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.
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.
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.