Photo Journal: Dennis Dimick - An Environmental Portrait

  • DENNIS DIMICK - AN ENVIRONMENTAL PORTRAIT

    Photo by James Balog

By Jim Colton

Growing up as a teenager is the 1960’s with both parents in the journalism field, (Dad, the Director of Photography for the Associated Press and Mom the Art Director for People Magazine) there were always magazines and newspapers in the house. But the two staples that always graced the coffee table were LIFE magazine and National Geographic, delivered by subscription mail and arriving each month with great anticipation. 

As with many readers, I flipped through LIFE magazine from back-to-front starting with the feature on the last page called “Miscellany.”  It frequently displayed a photo which more often than not brought a smile to my face. It was surely one of my first encounters with the power of photography and its ability to move the viewer in some way bringing deeper meaning to many of life’s whimsical situations.

On a bit more serious note, I was equally fascinated by the little magazine with big impact, National Geographic. I remember the bookshelf in our living room which was lined with the trademark yellow boundary, perfect bound monthly issues….stacked as neatly as a library. Each issue brought me to places around the world, enriching my life with cultures I might never have the chance to experience in real life.  And every issue also came with an outrageous fold-out map with amazing detail which would keep me occupied for hours!

Dennis DimickIn my later years, as a professional photo editor, I have grown to appreciate the amazing visuals that National Geographic continues to bring to their readers…and…I have a profound respect for the people behind the scenes that make that possible. One of those people is their Executive Editor, Dennis R. Dimick.

Dimick is not only a champion for great photography and great stories but he is also acutely involved in the magazine’s coverage of environmental issues, a topic that is near and dear to his very existence. In addition to overseeing all of NG’s environmental stories, you will find Dimick speaking about climate change on the lecture circuit, jotting thoughts on his blog and Twitter as well as posting his images on Instagram, Tumblr, and 500px (see links below). And for almost 20 years, he’s also given back to the industry as a faculty member of the Missouri Photo Workshop emphasizing documentary photojournalism inspired by the 1930’s Farm Security Administration photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange

I don’t know where he finds the time to do all this, so I was flattered when he agreed to allow me to steal some of that precious time to share his thoughts on everything from his early influences to environmental issues to how National Geographic has tackled the digital landscape once littered with boxes of Kodachrome.

Jim Colton: Can you tell our readers about how you first got started in the photography business? Who or what were some of your early influences?

Dennis Dimick: My mother’s father, John H. Fitzgibbon, was a physician in Portland, Oregon and was always taking pictures of us. He had a darkroom and our pictures were plastered on the wall. My early photographic influences were Lewis Hine’s pictures of child labor, and the Farm Security Administration Depression-era and Dust Bowl work influenced me a lot. I grew up on a farm in Oregon, was in 4-H and Future Farmers of America, and worked hard as a kid tending to livestock and crops. I baled hay to earn money to go to college. My parents were both fisheries biologists and a lot of my early childhood was spent hiking, hunting, and fishing in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. So I’m kind of a mash-up of many influences: My grandfather’s omnipresence with a Leica in my very early years, my parents’ interest in wildlife and the outdoors, the experience of growing up on a small farm and then later as I got interested in photography, learning of the work of Hine and the FSA – these all resonated with me. 

JC: Before National Geographic, you worked at few west coast newspapers as well as the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. What were those years like and how did you wind up at National Geographic?

DD: The early years were memorable and I learned a lot through the diversity in experiences. After a short fill-in stint as a photographer at the Corvallis Gazette-Times in Oregon, I followed up as sports and farm editor for the thrice-weekly McMinnville News Register.  After that I worked as a photographer and education writer for a year at the Pendleton East Oregonian, home of the Pendleton Round-up and Pendleton Woolen Mills. All these experiences taught me self-reliance, how to find stories in the real world and how to meet deadlines. I reconnected with a college roommate, Christian Anderson (now publisher of the Portland Oregonian), who hired me as a staff photographer at The Walla Walla Union Bulletin, and I worked there from 1976-1978.  We hired Ethan Hoffman, a Missouri masters graduate who brought with him the Missouri photojournalism method and the teachings of Cliff Edom and Angus McDougall. It was like going to University of Missouri Photojournalism School without actually being a student. That time with Ethan was very influential for me in developing skills at visual narrative story-telling, esthetics, layout and design.

I then spent two years in the late 1970s as a picture editor at The Louisville Courier-Journal, where documentary photojournalism was in its prime. It was wonderful to work with a group of great photographers and editors – Bill Luster, Jay Mather, Melissa Farlow, Jim Mendenhall, Billy Davis, Barbara Montgomery, Jebb Harris, Dan Dry, Cheryl Magazine, Claude Cookman and C. Thomas Hardin among others, who all cared deeply about photography and its value in documenting the lives and conditions of people in that place.  It was an honor to work at The Courier-Journalwhen it was owned by the Bingham family where there was a willingness to speak truth to power, to challenge the status quo, even if it meant profits were not as large as they could be. Those kinds of newspapers are almost non-existent now.

