Handyman, Camp Cook…Takes Good Pictures Too

Stewart's makeshift darkroom in Alaska as expedition photographer for Dr. Thomas Jaggar's 1928 expedition to Pavlof Volcano. c. NGS.


An expert lab man and genius at improvising in the field, Richard Hewitt Stewart exemplified many of the qualities associated with National Geographic photographers. During his 42 years on staff, he continually had to produce high-quality images under the most trying circumstances in remote and far-flung locations.

Born in Lynch Station, Virginia on April 8, 1901, Stewart was orphaned at an early age and received little formal education. He and some of his younger siblings were raised by various family members, and Dick, as he was known, eventually wound up living with an older sister who was married and living in Washington, D.C. His brother-in-law had a photographic darkroom in the basement, and the young Stewart became interested in taking and developing pictures. During the World War I years, he managed to earn a little income at this in order to help out the family.

In 1924, this same brother-in-law gave Stewart an introduction to Charles Martin, the chief of the National Geographic Society’s photo lab. Stewart was hired and willingly started a couple of weeks early, without pay, in order to learn the job as quickly as possible. At that time it was expected that young photographers put in time doing lab work before they went out in the field. It was four years before Stewart got to go on assignment. By that time, his brother, B. Anthony (Tony) Stewart, had also joined the staff.

Pavlof Volcano

Stewart’s opportunity came in 1928, when Dr. Thomas Jaggar headed to Alaska as director of an expedition to study and map the Pavlof Volcano and surrounding area. Stewart took a train across the country to rendezvous with the expedition party who from there caught an amphibious boat that traveled as far as Squaw Harbor. A fishing boat took them the rest of the way to Canoe Bay, and Stewart had to set about constructing his first field darkroom. He discovered a nearby creek that he regarded as an ideal place to wash his film. He deposited some film in the stream and returned to his work. Later, when he went to retrieve the film, he found the box buried in the sandy bottom. After carefully developing the film, he was able to salvage it, but the photos looked as if they had been slightly sandpapered. After that he took to washing his film in potholes.

The expedition also had to contend with the harsh Alaskan climate and rugged landscape. Stewart and three others were marooned by a violent storm and survived for a week sleeping in a small boat and living on hardtack, coffee, and fish. He seemed to thrive on these sorts of expeditions, which became a mainstay of his Geographic career.

Other Field Assignments

Stewart headed west again in 1934 and 1935, this time to Rapid City, South Dakota to cover the stratosphere balloon flights, Explorer I and Explorer II. As usual, he had to draw upon his skills as a handyman, this time fashioning himself a perch high in a pine tree overlooking the Stratobowl. On the 1934 flight, he was able to take a series of pictures with his hand-held K-2 camera out the window of the Army plane following the balloon.

In 1939, he traveled to the jungles of Vera Cruz, Mexico to photograph and film the amazing discoveries unearthed by Dr. Matthew Stirling, whose work was partially funded by the Society. Not only did he photograph the Colossal Head of Hueyapa, made of basalt and weighing over 10 tons, he also photographed Stela C, which, at that time, turned out to be the oldest-dated work ever found in the Americas. Stewart returned with Stirling year after year on these adventures in Mexico and Panama. One particularly narrow escape came in 1951 on the Cascajal River in Panama, when he suddenly found himself launched out of his canoe and into a tree. He emerged unscathed but his equipment sank without a trace.

Matthew Stirling kneels beside the largest of the La Venta heads. Photo by Richard H. Stewart, c. NGS.



Between assignments to Central America, Stewart also covered the 1937 eclipse expedition sent to Canton Island in the South Pacific. This trip was particularly memorable, not only because it was the longest total eclipse since A.D. 699, but also because of the rats that were the expedition’s constant companions. Hordes of rats had overrun the island and were undeterred by efforts at extermination. Stewart quickly resorted to sleeping on the roof of his darkroom in order to avoid them.

Yet another scientific expedition took him to Chubb Crater in the northern part of Quebec province. He not only returned with Kodachromes of this mysterious wonder but also received accolades on his secondary role as camp cook, a job he seemed to enjoy immensely. One of his last field assignments came in 1959 when he spent long hours in an underground mausoleum photographing reenactments of Toltec rituals in a newly-rediscovered cave called Balankanche.

Dick Stewart retired from the National Geographic in 1966, and he and his wife, Mildred, whom he had married in 1923, then retired to Chester Gap, Virginia and then later to Columbia, Maryland. In April 2001, Stewart celebrated his 100th birthday in grand style with a party hosted by his children and grandchildren, and the National Geographic Channel interviewed him for a feature that aired on its newscast. Stewart’s health gradually declined, and he died on February 23, 2004.

