1988 - Thomas J. Abercrombie

Thomas J. Abercrombie, Photo Credit: Bruce Dale

Thomas J. Abercrombie – 1948: National Geographic photographer, first person to win both “Newspaper Photographer of the Year” and “Magazine Photographer of the Year” awards.




Thomas J. Abercrombie, 75, Adventurer With Lens, Dies

By Margalit Fox
Published: April 16, 2006
New York Times, N.Y./Region


Thomas J. Abercrombie, a noted photographer and writer for National Geographic who in nearly 40 years with the magazine visited every corner of the globe, from the sands of the Sahara to the windswept plains of Antarctica, died on April 3 in Baltimore. He was 75 and lived in Shady Side, Md.

The cause was complications of open-heart surgery he underwent in March, his wife, Marilyn, said.

With his full beard, compact build and thirst for adventure, Mr. Abercrombie was often likened to Ernest Hemingway. But from the mid-1950's to the early 1990's, his exploits in any given week made Hemingway's look like child's play.

In 1957, Mr. Abercrombie was the first civilian correspondent to reach the South Pole, happy to be stranded there, in 100-degrees-below-zero weather, several weeks longer than expected. In the late 1960's, traversing a mountain pass in Afghanistan, he was thrown by his horse and dangled by one heel from his stirrup over a yawning chasm. A few years earlier, in Cambodia, he outwitted an angry mob, eager to tear any American limb from limb, by convincing them that he was French.

Mr. Abercrombie visited all seven continents, and he seemed to have seen nearly everything on them, around them and between them, from the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia to the megaliths of Easter Island. He traveled to Japan, Indonesia, Iran and the Asiatic republics of what was then the Soviet Union. He visited nearly every country of the Middle East and became so enamored of the region's people and culture that he converted to Islam in 1964.

He traveled by airplane (he was sometimes the pilot), sailboat (ditto), canoe, Land Rover, sled, horse, mule, camel, yak and, when all else failed, foot. He sailed the St. Lawrence River, led a train of 400 camels through the Sahara and swam with Jacques Cousteau. He was famous for wrecking cars and went through many. He once put a very small plane on his expense account.

He met soldiers and diamond miners, farmers and fortunetellers, wandering nomads and Stone Age tribesmen, emirs and sheiks and kings. For emergencies, he carried wafers of Swiss gold in his pack, and, for bigger emergencies, AK-47's.

Like Hemingway, Mr. Abercrombie wrote about fishing, though his fish story entailed taking photographs while swimming in Lake Huron beneath a 20-inch crust of ice for an article on winter fishing.

Thomas James Abercrombie was born on Aug. 13, 1930, in Stillwater, Minn. He learned his trade in a high school photography class, where he also met his wife, the former Marilyn Bruette, known as Lynn. They were married in 1952. Some years later, in Saudi Arabia, a group of Bedouin nomads offered Mr. Abercrombie 30 camels for her. He held out for 50, and they remained together.

After three years at Macalester College in St. Paul, followed by a brief stint in the Army, Mr. Abercrombie went to work as a photographer for The Fargo Forum in North Dakota before moving to The Milwaukee Journal. He joined National Geographic in 1956.

Mr. Abercrombie was known especially for his work in the Muslim world. He wrote articles for the magazine about Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, and many of his most evocative photographs are from those places. One of his most famous, from 1968, portrays an Afghan woman, veiled in a chador from head to toe, carrying two birds in a cage balanced on her head.

In 1957, Mr. Abercrombie was sent to Antarctica in the hope of reaching the United States' scientific station at the South Pole, where an American research team had just weathered the first winter to be spent there. Drawing lots at McMurdo Sound, Mr. Abercrombie won a spot on a Navy plane bound for the station. He would be allowed to stay only an hour, till the plane took off again. He begged to stay longer, to no avail.

Warming up for the return trip, the plane blew a gasket. Flights were suspended for three weeks, until the temperature climbed to a balmy 50 below. Meanwhile, Mr. Abercrombie produced a series of memorable photographs, which appeared in the magazine's April 1958 issue.

Mr. Abercrombie was named newspaper photographer of the year in 1954 for his work at The Milwaukee Journal. In 1959, with National Geographic, he was named magazine photographer of the year, the first person to win both awards.

Besides his wife, a photographer whose work has also appeared in National Geographic, Mr. Abercrombie is survived by a daughter, Mari, of Newburgh, Me.; a son, Bruce, of Shady Side; and a brother, Robert Bruce, of Lake Elmo, Minn. Another son, Jon, died in childhood.

After his retirement from National Geographic in 1993, Mr. Abercrombie acquainted himself with the unfamiliar pleasures of home. He also taught geography at George Washington University.

Of all the places he had been, he often said, he loved Afghanistan best.