I ended up at National Geographic when I received a phone call from an editor asking me to submit my resume.  How it all unfolded was that Richard Perry, now an editor and photographer at The New York Times, had been a summer intern at both Walla Walla and Louisville when I was at each place. Rick, who was an Ohio University student then, and Professor Terry Eiler later invited me to Athens to speak to students about life at small and big newspapers. A few months later Terry, who had been a Geographic intern, received a call from a Geographic editor asking if he knew of any candidates for picture editor jobs. Terry gave my name to John Agnone, the editor who called. I spent ten years editing books, children’s magazine articles and articles at NG Traveler before joining the magazine staff in 1990.

JC: You've been at National Geographic long enough to have experienced the change from analog to digital. What was that like? Was there resistance? Do any NG photographers still use film?

DD: I was in at the beginning of the changeover. It occurred when three technological advances unfolded: Mac OS X, Apple’s MacPro Towers, and the release of the Canon D30 camera (not the 30D). There was a confluence. We needed RAW files. We were never going to shoot JPEGS as that is just a compromised format…too much color data is lost. But this camera, and others soon to follow like the Canon EOS 10D, could shoot 6MB RAW files at about three frames a second. This meant a photographer could shoot street photography and the camera had a reasonable chance of keeping up with what’s going on.

We were looking for a digital format that could compare to film in quality. And only when these cameras that could shoot RAW files at a reasonable rate of speed came along we were able to consider switching. And the quality has only gotten better since then.

Ken Geiger joined us in early 2005 from the Dallas Morning News and he set up an amazing digital asset management system that allows us to store, keep track of, retrieve and edit all the digital pictures.

In early 2006 we were 80 percent film. In late 2006 we were about 80 percent digital. Most work is done digitally, but we do have some people who shoot film…mostly medium format color negative, 645, 6x7, 2 ¼, 8x10 and the like. We don’t see much 35mm film anymore. The people I have worked with, once they went digital, never really looked back at film again. They sold the film cameras and moved on. For one thing it is amazing what one can shoot nowadays with digital cameras in low light. Digital has really opened up the night for us in ways that film never could.

JC: Do you miss the lightbox, or has digital made your life easier/harder? What sort of volume are photo editors looking at these days?

DD: No I don’t miss the jammed projectors or opening Kodak slide boxes with 36 2x2 cardboard mounted transparencies, loading them into the stack loaders and then having them jam in the projector because the slides were bent. I do miss the color personalities of Kodachrome, Velvia, Ektachrome and other film emulsions.

I don’t have hard data on number of images shot now. Digital obviously makes it easier to shoot more. It’s also easier to look at more images on a computer now than we ever could looking at slides or negatives. I did a project a couple of years ago on Greenland that had two aspects, two photographers, Jim Balog and Peter Essick. That project had about 75,000 images!

JC: I remember hearing about NG assignments that lasted 6 months, a year...and sometimes longer. Are there still "long-term" assignments? What's the average amount of time spent on a typical story?

DD: Time on a story varies quite a lot. It is less than it used to be for sure. Photo coverage is focused, organized, and planned, realizing we need to keep time for serendipity built in. It’s really hard to say how long an average assignment is now. They can vary from four to eight weeks, some longer, some shorter. 

JC: I know that photographers on assignment used to be involved in editing and layouts...so much so that they were actually invited to participate in the process. This is a procedure that I don't believe exists at any other publication. Is this still true and why is this so important at NG?

DD: Yes it remains true, though the process may be a bit different now. We don’t always bring photographers to Washington for every story editing and layout review, though we do as often as possible. Collaborative editing tools and remote conferencing software allows us to hold “virtual” editing and projection sessions with photographers over Skype and other video conferencing tools. Though not having a photographer in the room for editing and review isn’t ideal, in a time of limited funds and tight budgets, if we can sometimes save travel expenses on some aspects of story production to keep a photographer in the field longer, we often opt for that.

JC: NG Editor in Chief, Chris Johns, started as a photographer. I know that you’ve known him for many years…even before you arrived at NG. What’s it like to work for someone at the top that is blessed with visual acumen?

DD: Well it’s wonderful. It’s also been a great partnership over the years. Chris and I met in high school while in Future Farmers of America in Oregon and were college roommates at Oregon State while studying agriculture and journalism. He and I share common interests in covering the big global issues of our time – climate change, our energy future, world population trends and impacts, natural resource conservation, forest and wildlife conservation, global freshwater issues and how we will feed ourselves in years ahead. So it’s been wonderful being able to find ways to visually address these ideas that are relevant to the future of human society, but aren’t necessarily the kinds of issues we read about in the news, and to have the support of the Editor in pursuing these kinds of projects.