Posted in Anniversaries & Current Events, National Geographic magazine, NGS History, Photography & Photographers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You Can Help Archaeologists (Earth Current)

Albert Lin has thousands of helpers in his search for the tomb of Genghis Khan. They sift through high-resolution satellite images of Mongolia. You can join the search Field Expedition Mongolia . Read the Washington Post story for more information on this exciting project.

Painting of Asia showing the extent of the Mongol empire under Genghis Khan; artwork by William H. Bond

For other interesting stories about science and archaeology check out our twice-weekly news rundown, Earth Current.

Posted in EarthCurrent, NGS Explorers & Fellows | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Women Photographers in the Middle East (NG Revisited)

Bedouin woman, south of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; by Jodi Cobb, whose photos were featured in the National Geographic article, "Women of Saudi Arabia."

While photographing the recent revolt in Libya Lynsey Addario was captured and later released, along with three other journalists; their story was recounted in the New York Times. Addario discussed the benefits and drawbacks of being a woman photographer in places of conflict in the New York Times “Lens” blog; Addario says in the interview, “If a woman wants to be a war photographer, she should. It’s important. Women offer a different perspective. We have access to women on a different level than men have, just as male photographers have a different relationship with the men they’re covering.” Addario recently contributed powerful photographs of Afghan women in a National Geographic feature article, Veiled Rebellion. View her photo gallery and the up-close and personal look behind the veil.

Another woman photographer who provided perspective in the Middle East was Alexandra Boulat, who photographed daily life in Iraq before and after the U.S. invasion. Her diary recounts her day-to-day experience, and photos show scenes including a young girl’s body being prepared for burial, and U.S. troops at Saddam Hussein’s palace. Boulat died of a brain aneurysm in 2007 and her friend and fellow photographer, Alexandra Avakian, wrote a tribute. Avakian’s photos have been featured in National Geographic magazine articles on Gaza and Iran. National Geographic also published a book of her photography: Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World, in 2008. View photo galleries by, and biographies about, professional photographers who bring their unique perspectives to a region in turmoil.

  • Lynsey Addario biography; photo gallery from “Veiled Rebellion: Afghan Women,” December, 2010. National Geographic magazine.
  • Alexandra Avakian biography; photo gallery from her book, Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World, 2008; short video of Avakian telling the story behind the photos at a NGLive presentation.
  • Alexandra Boulat biography; National Geographic magazine articles on Baghdad before and after the U.S. invasion: photo gallery and text from Baghdad Before the Bombs, June 2003, and photo gallery and text from “Diary of a War,” September 2003.
Posted in NG Revisited | Leave a comment

First Day on the Job, April 1, 1899

Truly a family-run business, Alexander Graham Bell oversees his son-in-law's editing of the magazine. In the foreground, Gertrude and her brother Melville are visible. Melville Grosvenor would also become Editor and President in time and leave his own indelible mark on the Society. Photo by John Alexander Douglas McCurdy, c. NGS.

On this day in 1899, a quiet revolution took place at the Geographic. The Society, founded in 1888, was still a small, mostly local, organization and struggling mightily to stay afloat. All of that would change after Alexander Graham Bell took charge. And his most significant move after becoming its president quite likely was hiring a particular young man to handle the day-to-day affairs of the Society…

And so, on April 1, 1899, 23-year-old Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor reported to work as the Society’s first full-time employee. He stayed until 1954 and made National Geographic magazine into a household name, credited with being “its principal architect and master builder.” When Grosvenor married Bell’s daughter Elsie May the following year, they embarked on “a shared and joyous labor, the building of the National Geographic Society and its journal, a magazine whose very name would become synonymous with the romance of travel, exploration, and the unending quest of knowledge.”

Posted in NGS History | 3 Comments

In Case You Run Into a Cobra… (NG Revisited)

Photo by James P. Blair

An Egyptian cobra escaped recently from the Bronx Zoo in New York, prompting a wide search and a twitter feed purportedly written by the cobra itself, keeping the public updated on its whereabouts. Did you know that king cobras can live 20 years? Find more cobra facts below and see who wins in an encounter between a cobra and a mongoose:
Posted in NG Revisited | Leave a comment

Invasive Munchies (Earth Current)

Diners eating snails; photo by Justin Locke

Invasive species have profound negative effects on ecosystems. They can displace or cause the extinction of native plant and animal life, increase soil erosion and fire hazards, clog waterways and damage the economy. On the plus side, however, some of them are quite tasty.

LiveScience reports on a new website, Invasivore, that strives to use that deliciousness to counter the damage caused by invasives. Invasivore’s founders, three graduate students, encourage consumers to eat invasive species. According to the site: “From prehistoric times, humans have had an amazing track-record of severely reducing the populations of species we eat.  Indeed, it seems that much of the time we can’t stop ourselves.  Can we tap that hunger to reduce the impacts of harmful invasive species?  We think the answer is Yes!”

