, so what??? i forgot all of those things…i have my work!!!!


    i knew you would be on this Natgeo post within seconds and you were!!! laughing…gotta love it!!

    but, by the way, i am very very white…i even HAD blond hair…yea, surfer boy type….9 foot Hobie longboard….rode usually bad east coast waves….one day i put my board in the garage and went to live with a black family in Norfolk, Virginia to do “Tell It Like It Is” book …went on to travel the world and be exposed to every race and religion in the world….but, i stayed white….never did think i had any RIGHT to photograph all the people i photographed…i was always a cultural GUEST and nothing more…

    i think you know in your heart Panos that racism goes in all directions…but MOST people, i have found, are NOT racists…but, i do want to get to Ryan’s question and your questions too….BUT, in a new post…such a terrific topic with so so many points of view….so , i only ask you please to wait….somehow be patient…because it is so so important , i want to give it it’s own space in a new post…make sense???

    by the way, please get a hold of a copy of the new book Magnum Magnum….you will find something very interesting i think….we all edited each other for this book….i edited Costa Manos …and Nikos Economopoulos edited me…i am bracketed by two GREEKS!!!..we wrote about each other too…check it out….

    what i would like for you to do is go now and comment on Che Guevara story …for two reasons…to see if this new “one blog” idea works …and just to get you away from going to far on this topic here before i can set it up so you can really go go go…fair enough??

    cheers, david

  • Panos-not unless you practice pedanticism.


  • I saw at the photo LA a small bindle of larry finks work, totally beautifull, they were silver prints, with a slight warm tone,
    “Moses Soyer’s studio” is an image that stays with me.
    its become a friend.
    thats going to be fun, meeting all those cats. right on Nat Geo.
    just got to figure on how to do it for free!

  • David…I couldnt stand working at Nat Geo..wanna get me a job there?:) Geez, Im just kidding:)

    P.S. I heard from Soo Jeong that the book is coming out this spring…100 bucks…she offered me a discount, it better be good as its probably gonna be exoensive even with the discount:) Maybe Ill get a 90% discount or something, she never said how much LOL. All Im saying is that I wont be getting Magnum Magnum, my wife would kill me but I think she’ll be ok with me getting the Korea book. Which photos did you choose, or did they choose them for you?

  • Ground Control to Major Tom….

    Panos asked “what made them leave beautiful Africa to come here in the first place…? Was it the love for money????… who knows…”

    Panos…. they left beautiful Africa as slaves. White people brought them to America stealing their freedom. Fair enough that they are free now there, don’t you think?

  • for good and ill NatGeo has, for some of us, been the pabulum upon which we were weened…it was for me as a 10yearold, both the photography and the writing: as a young kid i was curled, each month, into the corner of my grandmother’s bedroom reading, voraciously, everything: thinking, that’d be me: writer/photographer scattering around the world…once i did my own world scattering, my point of view changed considerably about the magazine, but never about the photography or the photographers…

    my beef with NatGeo at the moment is only this (will wait for David’s post about the subject, call it the “Panos Plea” ;)):

    a magazine so historically dedicated to the Congo has not yet, to my knowledge, shown the work of Marcus B and others who’ve spent the last 7, 8 years covering the enormous, horrific, implosive civil war (how many dead, 6,000,000?)…you’d think NAtGeo, the magazine that taught me as a child about the Congo, would be THE magazine to invest time and effort showcasing the work and educating the world about what continues to occur in that devastated and forlorn nation…


    but im rambling…

    sorry David, not meant at you amigo…


  • BOB…

    on the contrary…this is the time and place to “go for it” regarding “old yeller”..your point is well taken and many Natgeo editors do read these letters!!!

    my delay for Panos was only to discuss the right of any photographer to move outside his or her own culture and document in any meaningful way another culture…that one can wait…

    i will not comment yet…i am seriously interested in the opinions of others not as “close” as i….as a matter of fact, i will stimulate the discussion, by adding a question to the post….stay tuned

    cheers, david

  • This video clip seems somewhat appropriate given some of the comments above.