JC: The mission statement on your personal blog reads: "Exploring the nexus between human aspiration and Earth's ability to sustain it." Can you tell us a little about what that means to you?

DD: The planet we live on is only so big and has only so many resources, whether it is fish in the ocean, trees in the forest, land to convert to farming or clean air in the sky. And since I was born in the middle of the last century we have seen world population grow from about 2.5 billion in 1950 to more than 7 billion in just sixty years. Our numbers and demands keep rising for all the things that keep us alive, but our world is finite. How we choose to manage our appetites, or not, will impact what kind of future we pass along to our children. It’s as if we think that somehow we can create infinite economic growth infinitely. But physical limits of our small blue planet – and the resources it supplies us like clean water, clean air, and arable soil to grow food – are not infinite. Wendell Berry, the Kentucky poet and essayist, wrote eloquently about this issue in Harpers in May of 2008 in his piece Faustian Economics.

As to the blog Signs from Earth, I wish I had more time to keep that blog updated. I started it in late 2009 as a way to keep track of emerging trends and scientific developments on world population and our rising impact on earth. It’s languished not for interest in keeping it fresh, but just for lack of time. Maybe I will re-conceptualize it one day soon, I have some ideas for that, but at the moment time is lacking. Most of my online discussion of global issues occurs now on my Twitter feed (@ddimick) where I look for the same kinds of ideas and topics I have addressed on the blog, and for people who are trying to visualize global change through photography. For lack of a better description, the area I’m most interested in I would call environmental photojournalism: the bridging of environmental journalism with photojournalism and documentary photography.

JC: I know you are deeply involved in climate change. How has NG embraced this issue? And what more can other publications or individuals do to bring important issues like this to the forefront?

DD: I’m interested in climate change because the climate conditions we have lived under globally for about the past 10,000 years – often called the Holocene epoch -- have been amenable to the development of modern human civilization. We are seven billion people on earth today because the mildness of earth’s climate over the past 10 millennia has supported the development of an agriculture that lets us grow the crops we rely on to survive. This is no small accomplishment but is virtually neglected, taken for granted by modern society and its policymakers. There is no guarantee the climate we have been relying on will remain as it has; history is replete with ice ages and extreme droughts that made human habitation on earth difficult if not impossible. We are disrupting our climate system right now by our unending reliance on fossil carbon fuels, coal, oil, and natural gas.  This is why the Arctic ice cap is disappearing, glaciers are shrinking and seas are rising and why we are seeing increased frequency of extreme weather events like droughts, heat waves and floods, and the disappearance or shrinking of winter snow packs in many locations. Unfortunately there remains confusion in the public mind about this issue, whether caused by well-funded disinformation campaigns by special interest groups, or by news media unwillingness to confront difficult social issues that have no easy solutions. 

Regardless, this issue is one that presents many opportunities for photographers who are willing to steep themselves in the current science about our changing climate.  Understanding climate science actually helps photographers understand why we are seeing things like droughts and heat waves that cause crop failures, rising food prices, and social disruption like what we saw in the Middle East two years ago.  Or the disappearance of winter snow packs that people in many regions globally count on to replenish their annual drinking and irrigation supplies. As the Arctic ice cap shrinks, life in the northern regions change, shipping lanes open, permafrost melts and ancient cultural ways that depend on the cold disappear. Every one of these situations can present rich opportunities for photographers to document. The changes we are seeing are not random, there is a pattern. And understanding the science of climate opens up many opportunities for photographers and journalists to explain why the changes we are seeing globally are unfolding as they are. 

I see this emerging field of environmental photojournalism only beginning to take shape, and if I can do anything in the years ahead, I hope to be able to help raise its profile as a field – an area of focus -- for photographers to pursue. It’s a very rich area. 

The magazine has covered climate change extensively over the years. We devoted more than 70 pages to it in three stories called “Signs from Earth” in September 2004. We won the Society of Environmental Journalists (sej.org) award for explanatory journalism for our coverage of energy and climate in 2008, we did a big cover story on extreme weather last September and this year we had a cover story on rising seas. We co-sponsored and I helped organize the Aspen Environment Forum for five years in collaboration with the Aspen Institute where we gathered opinion leaders, policy makers, business leaders, students, NGOs and the public to discuss these issues.

JC: Do you ever see the print issue disappearing? Or can it co-exist with other forms of digital publishing? And how do you feel about lessened value being placed on the role of the photojournalist in today’s market? (Specifically things like the cutting of entire photography departments at major newspapers.)