Invasivore provides recipes featuring invasives–such as mysterysnail fettuccine,  blackberry custard pie, and pan-fried tilapia, as well as species profiles and related news.

For all the latest science news, check out our twice-weekly news rundown, Earth Current.

Posted in EarthCurrent, Science | 1 Comment

NG Library Wraps Up Book Drive For Ballou

Alison Ince helps load Ballou books; photo by Megan Seldon



Earlier this week the National Geographic Society library wrapped up its book drive for Ballou High School. The drive was started after National Geographic library staff read a story in the Washington Post about a book shortage at the D.C.’s high school’s library. According to Ballou librarian, Melissa Jackson, the school’s library had only 1,185 books –- the equivalent of one book per student.

Librarian Alison Ince spearheaded the drive, asking for donations for Ballou, and National Geographic staff answered the call. In addition to books brought in by our patrons, staff bought over 100 new books on Amazon, and the Library donated extra copies of National Geographic’s Hampton Brown educational titles. The enthusiastic response exceeded our expectations, and the number of donations that flowed in during February and March meant that our reference room was even more filled with books than usual. (Fortunately, as librarians, we have plenty of practice squeezing the maximum amount of reading material into a small space.) And on Monday, sixty-eight boxes and ten bags of books were loaded into a truck and sent off to their new home. Jackson enthusiastically welcomed the new additions to the high school’s library. “I feel like it’s Christmas in March,” she said.

Posted in Library Events | Leave a comment

Our History Is Our Strength: A Tribute to Helen Churchill Candee

In recognition of Women’s History Month, Laura Newcomer chronicles the life of Helen Churchill (Hungerford) Candee (10/5/1858 – 8/23/1949), a world traveler, journalist, women’s rights activist, and contributor to National Geographic Magazine.

Helen Churchill Candee, circa 1905. Source: Encyclopedia Titanica

“If I fail to obtain the house of dreams, I would say the quest alone had brought lasting joy.”
-Helen Churchill Candee on the search for the perfect pied-a-terre, in one of her last articles for National Geographic.

Accomplished Journalist

In 1934, 76-year-old Helen Churchill Candee set off in search of adventure. Her destination: Europe, where she traveled throughout the English countryside, the Normandy coast, and the Italian Riviera, chronicling her experiences for National Geographic magazine.

Though this marked her Geographic debut, Candee was no newcomer to the world of publishing. After separating from her husband (she eventually divorced him in 1895, citing abuse), Candee chose to support herself as a writer, quickly gaining national esteem as a journalist for her political work in such prestigious journals of the day as Atlantic Monthly and Forum and as a fiction writer for Harper’s Bazaar, Woman’s Home Companion, Literary Era, The Century, and The Illustrated American. Around the same time, she published her first book, How Women May Earn a Living, which to this day remains a foundational work of feminist literature.

In 1904, Candee and her two children moved to Washington, D.C., which set the stage for Candee’s life as a traveler. She started with small trips— summering in York Harbor, Maine and visiting her son in Virginia. Facilitated by a successful career as a home decorator, Candee quickly made prominent social connections, including politicians, foreign dignitaries, prominent artists, and President and Mrs. Taft. This network, coupled with her ability to speak several languages, prompted Candee to travel further afield; soon she was spending entire seasons abroad, journeying all over western Europe and the Mediterranean.

Titanic Survivor

“What need can there be of recounting the heroic deeds performed by those men who remained on the Titanic? To dwell upon them only sickens the heart with the realization of how they perished.”
-from an article by Helen Churchill Candee in the Washington Herald, published April 19, 1912.

Candee’s commitment to travel and to writing brought her to Spain, France, and Italy in early 1912, where she was researching a new book. In April, she received word that her son, Harold, had been seriously injured in an auto accident. The first boat back to America was the RMS Titanic, which was making its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. She bought a ticket.

After Titanic struck the iceberg, Candee was bundled into a life vest and directed into lifeboat No. 6. In the process of leaping from the ship into the smaller boat, she fell and fractured her ankle. Nevertheless, for several hours she helped to row the lifeboat beyond the vortexes created by the sinking ship.

Candee published only one piece of writing about the accident, but her reputation as a survivor followed her for the rest of her political and social career, and there’s some speculation that her story may have inspired James Cameron’s blockbuster film.

WWI Nurse

The trauma of Titanic’s sinking didn’t put a stop to Candee’s travels. As World War I intensified, she left the US to join the Royal Italian Red Cross, serving on the front lines of the Battle of Caporetto and in hospitals in Rome and Milan. In Milan, she nursed an American ambulance driver, who was riddled by machine-gun fire, back to health— he was fellow writer Ernest Hemingway.

World Traveler

After the armistice, Candee took a page out of Hemingway’s playbook and lived in Paris for several years while working for a New York design magazine. In 1920, in her early sixties, Candee returned to the US.