  • Ana, I think Panos was being sarcastic and rhetorical. He’s not so easy to understand sometimes.


    just had a visual of you as a surfer golden boy ..with a copy of BE HERE NOW on your cinder block and board bookshelf and a cannabis plant growing near by.


    Fair enough that they are free now there, don’t you think?

    Posted by: Ana Yturralde | February 11, 2008 at 04:09 AM…

    FREE ??? .who is free???…. maybe jay-z is free….

    “…Ana, I think Panos was being sarcastic and rhetorical. He’s not so easy to understand sometimes.

    Posted by: Nick Yoon | February 11, 2008 at 09:27 AM…”

    Thank you Nick Yoon…


    just had a visual of you as a surfer golden boy ..with a copy of BE HERE NOW on your cinder block and board bookshelf and a cannabis plant growing near by.

    Posted by: erica mcdonald | February 11, 2008 at 10:18 AM…”

    RIGHT ON ERICA…. great visual…

    see you soon

  • DAVID :))

    I’ll rail on when the new post comes :))))…cause it’s an important post and important discussion, for ALL PHOTOGRAPHERS :))…’cause photographing others (irrespective of culture/nation/ethnicity, etc) is important discussion :))…

    ans i’ll bitch about their lack of coverage on the Congo (non-ape coverage) until the cow comes home :))


  • Panos… Good morning. In fact I don’t know who is really free… I’m also looking for my freedom…

    Thanks Nick, maybe I’m too sensitive with this subject and did not read it with any sense of humour at all. Sorry ;-)

    Run for freedom and peace :-)

  • This is all getting too shrill and lame. Bitch fits.

    Does anybody have anything to say?

    Well then take a deep breath, pause to collect your thoughts, and then try to say what you have to say without screaming and whining.

    Take care

  • David,
    I will never forget the times that you invited me to attend two of those seminars at NG. That was many years ago. I even got to see one of my favorite photographers of all time, Elliott Porter. Then the next time it was Helmut Newton. Wow!

    For me Geographic has been a publication that has set a standard for great photography, truly an inspiration to me. Most of it is wonderful and innovative work, although I admit, sometimes can appear cliche’. But that’s the nature of the beast. Hope I’m not sounding like Panos now.

    At an early stage, I thought I might even want to work for NG, or at least get published. Then I moved to the beach, and that was the end of that pipe dream.

    But to answer your question, yes, I think they have delivered on their mission, with the exception of maybe the swimsuit issue.

    Hey, when do I get another invite to that seminar?

  • I have a much longer post sidelined (before i make too much of an ass of myself) because first I would like to know …

    What is NGM’s mission imperative today? Is it really the same as engraved? How has it changed or evolved, or perhaps more to the point, how has the implementation of this editorial philosophy changed recently?

    David? Anyone?

  • engraved mission: “a Society for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge”…

    I don’t know about “the increase” part anymore, but NG certainly delivers on “the diffusion”. On second thought, the issues unfailingly increase my geographical knowledge, but that doesn’t say much, given what I started out with.

  • If DDD told me I was going to have a fabulous life, I’d definitely believe him…and then make it happen. When I was 14, I did my first research paper. I chose Picasso as the subject of it. While researching, I found those great DDD books…and the research almost stopped, it was too hard to put them down.


  • My room mate got into this somehow and I am pretty jealous.

  • Just my two cents: when there are National Geographic imperatives to save gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the conflict there has killed nearly 5 million people since ´98, makes me wonder what type of information is more valued to both the magazine and the readers?

    Save gorillas, but forget the people??

  • Rene Says: Rene Says: Rene Says: “I think it’s time to subscribe again to NG.”

