National Geographic photos at the Launchpad
Becoming a National Geographic photographer is a bit like being accepted into an Ivy League school. It takes luck and talent, and when you’re in you have to work to keep it.
Nevertheless, the Roaring Fork Valley has boasted several of them over the years, and now their work is coming together in an exhibit at the Launchpad in Carbondale.
Titled “From Our Valley to the World,” the exhibit’s opening reception will take place from 6-8 p.m. Friday, July 1.
“It’s a very desirable place to live, and if you’re doing this sort of work you’re working somewhere else anyway,” observed David Hiser, one of the four photographers with work on display.
Hiser didn’t plan to be a professional photographer. When he nabbed a particularly fine photo of a friend skiing, he sold it to Aspen SkiCo for $10.
Later, he fell into a job at Aspen Illustrated News, then heard through his then-wife, Cherie, that National Geographic was planning a story on Colorado. He showed them his photos from the Outward Bound school in Marble and was given 20 rolls of film to document Aspen.
His shot of the Maroon Bells made the cover. If you have a shelf of magazines at home, you’ve probably seen it.
“It was the greatest break in the world, really,” he said. “There were many things going on in Aspen in the summer even in those days.”
He ended up freelancing for 20 years, mostly on “what they called boondocker assignments.”
“A lot of people that worked for them weren’t into the wilderness,” he explained.
Early on that meant Death Valley or Ranier. Later, he could find himself photographing polar bears in Manitoba, hunter gatherers in Borneo, or a monkey smoking a cigarette in a lab.
“I found if you got really involved with something and learned everything you could about it, no matter what it was, you fell in love with it,” he said. “For that reason, it’s kind of hard to pick up your life when you come back home.”
Lately, he’s been reliving the old days as he digitizes his photos.
“I’ve had the feeling that I want to leave something of my work when I pass on,” he said.
The late Nicholas DeVore III’s big break was even more fortuitous. A photography student from Aspen, he was involved with Cherie Hiser’s “Center of the Eye” when the director of photography for National Geographic came out to speak. When the visitor dropped a lens off the Highlands Lift, DeVore jumped after it and returned it.
Shortly thereafter, he was given the opportunity to do a story in the Wind River Range.
Next, he filled in for a shark-bitten photographer in the first Hokulea voyage around the Pacific in dugout canoes. As soon as he finished that assignment, he was in the arctic to replace a man bitten by a rabid dog.
He wasn’t immune to accident, himself, and was once hit with a round fired by a drunken French general.
He continued to get assignments, though his in-camera double exposures and other artsy perspectives were sometimes better received at Geo, the European equivalent.
DeVore’s widow, Karinjo, is providing the prints for the show. A companion and writer on numerous stories, she has a unique perspective. Their children are photographers, as well.
“They sort of continue the legacy,” Karinjo said.
Unlike Hiser and DeVore, Dick Durrance came to National Geographic before the Roaring Fork Valley. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth in 1963, he and some friends decided to paddle the Danube.
“At that point I had shot not quite 21 rolls of film in my life,” he recalled.
Still, he suggested they pitch the story, and the magazine backed it with cameras and 400 rolls of film.
“The Iron Curtain was so firmly drawn across Eastern Europe that they couldn’t get their photographers in, but we had student visas,” Durrance explained.
The result was a 45 page cover story and the start of an illustrious career.
“There was no better way to see the world,” he said. “You had access to every level of society.”
He recalls meeting with the mayor and getting invited to dinner at a street cleaner’s house in the course of one day in Brazil.
“You had all the resources in the world at your disposal, which means you had no excuse for not getting it,” he added.
“They don’t publish excuses,” Pete McBride agreed.
McBride is perhaps best known for his work in and around the Grand Canyon, where he recently completed a 60-day trek between the river and the rim, with a story slated for the August edition.
The youngest of the group, he’s proud to be shown alongside his role models.
“They were the legends,” he said. “I used to see these guys as a boy when I was interested in photography, and I got nervous.”
His debut story for National Geographic, however, was a biplane flight from London to Capetown. The magazine had declined to fund the project in advance, so the cost came out of his own pockets.
“I had maxed out two credit cards. I went for it,” he recalled.
Upon his return, he made the cut to pitch the project before the editorial staff.
“To get to the ninth floor was like climbing Everest,” he recalled. His initially flustered presentation was interrupted by a phone call by famed anthropologist Richard Leakey, giving him a chance to gather himself and sell the piece.
“At that point, I thought I’d hit the pinnacle of photography — at least for my interests,” he said.“There’s no publication in the world that puts as much emphasis on photographs,” McBride observed. “It’s not filler, it’s a real storytelling artform.”
While he might have made more money in another profession or photographic discipline, McBride says he and his fellow National Geographic photographers are “rich in stories.”
To him, that’s what continues to set the magazine apart in the digital era.
“The stakes are against us,” he observed. “Everybody has the ability to make perfect manipulated art in their form.”
Despite its strict journalistic integrity, however, National Geographic has one of the largest Instagram followings of any commercial entity. It takes just a quick dip in their sea of images to see why.
“It’s like walking into a landmine of the world on hard drives in one office,” he said. “They’re sending people to places on the planet that few people even know exist.”
“There’s a saying that every picture in the world has already been taken,” he added “The easiest part in some ways is pushing the button on the camera. It’s about getting there and telling the story.”
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