James R. Larison’s “On Assignment” is a memoir of life as a National Geographic filmmaker. Many of us at some point in our photographic lives uttered, “Sure would love to work for Nat Geo.” I’ve been fortunate enough to be inside the National Geographic editorial offices on more than one occasion but never as a photographer on assignment. Closest I’ve come to that is assisting for folks who were working for Nat Geo. I was in the Nat Geo offices both for Blurb reasons and for knowing the right people reasons.
Of course I secretly stashed copies of my portfolio in the men’s room, ladies room, projection room, cafeteria and all other structures inside the compound. I’ve also been taken by Nat Geo staff to a swanky lunch at a Washington institution. This might all sound important, it’s not, but perhaps my favorite memory of being at the Nat Geo was an “accidental” photograph made in the photo booth in the lobby.
A colleague and I had just left a meeting and decided to both wedge in the booth. We captured a photograph that was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life, again by accident, and we created such a scene with our uncontrollable laughter that we were basically escorted out. Just thinking about this photo, even today, makes me howl.
James Larison, and his wife, captured and directed dozens of films and not just for National Geographic. They did this in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s which means they did it the hard way. Film. Entirely on film. These epic films, many of which are seared into our collective memory, were completed over astoundingly long periods of time, at least when compared to modern timelines.
This was custom building underwater housings for an ARRIFLEX then living on assignment for months at a time. I’m no expert, but I think the ARRI weighs just under nine thousand pounds.
The Larison’s worked as a family, not always but often. My parents took me to King’s Island amusement park where I won a stuffed alligator then turned to me and said “See, we take you places.” The Larisons, on the other hand, took homeschooling to a new level when “home” could be the Great Barrier Reef or some other exotic locale. (I actively graded my parents, to their face, and they ranked a consistent “D.”) What I like about this is it creates a solid new generation of human being. You simply can’t be exposed to this lifestyle and not come away with an appreciation for what the world provides and an appreciation for trying to save what’s left.
Larison dodged a bullet or two. Plane crashes, shark attacks and other furry creatures with teeth. One small addition that I don’t find small at all is the inclusion of a document the Nat Geo provided him while on assignment. I’m a total sucker for letterhead, typography and the succinct nature of editorial writers. I thought about tearing this page out and keeping it but my attempt failed after I got a paper cut.
If you are a photo-type or a doc film type or a Nat Geo type or all the above, well then, get it and read it. At one point he mentions boarding a flight with five Leica bodies. So there’s that. I enjoyed this book because finding story and finding the right moments to tell that story is so much a part of my DNA I can’t ever seem to get enough, even when someone else is doing the telling.