  • David (and others actually willing to consider this topic seriously):

    Ambrose Bierce, in the ‘Devil’s Dictionary’ defined ‘war’: ‘War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography’.
    This forum is by, for, and about photographers mainly. But David has raised the topic of NatGeo’s mission, and a FEW others have responded to THAT TOPIC so this is probably the time and place to pursue it (if other posters will allow??). It’s a topic I’ve spent many decades thinking about, not only as a photographer but even more so as a student and teacher of geography. (‘Teacher?’ I can hear the catcalls, contempt, and obscenities from the disapproving LA Mafia). And yes, Ambrose Bierce is dead on. The only time 90% of Americans look at atlases or maps of the world is AFTER we’ve already declared war on or bombed some country. Over the last four decades at least, survey after survey shows the colossal and shocking ignorance most Americans have of not only the world beyond the US borders, but even within their own country. Many cannot identify the US on a blank map of the world. Many cannot identify Washington DC or a number of major states on a map of the US. Map ignorance is just the very tiny tip of vast iceberg of not only ignorance but lack of concern and lack of interest in the people, the languages, the cultures, the traditional economies, the social systems, the natural systems of the world, and the ways in which all these things work together. I could never understand it myself– I cannot imagine anything more fascinating, more worthy of attention, study, interest, pursuit, wondrous contemplation (I suppose sex would be a close second? More important to the young, a little less so once you hit 60). But the undeniable, measurable fact is that for most Americans geography produces a big yawn. This is all the more shocking because from the very beginning this has been a country of immigrants from other places. And because for the last hundred years we’ve been throwing our military weight around the world in heavy-handed ways in situations that we rarely understand enough about to do anything intelligent in. So how do you run a society, and a magazine, whose purpose is “the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.”??? There’s nothing America needs more, but apparently there’s nothing it wants less. For all its foibles, flaws, biases, superficialities, and nowadays crass commercialism, NatGeo has unfortunately been the only major institution or media outlet in the US that has even attempted this mission. We can talk at length about why they cover some issues way too much and others not at all, and most too superficially. We can also talk about the changes that have occurred over the years, the number of pictures per story, the length and quality of text, etc. I though they had the mix about right in the late 80s and thru the 90s, but after 2000 or so I think the magazine became too self-consciously ‘graphic’ instead of ‘geographic’ and far less substantive. But, aside from being a photographer, if you seriously have curiosity about the world, and you have hopes that others will also, then you have to realize that NatGeo is basically on our side, they are an ally, and a very important one even if we don’t completely like a lot of things they do.

    I could write a whole book. at least, on this topic- reams and reams of things I’d like to say– but unfortunately this is a terrible day for me to get sucked into long posts and forum dialogs- just got back from Chinese New Year in Vancouver, work and mail backed up for a week, the debt collectors pounding (oh, quite literally!) on my door at 7:30 am, and no food in the house. So, like, later!!


  • Sidney,

    Eloquently put… and you really made me think about NatGeo, which, I must admit I don’t do often, outside of the dentist’s waiting room. I think I will reconsider my opinion… That, and Eugene Richards had an essay in the last issue.

    I’ve noticed an occasional, and surprisingly high level of hostile and aggressive scorn for the magazine here… not really sure why exactly, hasn’t been clearly articulated, just loudly…

    But maybe as ignorance of the world leads America to aggressive, hostile intolerance of it, ignorance leads individuals to react with aggressive, hostile intolerance of things they may not understand or agree with. In the large and small, this country, and the people in it give ample and constant opportunity for disappointment.

  • tell ’em Mustafah tell’em…
    tell it like it is… tell it like IT is?

  • Sidney and Mike above… Right on…
    nothing more to add!

  • So, OK…in November of 2004 NG did a piece on terrorism. In September of 2005 a piece on AIDS. In January of 2006 a piece on Genocide. So yeah…sure, they pretty much suck.

  • But maybe as ignorance of the world leads America to aggressive, hostile intolerance of it
    If I may, I would say the problem is people’s ignorance of the motives of their own government to wage war. And also, the fact that people here (in USA), have no collective memory of what is war on one’s soil, what it means in sufferings, day after day, month after month maybe.

