GILBERT HOVEY GROSVENOR, FATHER OF PHOTOJOURNALISM

VOLKMAR K. WENTZEL

The contributions of Gilbert Grosvenor (CC ‘01, Cosmos Club President ’23) to the development of photojournalism are described. Photographs, taken during a trip to Russia in 1913, demonstrate his skill to provide insights by way of carefully selected everyday events.


The Cosmos Club, as a center of scholarly life and thought, and the cradle of popular geography, is vividly portrayed in the Stanley Meltzoff painting hanging in the Club’s Long Hall on the second floor. Beneath a glowing gas chandelier, thirty–three distinguished men are gathered around a mahogany table in the Dolley Madison House, the Club’s old headquarters on Lafayette Square. They had come in response to this simple invitation sent out in January 1888.

Dear Sir: You are invited to be present at a meeting to be held in the Assembly Hall of the Cosmos Club on Friday evening January 13, at eight o’clock for the purpose of considering the advisability of organizing a society for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge. Very respectfully yours, Gardiner G. Hubbard

The other men who had signed the invitation were some of the first explorers of the American West. They had triangulated our coastlines, measured mountains, traced the windings of rivers and documented nature and the tribal life of native Americans.

THE GEOGRAPHIC IS BORN

In 1888, life in the city of Washington still moved at a leisurely pace. Florida Avenue was a kind of beltway bordering the city of the time. Most of these men would have walked to the Club, some may have ridden bicycles or the horse–drawn tramway that came down Pennsylvania Avenue from Capitol Hill. Gardiner Hubbard, most likely, would have clip–clopped in a closed carriage from his Twin Oaks estate on Woodley Road (now the residence of the head of the Taiwan Economic & Cultural Office). No mean trip at the time, when the Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenue bridges did not exist, and Rock Creek must still have been somewhat of a barrier. At the cast–iron hitching post in front of the Dolley Madison House, his faithful coachman would have waited patiently until the meeting ended, in what might have been a cold wintry night.

In the Meltzoff painting, the central characters close to the warmth of a large fireplace are Major John W. Powell, hero of the battle of Shiloh, conqueror of the Grand Canyon, and founding father of our Club, and Gardiner Greene Hubbard, distinguished by Benjamin Franklin spectacles and a flowing white beard. Hubbard had been a successful lawyer and entrepreneur in Boston with the misfortune that in 1862 his four–year–old daughter Mabel had lost her hearing owing to scarlet fever. Being a practical man and loving father, he left no stone unturned to help his little Mabel. He founded the Clark School for the Deaf in Massachusetts and engaged Alexander Graham Bell to teach her to speak. Bell, a dedicated teacher of elocution, was enchanted with his bright pupil. Hubbard in turn, was fascinated by Bell’s promising sound and tone experiments. They led him to finance Bell’s invention of the telephone and to serve as the first president of the Bell Telephone Company. When he personally demonstrated the instrument at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia to no less a personage than Dom Pedro II, the Emperor of Brazil, His Imperial Majesty dropped the receiver, and shouted “My God, it talks.”

Hubbard was elected president of the just–born National Geographic Society. Eloquently, he proclaimed, “When we embark on the great ocean of discovery, the horizon of the unknown advances with us wherever we go. The more we know, the greater we find our ignorance. Because we know so little, we have formed this Society for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.” Hubbard’s “unknown horizons” turned out to be an unending resource for the content of the Magazine and the Society’s research and exploration projects.


Painting by Stanley Meltzoff

The Founding of the National Geographic Society in the Cosmos Club on January 13, 1858. The table is still in use in a conference room at the Hubbard Building of the Society on 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC.

