National Geographic magazine cover story on 1990 Exxon Valdez spill
National Geographic Cover story on 1990 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Garrett brought to National Geographic more journalistic (and sometimes controversial) stories, such as this January, 1990 cover story on the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Wilbur “Bill” Garrett, who methodically raised the standards for photography at National Geographic and pushed for coverage of timely and sometimes controversial subjects during his tenure as editor in the 1980s, died at his home on August 13, National Geographic has reported. He was 85.

Garrett began pushing for a more photojournalistic approach to Geographic photography as soon as he joined the magazine as a photo editor in the mid 1950s. A protégé of former editor Melville Bell Grosvenor, Garret served for a number of years under legendary director of photography Robert Gilka.

By the early 1960s, Garrett had helped banish most of the staged photographs that dominated the magazine’s coverage throughout the 40s and 50s. He favored a straightforward documentary approach instead. And he pushed photographers with high expectations and sparing praise. “[B]y and large good,” he told Jim Blair of his 1961 take on Bulgaria, before adding that Blair had shot only “a few outstanding pictures.”

In recounting that story in his biography titled Being There, Blair said, “[Garrett] should have had a stamp made up stating that; it would have saved him the trouble of writing it so often.”

After he became editor of National Geographic in 1980, Garrett continued to push the magazine—and its board of directors—in a more progressive direction with stories about AIDS, the Exxon Valdez oil spill (above), and other topics that were controversial at the time. “He began to introduce much edgier stories, much more journalistic stories, and he got pushback from the board,” says Cary Wolinsky, a former contributor. “At times, there was blood on the floor.”

With Gilka’s help, Garrett also continued to push the quality and style of Geographic photography, which had been predominantly literal and descriptive.  He gradually gave more room to the distinctive visual voices of staff photographers and long-time contributors, among them William Albert Allard, David Alan Harvey, Jodi Cobb and other Geographic stars.

At the same time, he “saw the value of strengthening the photography presented by National Geographic by adding top freelance talent to complement” the magazine’s roster of staff photographers, says Thomas Kennedy, who served under Garrett as director of photography in the late 1980s.

Long simmering tensions between Garrett and Geographic board chairman Gilbert Grosvenor erupted in April, 1990, and Garrett was abruptly fired. The disagreements were partly over eyebrow-raising production costs, but mostly about philosophical differences between the two men.

”As Mr. Garrett took the magazine in a more realistic direction,” an anonymous editor told The New York Times, ”Mr. Grosvenor wanted it to be like the old days, with a rosy view of the world.”

In National Geographic‘s account of Garrett’s life and legacy, current director of photography Sarah Leen says, “He helped to create a generation of highly accomplished photojournalists and photo editors whose influence can still be felt today.”

More information is available on National Geographic‘s website.


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