    It makes it a lot easier to let administrations make a mess of things out there, when the only price you pay for it at home is 4$ a gallon of gas. You can teach americans where is Albania and Yemen, but as long as “being at war” means following it on the evening News, I am not sure it will be enough. Just a thought.

  • Herve, I agree with you again, dang it!!!
    one last think I wanna add,
    which I totally forgot to mention before:
    “fuck natgeo”… that is…
    mustafah, nailed it above…
    natgeo is saving a gorilla instead of a “guerilla”
    I wish I could draw! I wish I could make a picture of it…
    Gorilla’s in the mist , and Guerilla’s in that grave…

  • It has become hightly fashionable, it seems, to say NG is somehow tired, passe, lost its edge. I listened to a young woman who was photojournalist in a not so small town, and she was part of this fashion. Going on about how Geographic is no longer relevant and isn’t as gritty as it once was, that it was all pap. Well another photographer in the conversation, James Hill; Time, NY Times, had just won the Pulitzer for his work in Afghanistan and Iraq said: I’d shoot for NG in a heartbeat (Paraphrasing here, he’s brit so likely didn’t put it exactly that way!) But he essentially was telling her she was full of shit. That the notion NG isn’t relevant was shit.

    Again… AIDS, Terrorism, Genocide, Global Warming. Just to name a few lovely little human endeavors they’ve covered recently.

    Don’t be part of the fashion.

  • Helmut Newton gave a talk and showed photographs at the NatGeoSoc seminar in the 1980’s and I wonder if the Geographic ever recovered from. I’d not seen the photographs before and I’ve never seen the pictures since or even a reference to them. David, what do you think? You must remember them. If I remember you showed a series on Thailand brothels or somesuch the year before. Interesting times.
    I saw a younger DDD give a talk at the Miami Conference in 1969. For those of you who don’t know the Miami Conference, put on by Wilson Hicks, use to be THE PJ/magazine photographer’s get together/conference. It was back when ASMP only had about 100 member and all were magazine photographers. Being a member of ASMP back then was on par with being a member of Magnum. Anyway, DDD gave a stirring talk. Also, on the program was a very young William Albert Allard. His stuff was just wonderful. A future editor of NatGeoMag, Bill Garrett was also on the program. He showed his photographs of Vietnam. His pictures and talk were a rather neutral look at the country and the war. Members of the audience hooted and hollared at him and generally gave him a huge amount of grief over his lack of and opinion or real involvement in the issues of the war. As a PJ student from Indiana University, this was all pretty interesting. I saw his talk again about six months later. It was the same pictures but with his negative opinions on the war. I couldn’t help but think that he had gone thru some soul searching as a result of the reaction to his talk. He was something of a changed man.

  • Michael K, I would shoot too. For anyone that pays me…
    through all of my exaggerations here…
    we all grew up with natgeo , we all love natgeo…
    I just hate it see it turn into a CNN bullshit…
    I love natgeo but I also love grunge and Elvis…
    too bad though, all of the Above Are Dead…
    maybe we can bring it back though .
    See? I still have some hope…
    maybe hip hop is dead too…aybe nobody informed about that yet …
    but I wouldnt worry too much…
    if something dies from natural causes, like , let’s say an old bad tooth,
    its ok,
    Death is the most natural thing…
    people stop worrying too much about dying!
    you can’t avoid it..
    You can’t prevent your loved ones from dying,
    neither your magazines either
    Once again, Elvis is dead…
    he died in the toillete with a sandwich in his left hand and the natgeo on his lap….
    please Michael K, don’t be as sensitive as my nephew marcin..
    Accept death…

  • I’m sure David can speak with far more authority, depth of knowledge, and years of experience than any of us about NatGeo, but I think it’s important to realize it’s not an institution that always speaks with one voice or is under any one person’s real control, so sometimes they may do things a bit ‘edgy’ and other times they play it safe, and this has gone in cycles. The body of readership (by which I mean paying subscriptions) has also changed greatly over the last two decades- the subscription rates have gone way down in the US, and they’ve put out many international editions in other languages to try to make up the difference. Inevitably, this means the tone of the mag is less purely American, which I think is all to the good.