1 Charles J. Bell, banker
2 Israel C. Russell, geologist
3 Commodore George W. Melville, USN
4 Frank Baker, anatomist
5 W.B. Powell, educator
6 Brig. Gen. A. W. Greeley, USA, polar explorer
7 Grove Karl Gilbert, geologist and future Society president
8 John Wesley Powell, geologist, explorer of the Colorado River
9 Gardiner Green Hubbard, lawyer and first President of the Society , who helped finance the telephone experiments of Alexander Graham Bell
10 Henry Gannett, geographer and
future Society president
11 William H. Dall, naturalist
12 Edward E. Hayden, meteorologist
13 Herbert G. Ogden, topographer
14 Arthur P. Davis, engineer
15 Gilbert Thompson, topographer
16 Marcus Baker, cartographer
17 George Kennan, author, explorer of Arctic Siberia
18 James Howard Gore, educator
19 O. H. Tittmann, geodesist and future Society president
20 Henry W. Henshaw, naturalist
21 George Brown Goode, naturalist
22 Cleveland Abbe, meteorologist
23 Comdr. John R. Bartlett, USN
24 Henry Mitchell, engineer
25 Robert Muldrow II, geologist
26 Comdr. Winfield S. Schley, USN
27 Capt. C. E. Dutton, USA
28 W. D. Johnson, topographer
29 James C. Welling, educator
30 C. Hart Merriam, Chief, U.S Biological Survey
31 Capt. Rogers Birnie, Jr., USA
32 A. H. Thompson, geographer
33 Samuel S. Gannett, geographer

THE FIRST ISSUE

To diffuse knowledge and to attract new members, the fledgling Society sponsored lectures by prominent scientists and explorers and published, “at irregular intervals,” a slim terra–cotta–colored brochure resembling Smithsonian publications. Though scholarly, earnest and somewhat pedantic, this modest National Geographic Magazine was way ahead of its time to reject prudery by featuring, as early as 1896, a Zulu couple with the bride in native undress. Before the Victoria’s Secret catalog came along, such illustrations had been an exciting introduction to physical geography for generations of pubescent boys.

At Hubbard’s suggestion these first National Geographics were edited by four volunteer vice presidents, each responsible for land, sea, air and art, and by a part–time moonlighting statistician from the Department of Agriculture. Many pages were taken up by membership lists, meteorological charts and graphs. Illustrations were almost non–existent. The pamphlet featured such titles as: The Buried Cities of Ancient Egypt, Life Among the Australian Cannibals, and The Classification of Geographic Forms by Genesis. Some, like The Arctic Cruise of the U.S.S. Thetis in 1889, are still fascinating reading, and The Law of Storms, a dramatic account of ships passing through cyclones, recalls forerunners of El Niño.

A NEW EDITOR TAKES OVER

When Gardiner Greene Hubbard died at Twin Oaks in 1897, the 10–year–old Society had attracted less than a thousand local members and did not carry itself financially. In the meantime, Bell, having fallen in love with his pupil Mabel, had proposed to and married her in 1877. Now, with his father–in–law gone, it was up to Bell to take over the foundering Society. But Bell did not really want the job. He was much too busy with his pet projects at his Gaelic–named Beinn Bhreagh (beautiful mountain) estate on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. There, he liked to fly man–carrying kites, experiment with hydrofoils, and ponder trans–Atlantic “aerial locomotion.”

However, Alexander Graham Bell, being the optimistic and impulsive person that he was, could not resist taking on the Society’s second presidency, “in order to save it,” he wrote in his diary. He steadfastly believed that his interpretation of geography, “the world and all that is in it,” could be the foundation for a unique educational institution. His first step was to replace the volunteer land, sea, air and art vice–presidential team with a full–time, paid editor. His responsibility would be the Magazine and the expansion of the Society’s financial base—the membership. In his quest for the right person he wrote his friend, Dr. Edwin A. Grosvenor, a professor of history at Amherst College and a distinguished orientalist, linguist, and author. Professor Grosvenor had taught at Robert College in Constantinople for 23 years and reared his family in Turkey. In his letter Bell offered the job to either one of Grosvenor’s identical twin sons, Gilbert or Edwin. To look them over, he invited the young men for a three–week vacation to Beinn Bhreagh. During their stay, the inventor’s comely daughter, Elsie May, captured the heart of the 21–year–old Gilbert, who, most likely under her spell, professed an interest in the job. To him she had whispered, “I told Papa that I thought you had the talent he sought and that you would like to come to Washington!”

On April Fool’s day, 1899, Dr. Bell showed the young Gilbert Grosvenor the Society’s meager headquarters—half of a rented room shared with the American Forestry Association on the fifth floor of the Corcoran Building opposite the U.S. Treasury on Fifteenth Street, where the Hotel Washington now stands. The practically empty space was littered with old Geographics returned from newsstands, other magazines, and an account book that showed $2,000 in the red.

Though it would seem that the young Gilbert, without any editorial experience, was an unlikely candidate for the ambitious task that Bell had in mind, he turned out to be just the man. “His eyes had been focused on scenes from many lands and his ears tuned to the babel of tongues spoken on the Galata Bridge... His nurse was an Armenian, Kurdish porters toiled up the cobbled path carrying provisions to his home. Albanians, Bulgarians, and Greeks were his classmates...Little wonder, that geography seemed to him a dramatic series of living pictures...” wrote Maynard Owen Williams, for many years the dynamic chief of the Geographic’s foreign staff.

Gilbert H. Grosvenor, or GHG, as he was respectfully called by the staff during my time at the Geographic, was also well grounded in the classics and in literature. From such books as Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast and Herodotus’ Travels, written 2,000 years earlier, he had learned that accurate, eyewitness, first–hand accounts in simple straight–forward writing, would leave the most lasting images in readers’ minds. Having helped his father with his illustrated books about the antiquities of Constantinople, he was well aware of the powerful impact that photographs can have.

A GOOD TEAM

The hearty, bear–like Bell and the slender, always courteous and shy–appearing GHG turned out to be a most effective team. Bell was the big, not always practical, “idea man” and GHG was his skillful executor. In a long letter from Beinn Bhreagh dated March 5,1900, Bell foreshadowed the “photojournalism” that would dominate much of this century,

“Just think of all the illustrated novels you have read, and how you have been stimulated to read the text by pictures expressing dramatic situations, while namby–pamby illustrations of life...depicting mere scenes without action...did not arouse in you any special desire to turn to the text. The same would be true of even beautiful illustrations of scenery, etc., or any pictures of a static order. Motion interests. The mind asks ‘what happened next’; and if the text affords the solution, the glancer at a picture will become a reader. I think the line of development in pictorial illustration should be: More dynamical pictures—pictures of life and action—pictures that tell a story to be continued in our text!”

GHG, the executor, is best recalled by Frederick Vosburgh, a long and close associate, and editor of the Magazine from 1967 through 1970. “This mild–seeming gentleman had the soul and heart of a fighter. Those who challenged his plans and principles struck steel beneath the velvet....He had no patience with murky thinking—bombast bored him.”

GHG did have positive ideas. Nothing controversial, only what is of a kindly nature about a country and its people could be printed. Hence, no doubt, the Geographic’s reputation (not necessarily always true) of looking at the world through rose–colored glasses. The pendulum of history swings both ways. In the spirit of the time the Bell–GHG team was intent to portray lucidly the physical features of the world (geography), people at work and play (human interest), customs and ways of life (culture), industries, commerce and transportation (economics), natural history and the strange and curious.

In the wake of Napoleon, daguerreotypists braved the desert to document the Sphinx, pyramids and the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt. Some penetrated the jungles of the Yucatan to record Mayan ruins. Adventurous photographers focused cumbersome cameras on the expansion of colonial empires, and artists like Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, Edward Curtis and William Henry Jackson with his mule “Hypo” revealed the grandeur of our West. Photographic technology advanced rapidly in the last century from the wet and dry plate, to George Eastman’s Kodak in 1888. “You press the button, we do the rest,” was the slogan. In that same pregnant year of the Geographic’s birth, Mergenthaler’s Linotype revolutionized printing and Frederic Ives’s half–tone screen promised magazine illustrations in color. Carl Zeiss designed better optics and Gottlieb Daimler demonstrated the first horseless carriage. Earth–shaking events all over the world—the Zulu and Boer wars in Africa, and the catastrophic eruption of Mt. Pelèe on Martinique Island—were just some of the many subjects waiting to be diffused for the common man.

