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.