    Back in the 60s, NatGeo was a very whitebread, upper middle class, US establishment type of mag, a staunch supporter for example of American military policy in South Vietnam. Through much of its life NatGeo also was largely a travel and tourism magazine in disguise, (or maybe not even in disguise) that often showed a romanticized, sanitized, and ‘exoticized’ view of non-Western cultures and people. It seems to me this started to change when Bill Garrett, who was a real journalist and not a scion of the Bell and Grosvenor Dynasties, was editor. They did some fairly gritty stories… I remember one on cocaine that pulled few punches… and then a story on ‘Growing Up In Harlem’ which turned out to be threatening to the country club set who were sitting on the board at the time. There was a ‘Night of the Long Knives’ and Garrett was summarily dismissed (this is all hearsay… David??) And much as I admire Bill Garrett (he was a great photojournalist as well as picture editor, writer, etc.) I understand we have him and his son to thank for the by now all too predictable and ridiculous overemphasis and over-coverage of Middle American and Egyptian archeology in the magazine.

    In the late 80s and the 90s NatGeo became increasingly aware of ‘environmental’ issues. They had always done animals and national parks, of course, and the ‘charismatic meta-fauna’ (greenie-speak for big fuzzy cute animals) audience have always been a core constituency of the mag, and this led to conservation stories, but eventually they couldn’t escape what was happening to the planet as a whole. They tried to walk a fine line in covering the environment in a ‘balanced’ and non-controversial way. The reality is that much of the readership and much of the higher management and many advertisers are pretty conservative. And it’s a ‘family’ magazine, read by lots of 12-yr olds. But eventually population, energy, overconsumption, deforestation, and global warming became things you couldn’t honestly research and write about without offending SOMEBODY. The last editor before Chris Johns, Bill Allen, did a hard-hitting story on fossil fuel and global warming that offended some board members and some of the major advertisers…and he was axed. It’s hard not to notice that the big advertisers in NatGeo these days are all SUV manufacturers whose gas guzzlers in the ads are always perched precariously in environmentally sensitive areas where no responsible person would ever drive a motor vehicle, but that’s the lifestyle fantasy they’re trying to sell through the magazine.

    While all of that is true, I still say (as both a geographer and a photographer) Thank God for National Geographic! What little geographic, multicultural, and environmental knowledge exists in the US is largely due to their efforts. When I lived in Japan, or traveled to Australia, France, the UK, etc. I was pleased and surprised by how much one could learn about the outside world, other countries, other peoples, global issues, just through the mass media and especially public TV in those countries. Everyone knows about the BBC of course, but Japan’s NHK and Australia’s ABC are also outstanding. But I can’t even stand to watch TV in North America, public or commercial (and how does one really tell the difference these days?) Without NatGeo, this country really would be a wasteland. Recognize it for what it is, realize it reflects the society that produces and consumes it, but please be thankful for its existence!!



  • Oh believe me Panos…I’m quite good with death. I’m intimately familiar with the bastard. Not afraid, have no illusions. At peace.

    But it has little bearing in this discussion. So I really don’t know why you continue to talk about it…maybe you are in need of an intervention? You OK?

    Oh, and yes…hip-hop is totally dead! But no one’s told it.

  • Michael I feel like I’m chasing you around from a post to a post… It seems you move like a butterfly .. No worries …
    last thing …
    next time you find yourself on the shitter ,
    please READ your sandwich and EAT your Natgeo…
    dont do what Elvis did!
    Do the opossite.. This way you will stay alive a little longer!

  • Your eloquence really dazzles Panos!

  • Michael what’s “eloquence”?

