• March 18, 2015

Growing Up Geographic

This post was originally published in March 2015. We’re resurfacing it as part of our #ThrowbackThursday effort to give some love to our favorite posts. —The Proof Team

Imagine this: You’re 11 years old, clambering up a steep passage on an Alaskan gold rush trail, accompanied by your big brother, your mother, a massive Saint Bernard, and your father, who just happens to be a National Geographic photographer and editor. It’s 1964, and most of the world will never see a picture of Skagway, Alaska, except for the photographs that will be published in the magazine. It was a golden era for photography—much of the world was still unseen by the general public—and the iPhone wasn’t even a glimmer in Steve Jobs’s eye.

Picture of young family in the 1960s
The Garrett Family. Ken Garrett is on the left.

This is a true story, and Kenneth Garrett lived it. His father, W.E. Garrett, worked for National Geographic from 1954 to 1990. When Ken was in our offices a few weeks ago, I sat down with him and asked about his memories of the Geographic and his family.

Picture of a family camping in alaska
A pilot helps the Garrett family set up camp beside Ella Lake in Tongass National Forest, Alaska, c. 1965. Ken is in the foreground and his brother Michael is in the background.
Photograph by W. E. Garrett

As we’re talking, something strikes me as remarkable—Ken tells me that dinners at his house growing up included guests such as David Alan Harvey, Thomas Nebbia, John Morris, Bill Eppridge, and John Launois. They were the brightest photographers of the day.

Ken says that it was a “discussion group of photography around the dining room table, virtually all the time. Mom was furious with my dad half the time because he’d be at the office working and he’d say to someone, ‘Hey, why don’t you come to the house for dinner,’ and then he’d call Mom and say, ‘We’re on our way.’ This was before cell phones, so she had to scramble around and cook something for dinner.” A little jealousy starts to bubble up inside me as he describes these seemingly spontaneous chats.

Picture of buddha statue's toes
A huge reclining Buddha statue being constructed out of concrete in Rangoon, Burma, c. 1971
Photograph by W. E. Garrett
Picture of woman holding sick baby soldier vietnam
A Vietnamese woman pleads with a U.S. Navy patrol boat translator to help her sick infant. This photograph won W. E. Garrett Photographer of the Year in 1968.
Photograph by W. E. Garrett

Even though his father was a world-class photographer—he won Photographer of the Year in 1968 for his Vietnam War coverage—much of what Ken learned about photography came via his father’s famous photographer friends.

Picture of Marigold harvesting
A field turns from orange to green as harvesters pick marigold flowers in Los Mochis, Mexico, c. 1967.
Photograph by W. E. Garrett
Picture of man looking down ice crevasse
A man peers down the wall of an ice crevasse in Alaska, c. 1965.
Photograph by W. E. Garrett

“Dickey Chapelle was one of my dad’s colleagues from Vietnam—a female war correspondent in the early ’60s, and I got my first camera when I was in the fifth grade. So here I am, 11 years old, and she’s teaching me all about composition and the rule of thirds.”

Although his father exposed him to the potential of photography, he warned his son against choosing it for a profession. Ken remembers, quoting his father, “He said, ‘It’s a terrible business, do something else. Whatever you do, don’t become a photographer.’” Ultimately, he went against his father’s advice and gave into his own fascination. Since the 1970s, Ken has been covering ancient cultures, artifacts, and archaeological dig sites for National Geographic magazine.

Picture of women standing in village
War created a shortage of men in Hmong villages in Laos, c. 1974.
Photograph by W. E. Garrett

Still, many of his dad’s philosophies have stuck with him throughout his career. Ken tells me that his father coined the phrase “F8 and be there,” which plays off the idea that if you put yourself in “the right place at the right time, all you have to do is push the button.” But for Ken, photography means more than that—it’s about retracing history. Now, when he’s photographing the sarcophagus of King Tut, a fertility idol in Mexico, or a landscape of Trajan’s column, Ken says he views photo stories a bit differently than he did as a young boy.

Picture of sailors working
The Polish Merchant Navy Academy sails across the Atlantic, c. 1976. This photograph is from Ken Garrett’s first magazine story.
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett

“I grew up thinking that a good Geographic story would be like riding your bicycle down the Pan-American Highway. Of course, I quickly learned that you can’t ride your bicycle that far and actually do a story at the same time. I saw photography as a tool for exploring, and then, as I got more into it, it became a tool for telling the story of the origins of civilization, which is my passion.”

Picture of king Tut surrounded by people
Tourists visit King Tut’s funerary mask in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, 2010.
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett

There are many roads that lead to a career in photography. While I wouldn’t want to give up my smartphone just yet, part of me does wish I could go back to 1964.

View more of Ken Garrett’s work on his website.

There are 32 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. David Alan Harvey
    August 16, 2016

    Bill Garrett was a force. He alone changed the direction of NatGeo and made it relevant in a new age. Hats off. Deep respect. I and many others owe our career to Bill

  2. Andy Harper
    April 10, 2015

    In 1960, when I was 11 or so, my Dad was Managing Editor of the American Rifleman magazine. He was offered a job at the NG & I remember being so excited. The NG was truly my favorite mag, ahead of Sat Even Post & Life. I still have my original subscription envelope with contents from my 1st sub back then. I remember the family discussions around the kitchen table about all the traveling we might do if Dad took the job. Boy, was I excited! But Dad decided to stay in DC with the NRA, possibly due to having 5 kids at the time, with 2 more coming! Eventually became Editor shortly before retiring. Ken, I’m glad some kid got to live that life. Kudos to you and your Dad’s work. I still look forward every month to the new Geographic in my mailbox!