PHOTOGRAPHS WIN OUT

But diffusion would not happen without a contest of minds between GHG and a stuffy clique among the Society’s Board of Managers. They opposed Bell’s and GHG’s loose and “unscientific” conception of geography and were skeptical about the use of photographs. A showdown with these nay–sayers one December morning in 1904 is best described in GHG’s words,

“The printer was urgently demanding copy for 11 pages for the January issue. There is no tyranny so absolute as a printer’s deadline, but I simply did not have a good manuscript available. A large and rather bulky envelope lay on my desk. Still brooding about the unfilled pages, I opened the package listlessly...then stared with mounting excitement at the enclosures that tumbled out. Before me lay some 50 beautiful photographs of the mysterious city of Lhasa in Tibet, taken by a Russian explorer. He offered them to the National Geographic Society free for publication. The photographs, the first depicting life in Tibet’s capital, were so extraordinary that I decided to use them.”

[photograph]
Elaborate funeral procession for a man of little wealth

The young editor featured the “honeycomb palace of the Dalai Lama,” the Potala, with a double–page spread and described this first photograph–story with informative captions only. After the January issue had appeared and while walking down 16th Street on his way to lunch at the Cosmos Club, he was congratulated by members for his use of “the first photographs of romantic Lhasa.”

Other windfalls followed. In February of 1905, GHG managed to borrow from the War Department, free of charge, 138 remarkable copper printing plates about heretofore unknown life in the Philippines. The Spanish–American War had kindled an interest among Americans in far–away places, with the result that the Lhasa and Philippine photographs generated a flood of new members. With photography substantially vindicated, the Society was on a roll. By December of 1905 membership had soared to 11,000. GHG would say, “the word photograph had become as musical to my ear, as the jingle of a cash register to a businessman.”

Seventy–four nocturnal magnesium flash powder pictures of American wildlife by Congressman George Shiras were published in 1906. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. Only two years later, the earliest expedition photographs (1908–09) in color were taken of Robert Peary’s ship, the “Roosevelt,” marooned in the Arctic ice. The now antediluvian Shiras flash equipment, and the bleached unpublishable Autochromes processed under impossible polar conditions, are nevertheless proof that GHG was always on the look–out for something new. He foresaw the Magazine’s publication of color; one year after the Autochrome plate, the first practical color process was on the market in 1907. Fourteen duotone pages of some of the most outstanding anthropological photographs of American Indians by Edward Curtis appeared in the July 1907 issue, and in 1910 twenty– four pages of hand–tinted Scenes in Korea followed. In June of 1911, the enterprising editor published an 8–foot long fold–out panoramic view of the Canadian Rockies. To the Society’s Board, he reported, “The development of photography and the use of half–tone plates during the past ten years has been extraordinary, but it is probable that the use of color will be just as remarkable during the next decade.” This prophecy soon proved to be true.

THE PIONEER OF PHOTOJOURNALISM

In 1913, GHG began to practice what he had preached. With his family he embarked, like many other culture–seeking Americans, on the then fashionable Grand Tour of old abbeys in England, castles along the Rhine, and cathedrals and chateaux in France. Only the more adventurous left the beaten track. Russia in 1913 was still little known to travelers. Tsar Nicholas II ruled 172 million subjects, representing a mosaic of more than a hundred languages with rich cultural legacies. Moscow was a city of rich and poor, aristocrats, serfs, magnificent churches, and palaces.