  • ALL…

    it is late and i must sleep, but back in the morning for a comment or two…

    one thing, among the many to be considered, in terms of how Natgeo is operating today, is that in the last 10 years the Geographic has lost more than half of their all time high circulation of over 11 million subscribers…other magazines have lost, but the rate of loss at Natgeo must be among the highest percentage-wise…perhaps someone could give me another example, but i do know that magazines like Time and Newsweek, for example, have held fairly steady in that same time frame i believe…

    this quite simply means, among other things, a reduction in the funding to produce all those good pictures that made the place so famous for all those good pictures….”inordinate” amounts of time in the field for photographers waiting and exploring and waiting some more, “wasted” money like crazy, but gave readers, perhaps in the years Sidney suggests, pictures they absolutely could not see anywhere else…….

    franchising out to produce 26 foreign language editions has certainly kept the international profile alive, at least in the short term…but, many of those editions are losing circulation rapidly or never went very far in the first place…all of those foreign editions are published by publishers in the country of circulation..

    i think Sidney has given us a pretty good overall analysis, even from from my so-called “insider” point of view…i am not the type to cry much over any so called “good old days” about anything….i cherish the past, but live in the present…BUT, in fact, the days when the Society concentrated on the Magazine, and had high circulation, were exactly the days when so much of the iconic work was produced….

    however, even in hard times, nobody has ever been able to beat the amazing underwater and natural history photography in National Geographic…and mostly, that is traditionally what Geographic readers want the most according to all readership surveys…i always figured i was sort of “subsidized” by David Doubilet and Franz Lanting…now, Paul Nicklen has risen to the top of the natural history photographers..amazing work!!!

    but, it does seem the Magazine sure could use a little bit of SNAP, CRACKLE, AND POP!!!! it is just a bit more “scientific journal” than i like…but, then again, i am absolutely not the typical reader nor would i pretend to be…nor do i have any crystal ball that would suggest what they could do to raise their circulation…

    maybe there is nothing they can do or could have done to “maintain” …because no matter what we each think about the woulda shoulda coulda aspect, we all know what really HAPPENED to Natgeo…only two words..


    as an alleged “insider” i could, of course, rip the place apart…. many, including me, have consistenly made the mistake of thinking that because Natgeo supports extensive use of pictures, that it was somehow supposed to be a “photography magazine”…any editor there recoils at that suggestion…

    but, in the long run, you know what?? maybe National Geographic is not the very best mass circulation international magazine featuring fine photography (and lately some very fine writing) to at least enlighten some of the people some of the time about the world in which we live , but it is way ahead of whoever is in second place….

    and, i have seen this many many times over the years, some of the biggest critics of the Magazine, and some very very vociferous ones at that, have been seen sneaking in the “back door” looking for work!!!

    peace, david

    p.s. i will tell what i think is “wrong” tomorrow…i can honestly debate this one from both sides!!!!

  • Not sure if the next argument will be about photography in Ntl Geo or Nat geo itself, David, but can you say a word about the incidence of the syndicated channel cable on the magazine itself? New media totally independant of the magazine, or providing much needed revenue for it? Thanks.

  • hmmm … I remember well getting into massive trouble once, as my father found out that I had been cutting out images of our NatGeos to illustrate my school-essays…
    There just weren’t better ipictures available (and no internet back then)
    Unfortunately it was before I learned English, so the texts escaped me.

    We had these meeeeeeeeeters of yellow NatGeo at home, and I guess I hoped, no one would be looking in there anymore…
    Boy, was I wrong!

    They are here now, hese old NatGeos, and I still like to go through them. Sometimes, though, I find holes in the pages. Unfortunately ;)


  • That is one thing, too: People tend to keep them. Other magazines end up being thrown away. They are the only magazines from the 80es (and before) I do have here at the moment. I guess my father started to collect them when he first came to the US as an exchange student after the War…

    It is interesting to hear about the politics behind it. I remember some of the mentioned essays because of the images. And I remember my father once taking the magazine away from me … BECAUSE of the images.

    As a child, NatGeo represented the world for me. Everything OUTSIDE my house, city, country.
    A wonder I did not run away back then ;)
    The world seemed so fascinating!

  • I am constantly amazed at the wealth of comments here around issues that I usually slap with a one liner. Maybe my mind is somewhere else.

