ALL IMAGES DAVID MCLAIN
There are few more coveted gigs in photography than National Geographic. Exotic travel, big feature length stories, and one of the most respected names in photography—it’s a photographer’s dream. So how do you get the gig? Sony Artisan of Imagery David McLain has been a regular photographer for National Geographic for the better part of his career. He knows what it takes to get there and he wants you to know one thing. You don’t just show up one day and shoot for National Geographic.
“It’s a slow evolution,” McLain says of his career trajectory. “It’s a lifelong devotion to your craft and a lifelong devotion to being a good mentee, being a nice person and being the type of person that people want to help.”
McLain may be best known for National Geographic but he has spent his career shooting every type of photography that piqued his interest. He’s shot commercial, editorial, travel, and lifestyle. He’s worked for magazines such as Men’s Journal, Outside Magazine, and Ski Magazine. One might say he’s eclectic but there is a common thread—he’s a storyteller. His business is in seeing stories and, when he tells his, you start to see his tireless work ethic.
McLain talks a lot about mentors. He has had many and each played their part in his career. It all started when McLain first fell in love with photography in high school, when his father bought a camera that he never used. McLain picked it up and began shooting relentlessly. His high school yearbook teacher saw his passion and helped get a darkroom built at the school for him to use.
Around the same time, McLain met a local photographer who freelanced for many major publications such as Reuters, the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and Newsweek. The photographer took a liking to him and took him in as his apprentice. McLain carried his bags and worked for free as his assistant, learning all that he could about the craft and business of photography. The photographer got offered tons of work from various publications and, inevitably, was not able to take on all the assignments. When he couldn’t take assignments, he passed them off to McLain, who shot them with gusto.
As McLain tells it, in high school, he was stringing for the New York Times and the Associated Press and making enough money to buy all the pro gear he would need. When he got to Syracuse University, he took on a job as the Daily Orange’s photo editor and continued to string. He didn’t study photography but he got all the photographic education he needed because he was constantly shooting.
After college, McLain traveled in Asia for two years, after getting the travel bug while studying abroad in Germany. The experience was formative and was key in shaping his “point of view,” which he maintains is the most important asset a photographer has, especially in an age where the technical barriers to photography are so low.
“Point of view has always been a photographer’s most important asset because you can’t buy it,” says McLain. ‘It is bigger than photography.”
After traveling, McLain worked at several small newspapers for a few years before he decided to move to Maine and become a freelancer. McLain knew that Jose Azel, a famous National Geographic photographer, also lived in Maine. Before moving, he contacted Azel in the hopes that he too might take McLain under his wing. After moving, he met with Azel many times and, after one of their meetings, Azel sent him a newspaper clipping.
It was for a small story in the Wall Street Journal about an obscure South American bug named Cochineal. The bug used to be the main source of red dye in the world and since has been used for a variety of pharmaceutical applications, such as the coloration of cranberry juice and the coating of Advil. At one point in time, Cochineal was worth more than its weight in gold. Azel suggested that it would be a great story and that McLain should shoot it. He agreed. With his own money and on his own time, McLain traveled to Peru for two weeks, shot the story, and handed the work to Azel.
It was at that point that Azel knew McLain was serious. Like McLain’s first photographic mentor, Azel would pass McLain assignments from magazines that he didn’t have time to do. It gave McLain a foot into the exclusive editorial magazine world.
After five or six years watching McLain build up his magazine clips in Maine, Azel decided it was time for McLain to get a shot at the big show. Azel took him down to Washington D.C., for a meeting with the director of photography at National Geographic. The director gave McLain what he called a “make-believe assignment.” According to McLain, at the time, National Geographic had a slush fund that they would use to give young photographers test assignments. The assignment was to shoot a mid-summer archeological dig in Missouri.
“It was a mud pit, next to a muddy river,” says McLain. “If they found a fleck of bone it was a big deal. There was very little to photograph.”
Even so, McLain was relentless. He shot for 18 hours a day for two weeks before returning home. To his surprise, the director of photography loved what he shot and wanted to give him another try. They started giving him short assignments and, after several of those, he got his first feature.
After telling his story, McLain apologizes. He knows it was long-winded.
“If you plot the curve of that, it’s over a twenty year period,” says McLain. “It’s a slow and steady move upwards.”
McLain is wary of young photographers today who try to mimic the career trajectories of Internet start-up pioneers, where they go from zero to 50 million dollars in a year. He knows those curves exist, due in large part to the Internet and the lower technical learning curve of photography today, but he’s a firm believer in a “pay-your-dues, work-as-hard-as-you-can” mentality.
He knows his advice isn’t sexy but that’s not the point. It’s your dream job. It’s not supposed to be easy.