email a friend iconprinter friendly iconTom Abercrombie
Page [ 2 ] of 5

Sixty years ago, a 15-year-old boy in Stillwater, Minnesota, accompanied his older brother to the town's Lumberjack Days parade. A pilot just back from World War II, the older brother, whose name was Bruce, brought along the Leica camera he'd purchased in Italy, and began taking pictures of the floats. His younger brother watched for a while, got bored, and wandered off in search of something more interesting. He noticed a boy on the curb, making faces at the girls on the floats. "Hey, Bruce," called the younger brother, “that’s what you should be taking pictures of!" Later he borrowed his brother's Leica, made a drawing of it, and built a camera out of mirrors, a discarded lens, and scraps of plastic. His first photograph was of his girlfriend, Lynn.

Thus began the journalistic passion of Thomas J. Abercrombie, who died recently at age 75, after retiring in 1994 from a monumental National Geographic career that took him to every continent, taught him four languages, brought him near death more times than he cared to count, and yielded 43 articles for this magazine, including some of the most ambitious ever published. During his 38 years on the staff, Abercrombie reported as a writer and photographer from Japan and Cambodia, Tibet and Venezuela, Spain and Australia, Alaska and Brazil, and as the first photojournalist ever from the South Pole. But his most significant and enduring contribution surely lies in the 16 articles he produced on the Muslim world between 1956 and 1994, which guided Geographic's readers through the glorious and tangled geography of what may be, now as then, the closest thing the Western world has to terra incognita.

Abercrombie came to the Society in 1956, after a brief stint in the Army (scuttled by a foot fungus, which he'd picked up lifeguarding) and work as a photographer for two midwestern newspapers, the Fargo Forum and the Milwaukee Journal. Hard news coverage earned him Newspaper Photographer of the Year honors at the Journal, but it was a picture of a backyard bird—a robin tugging at a worm—that won the heart of Geographic’s Melville Bell Grosvenor, who said the picture could only have been taken by another robin. Abercrombie flunked his Geographic physical—those feet again—but Editorial overruled Medical, and Tom was hired.

He had never traveled outside the United States, but on his first overseas assignment, to Lebanon, he found that a short, gruff, good-natured man from Minnesota could strike up a conversation with just about anybody. He interviewed Lebanon's president, Camille Chamoun, and made the notoriously stiff Chamoun so comfortable that he invited Tom to photograph him and his wife sprawled under a tree. And in a Lebanese town, Qabb Ilyas, he made his first visit to a mosque, an epiphany of sorts that he later described in the article: "After the service I mingled with the people, drifting with the human current out the door past a long line of beggars and down the narrow street. Walking and talking with them, I had a warm feeling of belonging; they seemed to accept me as one of their own."

Page [ 2 ] of 5