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  • September 17, 2014

Found: James Blair on Recording History

When I sift through our archives looking for images to publish on the National Geographic Found Tumblr, there are a few photographers whose work regularly stands out. However, many of the most successful and well-loved images on the Tumblr were taken by James P. Blair. His photograph of a fallen Irish Guardsmen has garnered over 152,000 Tumblr “notes”—the most out of any photo published on Found. Curious to know more about Blair, I asked David Griffin, former Director of Photography at National Geographic, what it was like to work with him:

Jim Blair is an innovator, but not in the contemporary, technology-focused use of that word. Jim’s photography particularly broke new ground in content for National Geographic from 1960 to 1994. He, along with a handful of other like-minded photographers, stretched what “science” could encompass by arguing that social and environmental problems should be included in the dialogue that National Geographic was having with its readers.

Blair came to our headquarters in June to talk about his new book, Being There. I sat down with him afterwards and asked him about his career and experiences in the field. More specifically, I wanted to know about the photograph of the Irish Guardsman.

Picture of irish guards one is face down on ground
Irish Guards remain at attention after one guardsman faints, 1966.

JANNA DOTSCHKAL: What was happening when you took this photograph?

JAMES P. BLAIR: It was a story on the Greater London Council. In ’65, the senior editor sold the story idea. It was practically a yearlong assignment, from October of ’64 through June of ’65. In those days, you covered everything that moved, and we made sure we got everything that was important.

In June, the Queen has her birthday celebration, and she rides her horse around this square, and all of the soldiers are lined up, and I was there to get pictures of the Queen riding around, and anything else that would happen. This was a very long telephoto lens, an 800-millimeter. I was on the press stand and was able to photograph across the whole courtyard, when this guy fell over.

JANNA: A lot of people were speculating on why the guard had fallen over. Is it because their knees are locked for so long, or because they’ve been out partying a little too much?

JAMES: Who knows? It was June, it was hot, the bearskin is very heavy, and if you have a cold or flu or something, it’s possible that it could happen.

Picture of women using compact mirrors in crowd
Women use compact mirrors in a packed crowd to catch sight of the queen in London, 1966.

JANNA: Is it something that’s just acceptable or is that sort of embarrassing?

JAMES: Well, it’s very embarrassing. He was almost immediately scooped up. The medical people came out about 30 seconds after I took this picture and scooped him up and took him back to the infirmary and took care of him. But I was told afterwards that you’re literally trained to fall at attention. If you’re standing at attention, you fall at attention, and it was just like a toy soldier falling over. I don’t think I got the falling process. I think I saw it out of the corner of my eye and I was focused on the Queen, and I swiveled around, click, click, click, and made that photograph.

JANNA: I think it’s very dramatic—people see it and are curious.

JAMES: Everybody gets a kick out of it, because it looks like toy soldiers. It’s almost as though he was a toy soldier that had been pushed over by some malevolent child.

Picture of fishermen loading fish
Fishermen load their catch of sardines into crates on the Adriatic Sea, 1970.

JANNA: For you, how much of photography is skill and how much is serendipity, in your experience?

JAMES: Actually, “serendipity” is a word I don’t like. I had a writer very early on who said, “Oh, I go by serendipity.” So, as a result, we spent a lot of time in bars, in restaurants, having long lunches, and not photographing, and I was there to take photographs, not to have long lunches. But the writer’s view of things was that the words would fall into your lap and you would just simply write it down and it would be great. I’m a documentary photographer anyway, so serendipity sounds like—

JANNA: Some kind of odd magic?

JAMES: Yeah, a romantic something or other. I think it’s research, I think it’s skill, I think it’s luck, is the word I would use, and being sensitive enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Picture of woman working on generator
A female worker helps insulate wires on a large generator in Czechoslovakia,1968.

JANNA: In your mind, why is it important to have professional photographers when everyone has a camera in their phone?

JAMES: Why is it important to have magazines? It’s all organized and the facts are brought together with the pictures. The information is thought through. With a professional photographer it’s about thinking editorially. I would say that’s the distinction, that’s the value of having professional photographers, writers, and editors. If you went to a demonstration as a citizen, you would probably be on one side or the other, so you would not have an observant, objective eye. That’s our job, to really observe what is going on. And it’s so important to have an editor, because if we do stray off that pathway of being objective, the editor’s job is to make sure that the objective pictures get in the magazine. Sensitive, yes, but always objective, particularly in this magazine.

Picture of mother and handicapped child
A child is born blind and mentally handicapped from mercury poisoning in New Mexico, 1972.

JANNA: Let’s say I have this background where I’ve struggled with something—it could be drugs, alcohol or poverty—and I know my own preconceptions, but I also am open to the story taking different a direction than I expect it to. I think it’s not so much that you don’t have personal baggage when you walk into a situation, it’s that you’re not forcing the story in any direction.