    Anyway, what I think is: Why worry about NatGeo? Why dismiss it? Why swear at it? — at the same time – Why think it’s ‘MANNA FROM HEAVEN’ (spelling) ? — and collectively — why think is superlatives? why take extreme ends of the opinion stick?

    I basically like NG but I haven’t been a subscriber for about a year or two. The subscription ran out. That’s it. There are bombardments of magazines and online sources to keep me busy with or without NG.

    Why criticize NG for what it is and has been since it’s inception? It is what it is: a geographic magazine covering pressing and remedial happenings from around the globe, supported by better than average reproduction of photography.

  • correction: I wanted to say: Why think in superlatives? That is a side issue that puzzles me.

  • so many interesting posts above…and no real time to write now either…i appreciated Sidney’s background fleshing-out of NG (the same as my own, though I think I’m a bit younger than he ;)) ) and ditto John Fulton’s post :)))…im also happy the discussion of “writing” has also surfaced, for whil photography is irrevocably threaded in my mind with that magazine, so too the writing…as i’ve written before, it was that magazine that seeded my own imagination and maybe even my own “geographic” education ;)))…(that and my dad’s insane desire to take is family everywhere, rootlessness)….

    but, just to add a small piece….

    NG is where i first learned of the remarkable work of Alexandra Boulat….

    isn’t that ironic?….a magazine that often gets pummeled by critics (including me, when i take it to task for his coverage of Congo), is the magazine in which i first lost my breath at the debth and importance of Alex’s work…

    NG, now and historically, is still a magazine (for all its good and ill) with a wider and deeper depth than just Nature and Scientific photography, but something richer and more essential…

    it is still for this reason that this 40 year old father reads the magazine each month with his son (rather after his son has finished), for he too, like I before, has a subscription to that magazine…..



  • RENE….

    good point…why all the fuss?? why not just take it for what it is??? why is Natgeo supposed to somehow be the “end all and be all” for everything???

    i suppose that this is just the burden of any so called “biggest and best” of anything….let’s face it…Natgeo comes from the U.S….taking the proverbial “American dream” out there on an international level…..big photo budgets, sending photogs all over the world….they set themselves up “on a pedestal” and so they are just going to get “knocked”….perhaps they are seen as some sort of “voice for middle America”….

    i will tell you this….the folks who work there are one dedicated bunch…they would most likely agree with all the critics here…but, they are also very aware that they have an audience who must be satisfied…they want to “push” them, but they cannot just push them over the cliff either!!!

    the point of the Annual Seminar is to show that they KNOW..they are totally AWARE… do you think they bring in Debbie Fleming Caffery, Alex Soth and Larry Fink because they think that they should publish the work of those photogs?? Of course not….they bring in those photographers because all of the editors at Natgeo love photography for it’s own sake…they KNOW how incredibly sensitive Debbie’s photographs are for example…they just cannot publish them in the Magazine…they think the NG readers just would not “get it”…and , for now at least, i think they are probably right…

    cheers, david


    “…i will tell you this….the folks who work there are one dedicated bunch…they would most likely agree with all the critics here…but, they are also very aware that they have an audience who must be satisfied…they want to “push” them, but they cannot just push them over the cliff either!!!…”

    Well David, i do find your explanation decent and accurate…
    Its not the Natgeo… that’s messing in it up,,,
    Its the retarded AUDIENCE… that their talking to…. It is us, the problem, middle class american IDIOTS, like PANOS or Michael K,…
    We are the ones, that limits NATGEO’S and every Natgeo’s efforts…
    Once again, sorry Natgeo…

    This one here sums it up:

    Once again David… thats for making it so clear…
    “We” created cnn or FOX channel, FOX didnt create us…. although now it does…

  • Green Day…hmmm, yes. Well watching those little boys prancing around in their tight pants and make-up, smashing their guitars and grimacing at the camera to show how cool and anti-corporate they are, all the while making supercool, overly produced videos and selling 65 million albums worldwide…it does make me smile.