All this was not lost on GHG and his scholarly father, under whose wise guidance he aimed his 4A Folding Kodak at a world that will never be seen again. With an instinct for human interest, his “candid” impressions revive Russian life in the horse and droshky days. We can window– shop in a toy store and wander beneath a garland of Byzantine saints and angels through a shopping arcade where His Master’s Voice gramophones are on display. We witness a stately procession of six horses with grooms, all shrouded in white and drawing an elaborately carved hearse. They are mourning the death of a poor man whose family will from now on be in debt, forever. In Moscow’s garment center, GHG photographed pictorial folk art designed to attract a public that could not read. Restaurants he noted were color–coded: green letters meant food, yellow drink. Some of GHG’s photographs seem to prophesy the revolution.

Photographs had unquestionably become the Magazine’s trademark. They confirmed GHG’s conviction, “If the National Geographic Magazine is to progress, it must constantly improve the quality of its illustrations...” At first he borrowed, then bought and probably would have stolen “dynamical” photographs, if in 1915 he had not engaged Franklin L. Fisher as his Chief of Illustrations. His instructions were to seek out talented contributors, to build up a staff of the Geographic’s own photographers, and to install a modern laboratory. A carefully documented illustrations library, with fireproof asbestos–lined storage, was also on the agenda.

PIONEER PHOTOGRAPHERS

During the teens, twenties and thirties, under GHG’s direction, Franklin Fisher dispatched writer–photographers all over the globe for many months at a time. They crossed the roof of the world, explored darkest Africa and other remote places that had seldom, if ever, been photographed. They traveled by ship with heavy fiber and metal trunks that could be carried safari–style on a porter’s head, or could be slung on each side of a pony, camel, donkey or yak. In Europe he discovered a “stable,” as he called them, of talented photographers. Their legacy, often in the realm of art, is now an irreplaceable record of vanished customs and ways of life. For processing color in the field, these pioneers had to pack developing tanks for the 11 required solutions, chemicals, thermometers, timers, scales, sponges, wooden drying racks, and a black, tent–like changing bag for loading the glass–plate holders. In the tropics it could be sheer hell, with hands trapped helplessly inside, to have a pesky mosquito buzzing around each ear.

Dr. Maynard Owen Williams, the distinguished Chief of the Foreign Editorial Staff and member of the Cosmos Club, accompanied the 1932 Citröen–Haardt expedition across mountains and deserts following Marco Polo’s trail for 7,370 miles from the Mediterranean to the Yellow Sea. With his heavy 5” 3 7” Graflex and teakwood Sinclair Una with Russian red leather bellows, he took many of the classic photographs that made the Geographic. He saw his job as seeking “through photography to show the folks at home how the other half lives.”

Another Foreign Staff member of our Club, W. Robert Moore, a worldwide traveler, took 150 lbs. of color plates and 50 lbs. of holders over Indo–China’s old Mandarin Road. While in Ethiopia in 1931, covering the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie, he had to ask the King of Kings, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, to “hold it” for 10 seconds in the rapidly fading light near the equator. The Autochrome required 60 times the exposure of black–and–white, making it impossible to photograph anything in motion. It explains why early color photographs with human subjects sometimes looked stiff and unnatural, as has been pointed out with some glee by graduates of photojournalism schools familiar only with the 35mm Kodachrome world.

Photographer–writer Luis Marden remembers that the first words he learned in any country’s language were “hold still.” Luis is the third of our Club members who had been a chief of the Geographic’s versatile foreign staff. He has been called a “living legend.” In 1957 in the deep waters off Pitcairn Island he found and photographed the remains of Captain Bligh’s ship, the Bounty. He dove into a Mayan sacrificial well to photograph and recover 1,000–year–old artifacts, and with his mathematician wife, Ethel, sailed the Atlantic following the actual log of Columbus. Luis filmed 11 documentary films for the Society’s popular lecture series held at Constitution Hall.

My longtime friendship with Luis Marden began in the spring of 1937. He had invited me to join him for a lunch–time stroll. On 15th Street, opposite the Treasury, about where the Old Ebbitt Grill is now, we passed the window of a photo shop. Luis stopped with a double–take, as he spotted the continuous projection of a 16mm Kodachrome film that Eastman Kodak had put on the market the year before. We went inside, and as he recalls, “They were projecting this loop of film over and over again with its brilliant color, and I asked the man if I could examine the film. He gave it to me and I put a loupe on it, a magnifying glass, and I saw there were no flecks in it! Unlike with an Autochrome or a Finlay the white paper and the white shirts had no residual color in them at all! And I wondered, how in the devil did they get that color?”