She soon felt her editorial position to be too restrictive, however, and returned to the life of an itinerant reporter. Candee roved across Japan, China, Indonesia, and Cambodia, and composed her sixth (and probably most well-known) book, Angkor the Magnificent, in the process. The book earned her not only critical acclaim but also the decorations of the King of Cambodia and Britain’s King George and Queen Mary.

After her journeys through Asia, Helen’s travel bug lay dormant for several years, during which she published still more books and suffered the early death of her son. By 1934, that old restlessness returned, and so, at the age of 76, Candee set out once again for Europe.

Women’s Rights Activist

In the midst of her travels, Candee dedicated herself to women’s rights. As soon as she’d established herself in Washington, D.C., in 1904, Candee began to utilize her social channels for political action. She rose to prominence as an activist, particularly for her public support of the National Woman Suffrage Association. In 1913, she was selected to lead 10,000 marchers down Pennsylvania Avenue to the steps of Capitol Hill, in what was one of the largest demonstrations for women’s suffrage. The picture below, which depicts Candee leading the charge for women’s rights, is a fitting testament to the character of one of National Geographic’s most dynamic contributors.

Helen Candee (front, on horseback) leads the 1913 “Votes for Women” parade. A trailblazer of social conventions, she was one of the first women in the eastern U.S. to ride astride. Photographer unknown.

Posted in History, National Geographic magazine, NGS History, Travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Recent Earthquake Wave on the Coast of Japan

A resident stands among wreckage at Kamaishi. Photographer not credited.

Eerily reminiscent of recent headlines, this one is actually from the September 1896 National Geographic Magazine concerning a tsunami that also struck Sanriku and killed over 27,000 people. A story featured on NPR today cites this article with introducing the word “tsunami” to U.S. readers. To read the first page of this vintage piece, please check out today’s story on National Geographic’s site.

An associate editor for the magazine, Eliza Scidmore, first visited Japan in 1885 and became entranced with the country, especially the flowering cherry trees that bloom every spring, and Washingtonians are indebted to her for planting the seed, so to speak, that would result in today’s Tidal Basin ringed with ornamental cherries.

In her report, Scidmore does not say where she was based at the time of the tsunami, but there is no indication she was in the vicinity–her descriptions are secondhand but vivid nevertheless:
“Only a few survivors on all that length of coast saw the advancing wave, one of them telling that the water first receded some 600 yards from ghastly white sands and then the Wave stood like a black wall 80 feet in height, with phosphorescent lights gleaming along its crest.”

Sketch Map of Japan Showing the region devastated by the earthquake wave of June 15, 1896.

Posted in History, National Geographic magazine, Photography & Photographers | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1878-2012?

From the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Information like this may soon become harder to find.



We librarians love our collections. We don’t like to get rid of things (“Couldn’t that be useful to somebody?”) and we certainly don’t like to have them taken from us.

That’s why it’s so upsetting to hear rumors that one of the most useful and, frankly, most interesting titles to many a librarian may be headed for the chopping block. According to recent Internet chatter, the Statistical Abstract of the United States, “a summary of industrial, social, economic, and political data” published annually by the U.S. Census Bureau since 1878, may soon be history.

In fact, the Census Bureau’s own Budget Estimate for fiscal year 2012 clearly describes the Bureau’s decision to terminate the program responsible for producing the Stat Abstract (and several other titles):

The FY 2012 budget request is the result of a review of both ongoing and cyclical programs necessary to achieve Department of Commerce and Census Bureau goals and difficult choices had to be made in balancing program needs and fiscal constraints. The availability elsewhere of much of the information in the statistical abstract has led the Department and Census Bureau to the difficult decision to terminate the program. [see pg. CEN-79]

If I’m reading that right, the Stat Abstract not only wouldn’t be printed anymore, it wouldn’t even be compiled. Some observers suggest that Census is merely retooling and reorganizing–several other Census programs are also slated for termination, but their duties are being reassigned. It doesn’t look like the Stat Abstract is one of them.

The disturbing irony here is that the Census Bureau’s own description of the Stat Abstract (“serves as a statistical compendium [and] guide to other statistical publications and sources”) clearly articulates the Stat Abstract’s unique utility: it compiles a veritable universe of data into a single, easy-to-use resource that’s organized by subject, fully indexed, accompanied by footnotes and helpful introductory material, and–most importantly–is fully cited. Which is to say that it tells readers exactly who collected the data and where they can go for more of it.

So while the Census Bureau may be correct that the data is “available elsewhere,” the beauty of the Stat Abstract is that it obviated users’ need to know where “elsewhere” was. And that, as librarians know, can be (at least) half the battle.

–Michael Fry, Senior Map Librarian

Posted in Books, Research | 1 Comment