For more than 120 years, National Geographic magazine has brought the world to its readers with some of the best writing and photography of all time. In honor of the release of The Complete National Geographic —a searchable DVD-ROM containing every issue of the iconic magazine ever published—editor-in-chief Chris Johns talks to Oprah.com about the past, present and future of National Geographic …and how he became the first field photographer at the magazine to move through the ranks and call all the shots.
Fritz Lenneman: Was it always your goal to work for National Geographic?
Chris Johns: My father was a geography teacher and eventually a school principal, so National Geographic had always been in our home. I used to read it and be transported all over the world. It really captured my imagination as a child. But I grew up in southwestern Oregon in a small town, and I never dreamed that I could have a job taking photographs. In college I was going to be a veterinarian, but I took a photography class and around that same time took a journalism class, and I was just completely hooked.
I'll never forget the first black-and-white photograph I took. Processing the film and then watching the picture after the negative was in the enlarger, watching the picture come up in the chemical bath. It was just magic to me; I just loved looking through the viewfinder. And then I was just curious by nature—it gave me an excuse to go all kinds of places and see all kinds of things.
The more I worked in newspapers when I got out of grad school, I could see that I wanted to spend more time in places. I loved being a newspaper photographer. It couldn't have been better training for what I eventually did, but I wanted to go places, go further and really spend more time and do things in more depth. I freelanced for a lot of magazines—Time and Newsweek and Life and People, and the magazines you would expect me to—but I was really drawn to the Geographic because of that experience, I suppose, growing up with National Geographic. My father always encouraging travel and open embracing of the world. That big thing about time—if I worked for them I would really get time to go places I always wanted to go and become immersed in that place and the people, the landscapes, the wildlife.
FL: How did you go from photographer to editor?
CJ: I'm the first full-time field photographer to become editor-in-chief. I started as a freelance photographer, did my first story in 1979 for the magazine, and did it near my hometown of Medford, Oregon, and did it on a forest fire fighting crew. I basically became the 21st member of an interagency hotshot crew for the forest service. A few years [later], I did another freelance assignment and sort of took off from there. I became a contract photographer in about 1985, staff photographer in 1995, and then in 2001 I left the field and became director of picture editors. I supervised picture editors for National Geographic. I eventually, after two years of that, supervised all of the visuals for National Geographic magazine. And then became editor the year after that.