To Luis, right there and then, it was crystal clear that 35mm Kodachrome would be a giant leap forward for the National Geographic Magazine. As one of the first owners of a Leica in the country and author of the first publication on the subject, Color Photography with the Miniature Camera (The Fomo Publishing Company, Canton, Ohio 1934), he understood clearly the theory of color and the advantages of 35mm optics. The speed of Kodachrome (although only ASA 8), its lack of grain, and the fast lenses of the hand–held Leica would free the color photographers from tripods, heavy glass plates, and bulky cameras. “It will be a photographer’s liberation, like being let out of prison,” he predicted.

In that same spring Luis managed to get two rolls of the first 35mm Kodachrome, which he exposed on some iridescent goldfish, close–ups of some postage stamps and his future wife riding horseback in Rock Creek Park. He projected these to the assembled illustrations people, and was told bluntly that such small lantern slides would never be of any use to the Magazine. His Leica was considered to be a toy. However, all this did not escape the eagle eye of GHG, who wrote to the staff, “We must look into this.”

The Marden tests were sent to the Beck Engraving Co. in Philadelphia. In a letter, dated September 14, 1937, Mr. Beck, the president, wrote, “...this process is going to improve the appearance of the Magazine ...” More tests taken on assignment in the same year in Austria by W. Robert Moore confirmed the Leica–Kodachrome superiority. About a folk dance, he wrote, “The men swung their partners round and round to the swiftly changing tempo of guitar, mandolin, and wheezing accordion. I took potshots, standing up, and lying down on my stomach in the courtyard. Rough boots kicked up dust, dresses and petticoats swished, the dancers had fun, so did I.”

What Bob described may be routine now, but undoubtedly this dance was one of the first ever shot in color without having a large format camera anchored to a tripod. The powerful Leica–Kodachrome combination opened new frontiers, both technical and aesthetic. Color photographs could now be taken under almost any conditions, capturing the mood, atmosphere, and fleeting expressions in laughter and in sorrow. In looking back in 1963, GHG could truthfully say, “In photography and particularly in the use of color—we have led the way from the first.” When I joined the Geographic’s photographic staff on January 2, 1937, I came at the tail–end of the large format color era and the beginning of the transition to the 35mm Kodachrome. The Magazine was illustrated mostly with black and white photographs and sections of 8, 16 or 24 pages of color. These were printed on flat–bed presses by the local firm of Judd and Detwiler.

The laboratory was one of the most advanced in the country and certainly the first to be air–conditioned in Washington. Ten darkrooms surrounded a spacious finishing room equipped with washers, drying drums and stainless steel print–sorting tables. The darkrooms could only be entered by a labyrinth of U–shaped light traps. All equipment was of the latest design. Horizontal and vertical enlargers with ceiling–suspended and ball–bearing mounted easels could handle any size paper and correct perspective distortion. Generous stoneware sinks were modeled after those in hospitals, complete with knee–pedals for rinsing hypo–stained hands and foot–operated inspection lights. In the chemical mixing room, beneath a huge ventilating hood that would have been an alchemist’s dream, I made my debut wearing a white doctor’s smock embroidered with NGS over my heart. My task was to mix hypo and various brews of developer. With today’s canned cake–mix chemicals still in the future, the ingredients had to be carefully weighed, mixed and stirred in shoulder–high vats with wooden paddles badly frayed by the toxic chemicals.