JAMES: No, and you shouldn’t. If Bob Gilka [former Director of Photography for the magazine] saw that I was taking pictures that were inaccurate—I’d be on the carpet very quickly.

Picture of people walking in rice paddy
Villagers pass a submerged rice paddy during a monsoon in Bangladesh, 1991.

JANNA: What do you think people today can learn from the photos in National Geographic’s archive?

JAMES: A lot, in two words, because photography is history. The moment you hit that button, whether it’s an iPhone or the latest Canon or Nikon, that’s recorded history. That’s just the way it is. Whether it’s relevant recorded history or not depends upon how you feel about it.

You see it on the news every night. You see people in Iraq being pushed and shoved back and forth between ISIS and opposing forces. And you see the bewilderment on their faces. The same look you’d see if you watched PBS News Hour tonight, or in pictures that have been shot by the refugees themselves and uploaded. I mean, this is a whole new world that is just incredible. Those faces are the same as the ones I photographed in during the Vietnam war. That’s one of the things that’s so tragic about what has happened to the world, that bewildered look hasn’t gone away.

I think that the past is always a prologue, and that’s the value of the Image Collection. We can show people and say, “This is a sign of global warming.” One of my pictures from Bangladesh has a guy walking in a flooded region with an umbrella and he’s a victim of global warming. He’s a warning to the rest of us.

Picture of tourists in hall
Tourists in the old town hall of Bremen look up at a model ship in Germany, 1969.

JANNA: What advice would you give to young photographers today?

JAMES: The most important thing is to be there. It’s an old slogan of the Associated Press. Our editor used to use it. We used to say, “F8 and be there.” Don’t dally around. You have to be there, and really you don’t have to go very far. You can generally go someplace in your own community to become a good photographer. I started off photographing in Chicago, where I went to school, and I photographed a poor family there. Those are the very first pictures that made me think, “Well, maybe I’m going to be a photographer.”

The other thing is to be truthful, not only to photography. If you’re going to be a documentary photographer, don’t Photoshop your images. Be truthful with yourself about why you’re taking pictures and what the pictures are going to be for, and always ask permission before you start taking pictures, because if you don’t, you’re only stealing pictures. Does that make sense?

JANNA: Yes.

JAMES: Oh, and then there’s all the rest of it, which is find yourself a good teacher, or luck into having a good teacher. Work hard.

Picture of boy eating watermelon
Ear-deep in watermelon, a boy eats a juicy slice at a festival in Florida, 1963.

JANNA: How do you feel about the way your career allowed you to witness historical events and cover global issues?

JAMES: Well, very fortunate and, at the same time, very worried, because sometimes you get the sense that people don’t really care about the news.

What we’re about at the Geographic is more than the news. It’s the background behind why news breaks out. The magazine comes out months later anyhow, so you get a chance to have a bit of a historical perspective.

The magazine is going in the right direction, because it’s ringing the warning bell on the environment in particular, and I think that’s great. You can entice people with pictures like that. That picture of boy eating watermelon was taken in 1963, but it’s the same scene going on today, even though that kid is probably in his 50s.

View more of James Blair’s work on his website.

Janna Dotschkal curates the National Geographic Found Tumblr. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram

There are 30 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Lisa Orr
    November 9, 2014

    Kyle! First, your comments make you seem like a wanna be. Second, the child in Bremen pic is a girl.

  2. Greg Pattison
    October 10, 2014

    Irish Guards have blue plumes in their Bearskins! It’s very difficult by this photo to see any at all? Great photographs all in all.

  3. tigabu abdulkadir
    September 25, 2014

    its perfect picture

  4. bamboo
    September 24, 2014

    lol…….but I think they are English guardsmen

  5. Michael McKee
    September 23, 2014

    While I have nothing against Photoshop, I can’t quite agree with G. Berg about always shooting in RAW. For those of us who shot film it was important to get the shot right in camera. JPEGS do that just fine and make deadlines much easier to meet.

  6. Moe
    September 23, 2014

    Just a minor quibble. Those soldiers aren’t standing at attention. They’re standing easy.
    Great picture though!

  7. G. Berg
    September 20, 2014

    As someone who has been a professional photographer and supported my family as such for many years, I shake my head at comments like “I just do not believe in Photoshop.” Yes, photos can be manipulated in Photoshop, but without it, no image would make it to publication. When consumer cameras take photos, the camera’s built-in computer applies an algorithm that sharpens it, adds contrast, saturation, etc. Most pros use a raw file format that does not do this and instead we do it by hand in Photoshop rather than letting the camera turn the info into a JPEG for us using this one-size-fits-all algorithm. Those things that we do by hand are merely a digital darkroom of things we did in actual darkrooms before with chemicals and developing equipment. It is ridiculous to say that you don’t believe in Photoshop when your camera is turning the information it captures into a JPG by doing the same thing, albeit poorly, that we do in post-processing. Yes, we can manipulate photos and change things so they don’t represent reality, but that is the difference between photojournalism and creative photography. Those of us in the industry know the difference and are careful to maintain ethics and integrity with our work to make sure that the two are not confused. And yes, there are some who lack the ethics and integrity, just like in any profession. I hope that sheds some light on the reality of Photoshop (name used generically for post-processing software).