    Maybe it’s my age, but I have the sense they don’t really mean it. I never got that sense from Dylan or The Who or the Clash or Lou Reed. It’s been done before Billy Joe! Doesn’t mean it can’t be done again…but hey at least try to be “original!”

  • wow! was a fun to see David Griffin on photo! I have to write to him soon! i was planing since long time.. if he is reading the posts – David.. i will write to you soon! And thank you for your time and help at Eddie Adams Workshop! :-)

    and David.. David Harvey… i have less time to read your blog since one month, i am working hard… i will need to find some time, because i feel like i am missing something important! Cheers!!!

  • AGA…

    welcome back!! we have missed you…

    but, i was pretty sure you were working….i so so look forward to the work you are doing…

    so, stay silent until you are totally finished…

    peace, david

  • Like many others I grew up on Nat. Geo. I rarely look at it now. If I do, it’s to follow the coverage of one particular photog that I admire. Like you Mr. Harvey.

    Some years ago I read the ethnography “Reading National Geographic”. This excellent study gave me new insight to the culture that surrounds Nat. Geo. and it left me distrusting the coverage and those behind it in general, particularly the senior editors.

    If you like Nat Geo, you owe it to yourself to read this book. I’m not trying to spoil it for anyone only to illustrate that there is more than meets the eye to this publication.

  • Finsky,

    First, I’ve not read the book. I’ve read some positive reviews and some negative reviews. Also the publisher’s description and premise of the book. And now your post above…in which you say: “…it left me distrusting the coverage and those behind it in general, particularly the senior editors.”

    If you don’t mind, what specifically about the coverage is not to be trusted. What false pictures are being painted by the publishers or editors there? What lies are being perpetuated? Again, for the sake of conversation, do you have a specific example of a particular issue or article that we should all distrust?


  • It was curious to me learning about the dramatic loss of subscribers. I am primarily interested in natural history, and when I saw the trend towards other articles, my subscription was not renewed. I had been a long-time subscriber, but for me the magazine strayed from what I enjoyed the most.

    I still pick the magazine up when I see it, and admire the photography, and like you, Fincky, I love following the work of some of my favorite photographers like David Harvey.

  • very well said mr Mike Halminski

  • mr FINSKI , also…
    thank you for your honesty…


    “…MIKE SLAPS PANOS IN THE FACE (or thats what he thinks!)

    “… I would definitely recommend his book Air Guitar to Panos, assuming you read “books”…

    YOU SHUT ME DOWN… like a “stealth ” fighter plane somewhere in SERBIA…


    BUT SOON, VERY SOON, my desperation became exhilaration…


    This book’s epilogue goes like this…:

    “… The most important love message and thank you to my kora-playing friend Jally in Senegal. Your voice and your message are with me daily. I will never forget you.
    The most important love message are with me daily. I will never forget you.
    The most important love message and thank you goes, of course, to my mother MARYANNA.
    Thanks MOM for always sticking with me and for understanding my drive and passion from the very beginning. I LOVE YOU…

    Now.. to whoever wants to judge me… or should i say: to every Mike or Michael out there… that dreams to slap me in the face…
    to all of you….
    a book , with no letters, theories, judgements, philosophies or


    Posted by: Panos Skoulidas | February 15, 2008 at 01:37 AM…”

  • Now I’m going to generalise but the US is a big country. Americans are dumb stupid and ignorant I my wife’s best friend is a cultured cleaver person who can’t place Europe on a map it amazes me. I personally would love to have Nat Geo as a vehicle to tell some of these people about what I believe in.

    I guess David’s right when he says that the audience must be satisfied. Nat Geo’s never going to be the most cutting edge publication but I think that the middle class readership it has is potentially the most influential in the world.

    I think the writing has got a lot better since Chris Johns has taken over and it’s very slightly a harder hitting magazine. Obviously it’s easy to trash it for any number of reasons. BTW if I went to the Congo I would be taking pictures of Gorillas or more probably Chimpanzees.

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