DD: Do I see print disappearing? No. Painting still exists in the face of photography. Radio still exists in the face of television. All of them; print, painting, radio, and now TV are all adapting in the face of digital. It may be that digital opens opportunities for us that we could never exploit by being print alone. I see print and digital as partners. Will the form of print change in the face of digital everywhere – on your phone, tablet, desktop, glasses, walls, wherever – sure. Maybe the presence of digital will free print from having to do certain representational and didactic things while allowing it to pursue more expressive ways of story telling, who knows? It’s all very hard to know the outcome as we are all in the middle of a grand experiment in reinvention now.

As to the lessened value of today’s photojournalists, at least in the current media environment, this is why I advocate that photographers need to be as good as anyone in the room in understanding the underlying ideas and concepts behind the issues we cover. Yes perhaps the day of the staff assignment daily news photographer waiting for the assignment slip to arrive from the desk is past, but that opens the door to entrepreneurial opportunities for photographers. Most of the projects I have done for the past 20 years have been of my own making, ideas I have come up with myself, or have collaborated with others to conceive, originate, propose, and produce. Long ago Rich Clarkson said photographers had to get out of the darkroom and into the newsroom, and I subscribe to and advocate that philosophy completely.

That’s why I have taught at the Missouri Photo Workshop now for more than 15 years. I’m trying to empower photographers to be self-starting story tellers with a camera. At MPW, you have to come up with your own idea, to a pitch a visual photographable story and to conceptualize your own project. The future is for those who grab it and invest, not waiting for it to be handed to them. Either you create change or change is done to you.

JC: NG has done a tremendous job in alternative forms of publishing, like the National Geographic channel on television...and new web ventures like "Your Shot," where you invite readers to send in their images. (Which I understand is very popular) Do you see this expansion of the brand to be the NG of the future?

DD: Your Shot is but one of the things we are focusing on and what it does is allow us is to begin to have a conversation, to build a community with our members so there is more of a two-way street of ideas. Keith Jenkins recently joined us from NPR where he was the senior multimedia producer and he is leading our new a photo blog called PROOF (see link below) where we write about photography.  It gives those of us involved on the ground floor of the work here to help provide insight and backstory to what we do. But more than that, it allows us to engage our own views in an expanding conversation about photography in society and the world and to articulate how photography can be such a powerful medium. For example, last month while I was at the Missouri Photo Workshop I wrote three PROOF postings about the workshop: its history, origins and connection over the years to the National Geographic, the story of a changing rural America revealed in the work there, and on the gift of time in photography…how spending time with subjects can make all the difference in allowing real pictures to occur.  

As to the Power of Photography, that is the theme in our recently released October issue “The Photo Issue,” on the occasion of National Geographic’s 125th anniversary this year. The issue focuses on the work of concerned photographers like Marcus Bleasdale, David Guttenfelder, Joel Sartore and Jim Balog among others, and why they pursue their work with deep commitment and almost missionary zeal. At the same time we are opening an exhibition of our photography on this 125th anniversary in late October at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.

JC: Of all the stories you've worked on at NG, can you cite one or two which you are particularly proud of...and why? 

DD: Isn’t the favorite one supposed to be the next one? Well there have been many. A trilogy of stories in September 2004 on climate change, a project with Jim Richardson on soils from 2008 that took us nine years to get into publication, a story on sustainable agriculture in 1995 also done with Jim, a year long series on world population in 2011, and a special issue on global freshwater in 2010. And we have a series set up for 2014 on the future of food worldwide and how we can feed ourselves in decades ahead without devouring the planet we need to stay alive. Also I’d say the work we did to create the Aspen Environment Forum from 2008-1012 was a highlight for me. (See, this all comes back to the earlier idea…"Exploring the nexus between human aspiration and Earth's ability to sustain it.")

JC: Lastly, what's on the horizon for Dennis Dimick? What floats your boat and what words of encouragement might you have for aspiring NG photographers of the future?

DD: I‘m hoping to be here or a few more years, there are stories to be told and issues to be discussed. I do love connecting with young photographers to help them along their way, that’s why I enjoy teaching at the Missouri Photo Workshop. It’s a way to give back, to help nurture a new generation of documentary photojournalists. In time I’d love to produce a project, perhaps a book and other guiding materials on environmental photojournalism in collaboration with all the talented photographers I’ve had the good fortune to work and strategize with on this. Among them Peter Essick, Jim Richardson, John Stanmeyer, Joel Sartore, Amy Toensing, Jim Balog, Randy Olson, Melissa Farlow, Ed Kashi and Jonas Bendiksen and others.  As I’ve written here I think the area of environmental photojournalism is an emerging and important area of focus for photographers seeking to make sense of the world we are creating and living in, and it offers many possibilities for story-telling with a camera. I’d like to inspire a new generation of photographers devoted to idea finding and developing projects in this rich arena where global change is happening right before our eyes.

 

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