INSIDE TRACKS: The National Geographic Assignment Of A Lifetime

Photojournalist Rick Smolan along with Robyn Davidson in the Outback
Photojournalist Rick Smolan along with Robyn Davidson in the Outback

A Smartphone enabled coffee table book by Rick Smolan


By Dirck Halstead

OCTOBER 16, 2014 – It is a truism of war that it is always better to be a lucky general than a smart one.

The same holds true for photojournalists. Being at the right place at the right time, with the right equipment, is what often leads to memorable storytelling.

Through an incredible series of coincidences and good fortune the story of a lifetime fell into the lap of a young photojournalist, Rick Smolan, some 30 years ago.

At this point, I must plead a mea culpa.

Following my trip with Richard Nixon to China in 1972, Pan Am – for whatever reason – put me on their VIP list. The result was that for the next few years I was invited regularly to be a guest on their inaugural flights whenever a new route opened up. 

I had just returned from one of these inaugural flights to Bangkok when Pan Am opened a new route to Australia. As with all these invitations, it came with a first class round-trip ticket from New York.

Having just returned from a trip halfway around the world, I was too exhausted to even think of getting on another Clipper. I called my friend Bryce Miller, who was then head of Pan Am’s public relations department and asked if I could give my ticket to Australia to a friend. He agreed, and I conferred with Robert Pledge who was then my agent at CONTACT, and I asked him who did he know that would benefit the most from the ticket.

He suggested one of his youngest new photographers, a 28 year-old named Rick Smolan. And that is how Rick suddenly and unexpectedly wound up in Australia facing the adventure of a life time. Smolan left on a Monday morning thinking he would shoot a grip and grin of two executives shaking hands, spend a day exploring Sydney, and then fly home.

Instead he didn’t return to the States for nearly 9 months, shooting three cover stories for TIME magazine in Asia and a fourth fateful Time cover assignment focused on Australia’s aboriginal population in the Outback.

After arriving in the desert town of Alice Springs he walked out of his hotel and, glancing up the street, he saw “the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life, washing the windows of my hotel.”

He learned that the striking 27-year-old Robyn Davidson was planning to walk 2,000 miles of largely uninhabited desert from the middle of Australia to the Indian ocean alone (well, accompanied by four camels and her dog, Diggity).

But she needed funding. Smolan suggested that she write to National Geographic. The magazine agreed to give her $4,000 for an article of her trek. And Smolan was assigned to track her down five times during her 9-month journey.

Along the way Davidson was attacked by herds of wild bull camels, got lost, almost died of dehydration, was discovered by the press, and had the adventure of a lifetime.

When Smolan’s photographs and Davidson’s text appeared in a National geographic cover story the outback of Australia, her story became a legend which lead up to TRACKS, a best selling book that is published in 18 languages and currently selling over a million copies.

Now, some 30 years later, Smolan’s photographs and Davidson’s story have been turned into a stunning new feature film called TRACKS, from the Oscar winning producers of “The King’s Speech.” TRACKS opened in theaters in mid-September and features Mia Wasikowska (the star of “Alice in Wonderland”) as Robyn and Adam Driver (the star of HBO’s “GIRLS”) as Rick. 

In conjunction with the release of the film Smolan is self-publishing (via a Kickstarter campaign) a large coffee table book called INSIDE TRACKS which combines the original photographs of Davidson’s journey together with spectacular images shot by set photographer Matt Nettheim on the film’s set in Australia.  

Smolan, who has published many photography books and projects with his “Day In The Life” series, has gone all out with the production quality on this book. With high resolution drum scans of his original Kodachrome slides and the printing done on heavy matt paper (in six colors, with a spot varnish to make the color pop off the page) his pictures have a vibrancy that is simply breathtaking.

Not only is it a stunning visual document, but he has added a cool technical hook to the book. Using HP’s Aurama technology, Smolan has enabled viewers to point their smart phones or tablets at some of his original images and immediately watch a short video clip from the TRACKS movie that relates to that particular photograph.

This is a stunningly good book, and it should be at the top of your Christmas list for anyone who cares about photography and the wild. It’s also a love story, a dog story, and an epic adventure.

Smolan’s Kickstarter campaign ends at 3 p.m. EST on Friday, October 17th (that would be TODAY) so check out this book and some of the cool rewards Smolan is offering to his backers (such as original copies of his Geographic cover story, signed archival prints, original Kodachrome slides shot during the trip, and other fun rewards).

Here is Smolan’s Kickstarter campaign: