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A top National Geographic photographer's serendipitous career: Randy Olson.

At great trouble and expense, photographer Randy Olson had arranged for a private plane to travel to Sinop, Turkey, where he planned to get an aerial view at sunset of the peninsula on the Black Sea.

"I am circling around Sinop and finally everything is alright. I take one frame and the street lights are matching the little peninsula," Olson said. "We take a circle around. By the time we get to where I am going to photograph, the entire town blinks out. It's a power outage, which is pretty normal in those areas. If you don't have patience, you can't really do this job."

The "job" is getting photographs for The National Geographic magazine. It's highly challenging and Olson is at the top of his profession, trekking the world with his camera to tell stories of places, cultures and people.

Olson grew up in Webster Groves, the son of now-retired St. Louis Post-Dispatch book editor Clarence Olson and his mother Arielle North. He decided at a young age that he wanted to be a photographer. He has been a contributing photographer to National Geographic magazine for 18 years.

He was named the Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 1992, when he worked at the Pittsburgh Press. In 2003, he became the Magazine Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International (POYi) competition. He is one of two photographers who have won the award in both categories.

His wife, Melissa Farlow, is also a contributing photographer for National Geographic. They live in Pitts burgh, where they both had worked for the Pittsburgh Press, but also have residential property near Portland, Ore.

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Started with toy camera

Olson was barely walking when he discovered photography through his father. "He was a photographer and that was a cool thing to do," he said of his dad. "He did a lot of different jobs at newspapers, but I could always tell that being a photographer was one he really liked." Randy was less than two when his parents got him a toy camera and his obsession began.

Olson's career goal took shape as he worked on his high school newspaper. "A camera lets you fit in. High school is an interesting socialization period and that's kind of how I socialized, through the camera," he said.

After earning a bachelor's degree in journalism at the University of Kansas, Olson became a newspaper photographer. That eventually took him to the Pittsburgh Press, where he earned his Newspaper Photographer of the Year honors. Farlow worked there, too, but both would soon face the loss of their jobs.

While working for National Geographic is the dream of many photographers, Olson said it is not a realistic goal to pursue. Out of thousands of professional newspaper and magazine photographers, "There are only between 20 and 40 photographers who work regularly for National Geographic. Many of them are highly specialized. There are three levels of underwater guys--one just holds his breath underneath whales. There is a bug guy, an artifacts guy. There are really only a few social documentary people like Melissa and me."

The National Geographic spends millions on photography but doesn't keep photographers on staff, instead using contributors, or freelancers. The shooters, depending on the number of assignments, can make more than newspaper photographers, though they have expenses like any freelancer. But it's the satisfaction of getting good pictures on far-flung assignments that draws them to the work.

"They don't hire out much work. They are not going to respond to people who are coming at them. They are going to respond to people who are doing work that they think is intriguing. You have to concentrate on making good photographs tomorrow, and then the next day and the next day."

They get a call

Olson had built an impressive body of work when a call came from National Geographic with assignments for both he and Farlow.

"They called both of us around the time our newspaper was dying out from under us. We both had won international competitions and were doing social documentary in a way that got the attention of the editors. They needed to beef up their human-based social documentary photography at a time when we needed jobs, so we were pretty lucky--serendipitous."

Patience is a necessity in shooting National Geographic-caliber photography, Olson said. It may take days to get one image that delivers the rich color, dramatic mood, artistic composition, stylized motion or infinite focus that characterize work published in one of the world's top photographic publications.

A National Geographic assignment may take Olson, 52, on location for two to four months, but that time goes by in a rush. "Two months maybe seems like a lot of time, but there has to be 40 photographs that are publishable at the level of National Geographic," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Oregon where he was making preparations to continue an assignment that would take him to ten countries.

While feeling rushed, he must push himself to take time for the best shot to appear, he said. "Serendipity rules, and you just can't fight it. If you try to fight it, you end up getting frustrated and angry and no good comes of it. There are people who are cheerful and patient and all that--I don't think that is how I come naturally, but in respect to photography you don't have an option."

Farlow, Olson's wife of 23 years, was part of a team that won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography at the Louisville Courier Journal and Louisville Times. The team covered the tense events that accompanied court-ordered busing and desegregation of public schools. Her photos also have won awards in the POYi judging.

She is from Paoli, Indiana, and received her bachelor's degree in journalism at Indiana University. She and her husband also received master of arts degrees at the University of Missouri, where they taught photo journalism.

They first met at an awards ceremony at Mizzou, the second time was when he stayed at her house at the invitation of her then-boyfriend. "She still didn't remember me," Olson said. The third time was when he picked her up at an airport. "That time she remembers," he said.

Farlow's recent work for National Geographic has included features on wild mustang horses and the Kentucky Derby. This summer, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America, Farlow was a role model for a teen-ager who has cystic fibrosis, but wonders if she can become a photographer for National Geographic. They took a ride in a small plane on the Pacific coast and Farlow showed her how to take aerial photos.

Talent for story-telling

Olson has photographed the importance of salmon to the remote Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia and the struggles of the Kara Tribe that lives along the Omo River in Ethiopia.

Story-telling, more than technical skill, is the central element of National Geographic photojournalism, Olson said.

"What I do, what Melissa and the other folks out on these stories do, is to think about it as a storyboard. It is a constantly challenging puzzle. You can never put it together perfectly, so it is a challenge that just doesn't go away."

He describes social documentary photography as the portrayal of people and cultures, from the Kara Tribe to the growing "comfort class" of China. "In social documentary photography there is a continuum. On one side there are photographers that want you to know how clever they are. When you see their photographs you see how talented they are with their color palette, layers, light, that kind of thing, and often subjects are just another element in the composition," Olson said. "On the other side of the continuum are photographers that want you to look at one of their photographs and see what the subject is thinking and feeling. The latter part is what drew me to photography and still interests me today."

In a press release announcing an exhibit of the couple's work last winter in Pittsburgh, Farlow stated, "We photograph real people--unexposed--and try to show them as they really are. Our hope is that a viewer will take from it the things we have in common with others that may seem so different, or to show reality with the viewer being the judge."

Olson prefers to travel light, with just a minimum of equipment. "I don't take very much, a roll-aboard with a few cameras and a few lenses, a strobe. I like to be unencumbered and allow things to happen in front of me that don't happen when you are coming at something with a lot of equipment."

He figures he was only the second National Geographic photographer to go digital. In the film days, he carried 35mm Nikon and Leica equipment and sometimes a medium-format Hasselblad or Mamiya. The National Geographic photographers used to number each roll of film and ship back the odd and even rolls in separate packages. "If a shipment was lost, the other half would have a chance of surviving." He now travels with three digital Canons and a Leica M9.

Adjusting to different cultures

Being as low-key as possible is one of the keys to photographing people in their natural state, he said. "Every culture is different. Some are very welcoming to photographers, some are very isolated. The family is a private place, not a place where a photographer comes in. You have to adjust to whatever you are thrown into.

"When I am photographing pygmies, (it's like) I have got a sign across my forehead that says 'I am from Mars.' They cannot stop looking at the camera, they cannot stop looking at me. That kind of culture you cannot work the same way you can work a goldsmith in India. He just thinks, 'I am doing my job and he is doing his job,' and he goes about what he is doing."

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National Geographic photographers hire assistants to guide them through foreign lands. "You have to hire not just a translator but someone who can make things work. We call them fixers," Olson said. "That person may be allied with a government or have good connections in the media, or something. Fixers" often are hired upon the recommendations of other National Geographic photographers who have worked in the same regions.

National Geographic journalists may not be the bush-whacking explorers the public may imagine, Olson said. "I go to places that are as remote as anywhere, way back in the Congo or remote parts of Sudan or Siberia, but there are only a few assignments where I am the only one who has been in this place. Where someone is thinking they would never go, there are often many people there. There are NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and there are a couple of Mormon kids with white shirts and black ties riding bicycles and trying to proselytize. There are just a few areas that are remote enough that there is no support and where you have to bring in all your food and guides."

These destinations usually do not feature luxury accommodations. "It is long days, it is hard travel, it is tiring," he said. "There are medical things you have to be careful about--malaria and lung infections and that kind of stuff."

Olson's magazine work takes him away from his homes in Oregon and Pittsburgh for four or more months each year. One year he was on the road for 11 months, but some of that time was spent with his wife as she handled a National Geographic assignment in the Alps.

Being married to an international photojournalist has been a plus for his marriage, Olson said. "The older generation of National Geographic photographers were mostly men who would stick some beautiful woman in a cabin out in the woods and go for away for a year then wonder why she was mad when he got back. I think it is better to be married to someone who understands what you do rather than someone who is in a very different kind of job who doesn't understand why you are doing this."

Assigning stories

National Geographic editors are more likely to assign their own story ideas but sometimes accept pitches from contributors, he said. "But the assignment can simply be, 'China's Middle Class,' and we (writer and photog) have to figure out the rest." Some stories repeat every decade or two and "there are different ones that pertain to specific events that cultures are going through, new discoveries, those kind of things.

"One of the reasons they spend so much money on these assignments is that we are trying to do things you can't find on the Internet. We are trying to be an original source. That fits with the mission of the (National Geographic) Society."

A close-range, underwater image of a fishing grizzly bear is one of the things you don't see everywhere else. One of Olson's most memorable photos appeared in National Geographic's August 2009 issue in the feature, "Where the Salmon Rule." It was picked as one of the magazine's ten best shots of the year; the ten photos were featured on a PBS special in March.

Part of life on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula are the bears who survive by eating the salmon that also support the human population. Olson spent hours on the bank of a lake waiting for a chance to catch a bear at close range. After all that time, he was able to shoot only two frames.

"I shot it with a remote underwater camera that was underwater for three or four days. The bear had to be two or three feet from the camera to register in that water because it was kind of murky. Because of the limitations of how the camera was tethered, it was only six or seven feet away from me.

"You couldn't really be down there firing the camera yourself because of the way these grizzly bears fish. They come bounding through the water where they think the fish may be. Once they step on something that feels squishy like a fish, they immediately go down and bite its head off. They didn't look at me as a food source, but if you were down there and the bear stepped on you and you felt squishy, it would not be good."

RELATED ARTICLE: Randy Olson's serendipitous career: the Olson clan.

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When Clarence Olson's small son Randy saw his dad with a camera he wanted one too. Randy soon got his own camera, though it was just a toy.

At the time, Clarence was a photographer for the Capital Times in Madison, WI. He later joined the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and spent 31 years there, two-thirds of that time as the book editor.

Randy's attachment to his camera didn't fade. He stuck with photography during his grade and high school years in Webster Groves and at the University of Kansas. He became a newspaper photographer and now, at 52, he is one of the top photographers for National Geographic. So is his wife, Melissa Farlow.

The Olsons--Clarence and his wife Arielle, and two other grown children--follow Randy's travels around the world and take pride in his accomplishments. But the whole family is accomplished.

Arielle North, which is her professional name, has long reviewed children's books and five of her own have been published. Middle child Christy Kennedy, has four children and lives in Lawrence, KS, were she is a free-lance editorial layout designer. Youngest son Jens has three children and is an electrical engineer, living in Saratoga, CA.

Hailed from Wisconsin

Clarence is now 82, but looks fit enough to work on a dairy farm, which he did as a youngster in Wisconsin. He entered the Navy near the end of World War II, but never got to use his radar training. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin he traveled the country working at odd jobs.

He returned to Wisconsin and learned to use a 4X5 Speed Graphic to take pictures for a centennial issue of the weekly Edgerton (WI) Reporter. It was there he met Arielle on a blind date. She was visiting from New Jersey where she worked for the Morristown Daily Record writing features and other articles. Her father, Sterling North, was a respected literary critic on the East Coast and author of 27 books. An annual award in his name is given to authors and artists who make a significant contribution to children's' literature.

Clarence's brother had set up the blind date and it blossomed into marriage. Clarence, who answers to the nickname Ole, got on the Capital Times as a photographer, thanks to his stint doing the centennial photos. Then, along came Randy.

The family came to St. Louis in 1959 where the other two children were born. Clarence worked on the Post-Dispatch's Sunday Pictures section and his editor, Julius Klyman "was the best editor I ever had ... I had to learn to write features."

Nonetheless, after 10 years Clarence accepted a job for a new magazine which was supposed to start up in California. The Olsons sold their house in St. Louis and bought another in Delmar, CA. But the magazine, to be called Careers Today, was scrapped by the parent owner Psychology Today, before it ever saw daylight.

The Olsons came back to St. Louis and Clarence went back to the Post. Though he lost 10 years of seniority he was given the job of book editor which had become open. He held that post for 21 years, retiring in 1991.

In 1995 the Olson's bought a second home on the coast of Oregon overlooking the Pacific ocean They live there half the year, wintering in their Webster Groves' home. The family likes to do reunions in Oregon where Randy and Melissa often join them. Though the traveling photographers call Pittsburgh home, they also bought a condo and a home in the Portland area.

Roy Malone

Rick Stoff, a former St. Louis Globe-Democrat reporter and editor, now practices public relations at his own firm, Stoff Communications.
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Author:Stoff, Rick
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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