Arundel photographers' book describes life of shared adventure

Lynn Abercrombie, a photographer and her late husband, writer/photographer Tom Abercrombie, has recently published a limited edition book on their lives and careers traveling the word for National Geographic.
Lynn Abercrombie, a photographer and her late husband, writer/photographer Tom Abercrombie, has recently published a limited edition book on their lives and careers traveling the word for National Geographic. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

Stroll with Lynn Abercrombie through her clapboard house on the West River and check out the alabaster mask from Yemen, the head-to-toe woman's cloak from Afghanistan, the smoking implements from Egypt and the shrunken head from Ecuador. You'll see mementos of a life the retired photographer, a Shady Side resident, never set out to lead.

"Oh, heavens, no! When I was a girl, if you went to Canada, it was a big deal," says Abercrombie, 81, who grew up in rural Minnesota and ended up seeing and chronicling the world with her husband, the late National Geographic photographer-journalist Tom Abercrombie. "But I loved it. It was certainly a wonderful way to escape the housework."

Life can be an unexpected journey, a fact never more evident than in the pages of "Traveling the World for National Geographic," the book Abercrombie helped usher into print in November and is promoting in a series of talks around the region.

More than 350 pages long and featuring hundreds of the photos the couple took while working for the magazine, it comes across as a family album like few others.

"This is a story, a picture story, of two very lucky people before whom was spread out the greatest of treasures, the planet Earth" is Tom Abercrombie's description in the text, written not long before his death in 2006. "Geographic was witness to a century, arguably the most telling in human history, and we spent nearly half of it there with them."

As Lynn Abercrombie remembers it, their story might never have happened at all.

Tom Abercrombie and Marilyn (as she was then known) Bruitt attended the same high school in Stillwater, Minn., during the 1940s, but they didn't know each other until they were assigned adjoining seats in biology class.

Even now, she sounds half-embarrassed at the way they behaved that semester.

"We were disruptive, the way we always talked to each other," she says with a shake of the head. "It's a wonder [the teacher] got anything done."

Tom, a person of boundless energy, had a talent for bluffing his way into new situations that intrigued him, Lynn says, and figuring out the details later. That was how he took over the photo side of the school yearbook even though he had never developed a picture.

He built a darkroom in his basement and taught himself the craft. Lynn followed suit, creating a popular series of student profiles.

A formidable team took shape, and so did a pattern: Tom taking a leap of faith, Lynn accommodating and growing beside him, a mutual life unfolding in illustrated chapters.

He got his first job, a staff position at North Dakota's tiny Fargo Forum, in 1951. But when an internship opened up at the photographically progressive Milwaukee Journal, he took it, betting that he could prove himself during a three-month trial.

"I'll set myself apart," he told Lynn, by then his wife. That summer, when a freighter sank in Lake Michigan, he invented a Plexiglas-encased camera, dove 80 feet to the wreck and took pictures with his Leica that made the Journal's front page (and, last year, the book's first chapter).

When he and Lynn adopted a wild robin, they shot a series of black-and-whites of the bird for the Journal's magazine in 1955. One went out on the Associated Press wire and was published in Life magazine. It ended up on the desk of an amateur ornithologist named Gilbert Grosvenor.

Grosvenor, who also happened to be the editor of National Geographic, summoned the young photographer to Washington for an interview, liked his approach and hired him.

"Tom always said, 'We made it to [the magazine] on the wings of a robin,'" Lynn says.

The magazine was then in its glory days, printing 2 million copies per issue enough, Abercrombie writes, to form a stack a mile and a half high. That meant plenty of resources, the time to do articles well (three months was not an uncommon span, a rarity anywhere today) and an almost limitless canvas. Over the next four decades, the pair visited all seven continents between them, facing down myriad logistical challenges while capturing jaw-dropping vistas as well as the kinds of smaller moments that bring huge subjects to life.

Their careers were separate but intertwined. Tom was a staff photographer and writer, a larger-than-life personality whose exploits were Hemingway-esque. His adventures, recorded in the book's words and pictures, included being the first staff journalist to photograph the South Pole (the article was published in 1958) and shooting Jacques Cousteau as the French undersea explorer tested his tiny submarine, the Diving Saucer, in the Caribbean (1960). He traveled with a local guide named Jabr into an isolated Saudi desert called "the Empty Quarter" (1965) to search for the Wabar meteorite, a legendary rock no living person had seen. (His team, which included Lynn, found and photographed it.)

Along the way, Tom bought and sold a half-dozen Land Rovers and an airplane, traveled with walrus-hunting Eskimos and Kalashnikov-toting Palestinian rebels, nearly fell off a mountain tram in Venezuela and contracted a near-fatal case of typhoid fever in Tibet.

"Sometimes, yes, he made me a little nervous," says Lynn, who started spending more time at home raising the couple's two children, Mari and Bruce.

But she, too, had the travel-and-adventure bug. She accompanied Tom on as many assignments as she could, offering her services as a freelance photographer and making her way to places as far-flung as the Fiji Islands, the Himalayas and the marsh regions of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

She often submitted photos along with Tom's, and her work was so stunning that she ended up taking the lead on some National Geographic articles, including "The Frankincense Trail," a 1985 project in which the pair retraced the 1,600-mile route ancient Middle Eastern merchants once traveled to get their valuable, homegrown incense to ports in Syria, Petra and Egypt and beyond. The yearlong assignment took the Abercrombies through five nations — Oman, South Yemen, North Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

During their travels, Lynn noticed the sort of human detail Geographic editors loved: On celebratory occasions, women in San'a, now capital of the unified Yemen Arab Republic, decorate their hands, faces and feet with a form of henna makeup. She spent a day photographing one such woman. One close-up image ended up on the cover, and the article was the issue's feature.

Even that didn't fully please Lynn, then as now a stern judge of art.

"Of all the photos I took, I wouldn't have chosen that one" for the cover, she says with a frown. "But once you submitted your work, you had no idea what would happen. Many times, they were just looking for something different."

When Tom retired in 1995, he had written and photographed 43 articles for National Geographic and won numerous international awards; it was no surprise that a former editor, Bill Marr, tried to persuade him to put together a book on his experiences. By that time, though, Tom was so busy enjoying his boat, White Tiger, and teaching courses at George Washington University that he was reluctant to take on the extra work.

Marr moved on to other endeavors, but Tom eventually finished the narrative at the urging of his children, not long before he died of complications from open-heart surgery. The Abercrombies' daughter, Mari, spent much of the next five years working with Lynn to edit and design the limited-edition book, which the family published in November on its own Birch Landing Press.

Putting the book together brought back plenty of memories, Lynn says, and not just of the places they went. She remembers a man who "was never boring," who took a few more risks than she'd have liked and who rarely held back his ardent views. More than once, she says, he stood behind her as she framed a shot and announced, "That's not the way to take that picture."

But first to last, their tale was a love story. Lynn thought so much of Tom that she wanted the book to be purely about him. "He wrote me in anyway," she says, laughing. "After that, there was nothing I could do."

Tom also wrote the words that appear on the book's first page, the sentence that frames everything that follows: "The most satisfying journey is the one that is shared."

"Traveling the World for National Geographic" is available through Amazon.com for $60. Lynn Abercrombie's next scheduled talk on the book is at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 5, in the Grosvenor Auditorium at National Geographic, 1660 M St. N.W., Washington. For more information, go to nglive.org/dc or call (202) 857-7700.


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