The Geographic’s pioneering reputation in color photography is largely based on the early additive processes, of which the Autochrome plate, invented by the Lumière brothers in France, was the first commercially available. All additive color, being dependent on a microscopic screen of red, green and blue lines or dots, required large format cameras so that in the printed reproduction the screen would not show. A greatly enlarged Autochrome screen made of tiny dyed and crushed potato–starch grains would look like the pointillist effect of a Seurat painting. For this reason, Geographic photographers were tied to the large cumbersome plate cameras that had to be used on a tripod. At first this was the 5 3 7 inch Ica Juwel, a beautifully engineered instrument with all the tilts and swings necessary for architectural work. Later we used the Linhof, Speed Graphic, and Graflex cameras, also the Rolleiflex. All were specially fitted in our shop with the best wide–angle to telephoto lenses. A day’s shooting with this equipment was limited at most to 24, possibly 36 exposures, roughly the equivalent of one roll of 35mm film. Color photography was complex, time–consuming, disciplined and expensive. No one was more aware of this than the forward–looking and peripatetic GHG.

FACT–FINDING IN THE FIELD

On October 27, 1928, in a long, detailed letter to Mr. Fisher, GHG wrote,

“The National Geographic Society began to grow 30 years ago because we adopted the policy of printing many more and better pictures than any other publication. We have constantly kept ahead and we must continue to do so ...During my trip to Morocco and Spain in April and May of 1927... I had some enlightening experiences ...which made me realize that the expense of making the kind of photographs that we desire, is much greater today than it used to be ...It is imperative that we make more liberal provision to our photographic collaborators ...This applies particularly to photographers who make pictures in color.

“We have found from our experience in Washington and in the United States, that to secure good Autochromes it is essential to place an automobile at the disposal of the photographer... A man who has the brains and ability and enthusiasm to take our class of color pictures, cannot be expected to pack his equipment on his back. It is to our advantage that we should conserve his physical energy ... Motor expense should be encouraged ...

“It has been my policy in directing the Society to see that all men and all women on the staff, and those in humbler positions, are made comfortable in their work...Therefore, after selecting your photographic collaborator with great care, make his work as physically agreeable as you can...Encourage members of the staff to improve their work by giving them equitable pay and the hope of promotion.”

The letter goes on with observations and comments about various photographers he visited during his extensive travels. In France, about the aging Gervais Courtellemont, he said, “...he is such an unusually gifted photographer, it is essential that we should nurse him along, so that we may have the benefit of his pictures for many years.” Another French photographer, M. Flandrin, is described as having “...initiative, daring, artistic ability and the entree everywhere throughout French North Africa...I had hoped to send him to Timbuktu to collect the first color photographs of that part of the world.”

In Japan GHG found that Kiyoshi Sakamoto had great difficulties getting a supply of Autochrome plates. By ocean travel, three to four months would elapse, and if sent by way of the trans–Siberian railway, customs inspectors or thieves would open and spoil every box of plates. GHG pointed out that Sakamoto was a samurai and a schoolteacher with a wife and son to support on very small pay. He could not, with what Fisher paid him per picture, afford the expenses for travel, equipment and supplies. In a letter of encouragement to another photographer in the field, GHG summed up his appreciation this way, “the art of taking pictures in color requires the technique of an engineer, the artistic ability of a great painter and the news interest of a daily news photographer.” GHG was among the first to appreciate photography as an art form. Under every photograph he printed the name of the photographer.

A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

Some formidable photography evolved in response to GHG’s thoughtful understanding of the problems in the field. I vividly remember an experience of my own, shortly after having returned to the photographic staff from my World War II service in the Air Force.

In 1946, with the simple order, “We want you to do India,” Mr. Fisher sent me packing on an almost two–year–long roving assignment to cover that vast sub–continent. I was told to pick up a $2,000 letter of credit at Riggs Bank downtown, stay out of politics, and to get going as soon as possible. Arriving in Bombay after a month at sea aboard a freighter, my first hurdle was transportation. How would I get around in this strange land with my 14 cases of cameras, full of black–and–white and color processing equipment? Automobiles could not be had so shortly after the war for neither love nor money, even in the United States. Finally, in the oppressive heat of Calcutta, among acres of wrecked military vehicles that had seen service on the Ledo Road to China, I found a U.S. Army ambulance in fair condition. In short order, I painted a map of India in the Magazine–cover yellow over the red crosses on each side, and in English, Hindi, and Urdu baptized my new acquisition “National Geographic Society Photo Survey of India.” A small American and National Geographic flag graced each door.