  3. b p maiti
    April 8, 2015

    Super excellent

  4. b p maiti
    April 8, 2015


  5. Phil Zuidema
    March 30, 2015

    Great story and contributions. Photographs-spectacular. You and your dad had my dream job.

  6. gary collins
    March 30, 2015

    Very nice story. My family also traveled to Alaska, driving all the way from home in Virginia in a station wagon. I was ~2 1/2 but still remember a few things from the trip; a bear in the campsite, a moose right outside the car. What a trip to undertake in ~1954-1955.

  7. Becky Collins
    March 30, 2015

    Lovely in every way.

  8. Alphy
    March 30, 2015

    Great photos accompanied by reminiscence of a childhood spent among the greats. Thanks NG and Ken for sharing this with us.

  9. Belinda S. Colley
    March 29, 2015

    What a great article! Loved it!

  10. Tom Elliott
    March 29, 2015

    Old NGM are priceless to me

  11. Jim Mader
    March 29, 2015

    Enjoyed the story….. but the spelling nazi in me is compelled to mention that clamoring would probably be yelling, whereas clambering is climbing. I suppose either one could have occurred…… ;^)

  12. Sean Reily
    March 29, 2015

    Yes, Yes, Yes. The NG yellow rectangle was a window to the World as I grew up.

  13. kenneth vogelsberg
    March 29, 2015

    Inspiring story and images!!

  14. Brian Kemp
    March 29, 2015

    With technology there are more people taking more photographs. But I fear in 20 years time many of these will have been lost. The fragile nature of digital media being greater than the 10X8 glass negative, because its format will be overwritten, replaced, updated. And the ability to read them lost.
    Stories like this will be harder to create. I appreciate our past and present but wonder about the future of images.

  15. Judith
    March 29, 2015

    Definitely grew up National Geographic (40s and 50s); my Dad always had one in his reading pile. This particular story is inspiring and the photos spectacular. A fine record of the times my generation lived through — would not change being of it for anything.

  16. Rosalie Lupcho
    March 29, 2015

    From the time I could look at pictures, NG fascinated me. I could read at age 5 (I’m 83 now) and NG
    has educated me and whetted my appetite for travel (65 countries to date). I read it from cover to cover
    and have the CDs through the years. NG was a valuable tool in my 3 children’s education too. God bless all the valuable people who are National Geographic!!

  17. Laura P. Bence
    March 29, 2015

    A snapshot story behind the lovely photos, very good! This was not only an enjoyable story to read, but it triggered the memories of a wide-eyed innocent way we had of looking at the world that no longer exists, and yet there is still more to discover through the camera’s eye. The iconic travel trailer pic brought personal memories, thank you!

  18. Laura Wheeland
    March 29, 2015

    That was inspiring and informative. Thank you so very much.

  19. Ramesh C Vyas
    March 29, 2015

    wonderful photos Keep up such good work national geography.

  20. Al Peters
    March 20, 2015

    Great photos and stories Ken. You also ventured out and took our Wedding Pictures at Maywood
    Baptist Church in Independence,
    MO. I am the brother of Bill Peters
    who married Alice Hall, your sister-
    in-law. We still appreciate our Wedding pictures and also the many you took for National Geographic.
    Al and Janis Peters

  21. Isabel Hernánde Tibau
    March 20, 2015

    La carrera fotográfica es realmente muy interesante no sólo por las fotos en sí, sino por todas las aventuras que le tocan vivir al fotógrafo.Muy buenas fotos e interesantes relatos. Gracias!

  22. Alice Peters Cotten
    March 20, 2015

    Thank you for this story–some great insights I had not heard! From a sister/aunt!

  23. dj
    March 20, 2015

    really surprising photograph history

  24. Hamdi Shakeer
    March 19, 2015

    Brilliant, really inspiring!

    March 19, 2015

    Brilliant work,fantastic fotos…

  26. d
    March 18, 2015

    Enriched upbringing 🙂

  27. Austen
    March 18, 2015

    This was good to read. Thank you for sharing your story ken garrett. It keeps the idea in movement.

  28. Leah Leivestad
    March 18, 2015

    These are fantastic. There is something so genuine and emotional in each one.

  29. J Bruce Baumann
    March 18, 2015

    Ken, I remember being one of guys your dad dragged home. Your mom, Lucy, was always gracious, even if she was less than happy for last minute guests. Your dad was quite possibly the best picture editor ever. You learned from one of the best.

  30. Susan fifer canby
    March 18, 2015

    Great stories and photos. Bill and Kenny are so impressive.

  31. june jean playfair
    March 18, 2015

    Fascinating, I almost envy your way of growing up lad.

  32. Garrett Soulen
    March 18, 2015

    Amazing. You are really making history come alive with these photos. Thank you.

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