Jonathan Blair


Jonathan blair

I did not plan to begin a career in photography. I am among good company. Ansel Adams began as a pianist. Minor White started out a biologist. As a young man I loved radio. So that’s where I began – in radio. There were other pursuits along the way until I came to the camera.

Studying at Northwestern University I helped put myself through two years of college with a weekend radio show on a prominent station. Nobody knew I was a 20-year-old kid. The university required a science course for graduation, and I signed up for astronomy. The USSR launched Sputnik, and I was off into astrophysics, the stars, and telescopes.

I needed a new job, then, and the observatory on campus had a position open for a darkroom technician. I read some books, tried developing film (my first roll was blank – I missed the developer in the dark!), applied, and somehow got the job. My dad loaned me a camera. The first professional prints I saw were by Edward Weston in a Chicago art gallery. They knocked my socks off!

Later Northwestern sent me to the university’s White Sands Observatory in New Mexico. That journey west put me squarely on a new path. Photography became a reality, and I went to work learning the craft. My first photographic assignment was in Yosemite National Park as the park’s photographer. A year later, working as a ranger in Yellowstone, I started work on a book, The Race for Inner Space, for the Department of Interior, and later illustrations for a book along the Lewis & Clark Trail.

I changed schools and graduated, in the ‘60’s, from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a BA in Photographic Illustration. My first National Geographic magazine assignment, where I began as an intern, returned me to Yosemite. All the early technical training in other pursuits paid off in later years. One of the most important skills I learned was story telling. Yet, in the end, I was always after the image!

My 40-year career has produced a diverse photographic file – adventure, archeology, life on earth, outlaws, shipwrecks, space travel, and more! At the beginning I had little idea about how to accomplish these assignments. I wasn’t alone. Many of us at the Geographic during the early ‘70’s were new photographers. We made up our own rulebooks. Under the direction of Robert E. Gilka these were memorable times at the Society. It was exciting to be inside a community of photographers and share extraordinary experiences together.

Several years ago I began a new assignment. It was long overdue! This time it was not traveling around the world, but opening dozens and dozens of saved files and stored workboxes in the studio. Using the National Geographic Image Lab I began a scanning project. I wanted to preserve my archive, as well as stop the film from aging, by digitizing the best images. The next logical step was to also start a print project.

My files, and the published archives of the National Geographic Society, continue to yield interesting images, many of them as yet unpublished. They help keep the hunt alive, and always interesting! To date I have prepared about 75 selects for printing. I plan, before finishing sometime in 2015, to make 200 new, high-resolution, scans.

I have always believed it important for photographers to make their own prints. Now, with the help of friends, and Maura Mulvihill’s advice at the National Geographic Society, I am doing just that. Every time the printer runs I stand there wondering how these images keep appearing!

Jonathan Blair
March 2014

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