  8. Daniel Driscoll
    September 20, 2014

    There’s a couple of grammatical errors in the article you might want to fix up.

    • Janna Dotschkal
      September 22, 2014

      I think you meant, “There are a couple of grammatical errors in this article that you might want to fix.”

      This article was transcribed from an in-person interview so some phrasing is left in the same structure as it was originally spoken.

      It’s helpful to let us know about any specific typos or discrepancies that you notice.

      Thanks for the feedback.

  9. Lisa Hatton
    September 20, 2014

    Michelle, your comments are baffling; that is a photo of the Irish Guards.

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Guards

  10. Lisa Hatton
    September 20, 2014

    Fabulous photos.

  11. Faryal
    September 19, 2014

    Amazing photos and an excellent article. Thank u for such a good read!

  12. Kyle Farrell
    September 18, 2014

    There is a classical essence that envelopes the man and what seems to be his son in the town hall of Bremen, Germany. All of Blair’s photographs have a candid feel to them, as well. Even when the subject is staring right into his lens, it feels accidental and unexpected. His photos have a way of bringing a viewer’s spirit back to another time. This culmination of photographic works is a prime definition of National Geographic.

  13. Wendy
    September 18, 2014

    Tara, I agree with you. I also feel using photoshop is art and is not capturing the real photo. It’s cheating. Anyone can photoshop a photo.

  14. Steve
    September 18, 2014

    Irish Guards, British Army, formed I think in 1901 before independence, today they are still manned by men from Southern Ireland or Ireland I should say, Northern Ireland and plenty of English men.

  15. Bhavini
    September 18, 2014

    The honesty of reality is truly more breathtaking and is the only way to true human heart and soul.

  16. Philimon Bulawayo
    September 18, 2014

    Good advice and great images!

  17. sita
    September 18, 2014

    stunning pictures !!! you’re a lucky man mr blair for “being there” many times 🙂

  18. Mara Naing Aung
    September 18, 2014

    I wonder how that very guard would feel this post now, if he’s still alive! But I believe this memoir won’t become a much discussed one.

  19. Vikas
    September 18, 2014

    brilliant!!

  20. Vikas
    September 18, 2014

    Amazing!!

  21. Aine
    September 18, 2014

    The Irish Guards are a regiment in the British Army, Michelle. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Guards

  22. Stephanie
    September 17, 2014

    Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. Like Scotland and Wales, each country has a regiment within the queens guard. Thus, the Irish guardsman. The photos are stunning.

  23. pocoregalo
    September 17, 2014

    Sorry Michelle, they’re called Irish guards because “[t]he current regiment was formed on 1 April 1900 by order of Queen Victoria in recognition of the many courageous acts carried out by Irish soldiers in the Second Boer War.” – army.mod.uk
    __
    I love the fishermen!

  24. Mike
    September 17, 2014

    They may be dressed in formal attire, but this particular group of soldiers are in actual fact officially called the ‘Irish guards’. That’s their regiment name, and they are made up of soldiers from Northern Ireland. It isn’t a intended to be offensive to Ireland. It seems you have jumped to conclusions here unfortunately. I am not in any way affiliated with the military and am myself an Irishman. You’re welcome.

    Beautiful photography by the way.

  25. Joe
    September 17, 2014

    The Irish Guards are part of the British Army. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Guards
    Maybe Michelle should get her facts right before asking National Geograph [sic] to get its facts right.
    Excellent article and fantastic photography. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  26. Dave
    September 17, 2014

    Erm, yes, they are definitely Irish Guardsmen. I reckon that they’d get quite upset if you called them English!
    Great photos.
    🙂

  27. Tara
    September 17, 2014

    Thank you so much Mr. Blair for being honest in your photography. I do photography as a hobby and I just do not believe in photoshop. To me that is art and not photography. For me being able to look through the lens and know what makes that scene beautiful is true photography. Anyone can take pictures and doctor them up to be beautiful but that’s not photography. That’s art.

  28. Camilo
    September 17, 2014

    Just perfect

  29. Michelle
    September 17, 2014

    The top photo, the “Irish” guardsman…are u serious..we fought for our independents a long time ago we are not ruled by that queen. These are English guardsmen, seriously like??? U would think national geograph would know this!!! Not the same country, get ur facts right!

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