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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.