BALTIMORE, MD – Thomas James Abercrombie, 75, a legendary National Geographic magazine photographer and writer, and an NPPA life member who joined in 1952, died Monday afternoon at Johns Hopkins Hospital following heart surgery. In addition to his many lifetime accomplishments, Abercrombie also had the distinction of winning both the Newspaper and Magazine Photographer of the Year titles early in his career.
Abercrombie was on the magazine’s staff for 38 years. For the October 1966 issue of the magazine he took the first photographs of Mecca published in the Western world. He joined National Geographic in 1956 five years after graduating from Macalister College in St. Paul, MN, with a degree in art and journalism. Before National Geographic he was a staff photographer at The Fargo Formum in Fargo, ND, and The Milwaukee Journal, where he was University of Missouri Newspaper Photographer of the Year for his portfolio in 1954.
The magazine says Abercrombie, of Shady Side, MD, is survived by his wife, Marilyn, and two children: Bruce, who also lives in Maryland; and Mari, who lives with her children in Maine.
A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2006, at the Londontown Public House in Edgewater, MD.
“Tom and I were the total photographic staff at The Forum in the early 1950s, before he went to The Milwaukee Journal,” Cal Olson told News Photographer today. "He was the best news photographer I ever knew: enthusiastic, innovative, inquisitive, and possessing superlative news sense. A good troop.” (In 1967 Olson became the editor of News Photographer magazine following NPPA founder Joe Costa’s 21 years in the masthead.)
"When I went to the Geographic in 1972, Tom was already a legend at the magazine," said former National Geographic photographer and picture editor J. Bruce Baumann, who is now the editor of the Evansville Courier & Press in Evansville, IN. "He toured the world like most of us would take a Sunday drive. I remember being in awe of his ability to make wonderful pictures, write with the best of them, and devour what life had to offer. If you added the fact that he spoke something like a half dozen languages, it made him seem like a genius in our midst. That much talent scared the hell out of me."
Photojournalist Bruce Dale, who shot for the Geographic for three decades and has more than 2,000 of his images in their publicaitons, remembers one of his favorite stories about Abercrombie: “Some time ago, while flying with Joe Judge and a bush pilot to a remote part of Alaska, we came to a mountain range enshrouded in clouds. We circled for a while waiting for the clouds to lift when I noticed a small cabin on a lake below us. Smoke was coming from the chimney. I suggested we land to kill some time and find out who lived there. As our seaplane taxied towards the cabin, an old-timer stood on shore and beckoned us to come in. He was the perfect stereotype of an Alaskan homesteader or trapper. I mean – this was really wilderness. Outside his cabin in the trees was a large cache where he kept his supplies. I thought, Wow! What a find! He invited us inside and he had coffee and a bowl of freshly baked cookies waiting – as though he were expecting us. I wondered to myself if he ever heard of National Geographic. Finally, I could not contain myself and asked him if he ever heard of the Geographic. He replied, ‘Heck yes, how’s my good friend Tom Abercrombie?’”
Within a year of joining National Geographic Abercrombie was sent to Lebanon to cover the outbreak of violence there and he both wrote and photographed the story, earning his promotion to the magazine’s foreign editorial staff. In 1957 he was the first journalist to visit a scientific station at the South Pole, and National Geographic says he was the first journalist to set foot on the Pole itself. In 1959, Abercrombie was named the NPPA-University of Missouri Magazine Photographer of the Year. In 1960 he covered the construction of Brazil’s new capital, and the civil war in Yemen where he survived a plane crash. In 1964 as Cambodia collapsed he escaped from a threatening mob by leading them to believe he was French. They would have killed him if they thought he was an American.
Abercrombie once wrote for the magazine that his favorite personal place of a lifetime was the summit of Italy and Switzerland’s Matterhorn, and the climb to its summit and the view from above. “The scramble of 5,000 feet of vertical rock and ice is nevertheless a stimulating morning’s work for the amateur … A beautiful day to admire the best works of God and man.”
In the Geographic’s internal newsletter where the news of Abercrombie’s death was announced to the staff today, he was quoted as once joking that he got into Geographic because Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor, who was then the editor and president, had “liked a picture that I’d taken of a damn robin.”
After 1965 Abercrombie frequently covered Saudi Arabia and he converted to the Muslim faith. He became known as the magazine’s greatest expert on the Middle East. The magazine says he reported on and explored the region from Morocco to Afghanistan for more than three decades until he retired in 1994. Later in his career he gravitated toward doing more writing than photography, while others – including his wife – photographed his stories.
In 1990 Abercrombie and colleague Jim Stanfield (another Milwaukee Journal photographer who came to National Geographic) retraced the steps of the Arab world’s Marco Polo, a 14th century traveler named Ibn Battuta. The magazine says Abercrombie “journeyed the length and breadth of the area where Islam still thrives today, from south of the Sahara to Tashkent and Samarkand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and China.” The article appeared in December1991.
Abercrombie’s final story for the magazine was when he was in Czechoslovakia as the country split into two nations. The next year he retired to a home he shared with his wife in Maryland where he built a boat, sailed, and was a guest professor in the geography department at George Washington University.