With spare tires, extra jerry cans, tools and other equipment, my new mobile darkroom and hospital–stretcher sleeping quarters cost less than $600, plus a little bribery with a membership to the Society. Then, set to conquer all of “Hindustan,” I proudly dispatched a snapshot of my photo–survey home, surrounded by sacred cows, a horde of children and dhoti–clad villagers, to Washington.

I had not reckoned that banking channels might be faster than the mail, for the reaction from an unimaginative, air–conditioned, bean–counting business office was a blunt reprimand, reminding me that letters of credit are intended for the withdrawal of smaller sums only. Would I explain the withdrawal of $600?

My spirits sank and all enthusiasm evaporated. I had put all my eggs in one basket. I was ready to jump into the Ganges, but then how else would I ever get around in this enormous country? In this moment of darkness and despair, like a message from heaven, the Indian Posts and Telegraphs Department delivered this message to me at the Nedous Hotel in Srinagar, Kashmir.

“I am greatly pleased by your initiative and good judgment in purchasing ambulance truck. Best Wishes, Gilbert Grosvenor.”

I was never happier. Now I was ready to cross the Himalayas, and I did, 550 miles on ponyback and mostly on foot all the way to Leh and the legendary Himis monastery in Ladakh. Often, when I might have faltered during my 40,000 miles of photo–surveying from the Himalayas to Cape Cormorin, I glanced at this heart–warming message, so typical of GHG. In the years that followed, my assignments were often punctuated by thoughtful notes, a brief phone call about some picture in the Magazine on a certain page, or an autographed photograph, signed “Affectionately, Gilbert Grosvenor.” He wished me happiness on my wedding day, April 8, 1964, and again a year later he wrote, ‘A thousand congratulations that a beautiful daughter, Cecilia Dominica, has come to bless you and your beloved wife... I get about as well as I can expect, hoping in October to be 90. Best wishes and kindest regards to you and Mrs. Wentzel, Gilbert Grosvenor.”

A GREAT LEGACY

I am delighted that GHG lived to see his wish come true, and that in his last days he could say, “Fate does not often permit a man to engage in a single labor of love for more than half a century, and only rarely does it reward his life’s work with fruits beyond his boldest dreams of youth. Yet, I have been greatly blessed in both respects.”

Gilbert H. Grosvenor's pioneering use of photographs can be likened to Henry Ford's pioneering use of mass-production of the automobile.  Both have had far-reaching effects within this century.  The Model T opened up Amarica and revolutionized transportation.  Grosvenor's vision of photo journalism, especially in color, spawned the now more than 100 years old National Geographic Magazine and visual education as it was not known before.

Thanks to GHG’s genius to make geography readable and visually attractive, I can also look back upon a rich and rewarding life. But much more important is the big picture, the Geographic’s birth in our Club, its phenomenal growth and influence, the accumulation of a rich treasury of visual history, and how all of this was done with accuracy, dignity and a sense of public service—by one of our own.

Volkmar K. Wentzel (CC ‘74) was
a staff photographer and writer at the
National Geographic Society,
2204 Kalorama Road, NW;
Washington, DC 20008;
phone: (202) 232-8113;
fax: (202) 462-0727


A PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNEY TO RUSSIA

GILBERT H. GROSVENOR


Gilbert H. Grosvenor with one of the first Speed Graphic Cameras.

Transport mostly by horse and wagon on cobbled streets.

A nun in Moscow.


The Cathedral of Our Savior in Moscow.


Russia at the crossroads.


A school tour.

Scene in the clothes market in the Jewish Bazaar. Signs used by merchants to advertise their wares to customers who cannot read.

Window shopping at a toy store.

A touch of tenderness.

Grand tourists feeding the pigeons.

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