Long Exposure: Our Friend Wentzel's 50 Year Adventure

Latest update January 11, 2019 Started on January 4, 2019
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Volkmar Wentzel spent nearly 50 years as a staff photographer, leaving behind a myriad of stories of exploration from the mid 20th century. We will share here what we unearth about his adventurous life.

January 4, 2019
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Preparation Stage

If you haven't seen this film, definitely find a way to do so.


Peter Jackson, whom you may know from the "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" movies, is also a big history buff. In one of his recent projects he teamed up with the Imperial War Museum in London to create a film about WWI - with two caveats: all footage must come from the Imperial War Museum collection (which has over 32,000 hours of footage), and it must be more than just another history documentary.

So, Jackson set about the monolithic task of colorizing never before seen historic footage. The result of this painstaking work is the film "They Shall Not Grow Old" which strings together film clips from trainings, the front line, and all manner of life of the men fighting in the war. Overlaid with oral interviews from veterans, this film is visually stunning and an innovative take on a war so many of us have only seen silently and in black and white.

We recently saw this movie here in DC and walked away totally inspired. Can we do something like this in our archives? We do have nearly 770,000 hours of footage and lots of oral histories to play with.

But where do we start with? Which photographer should we use? Or what expedition?

Well, one of our favorite old staff photographers is Volkmar Wentzel. His nearly half a century spent with National Geographic left a large legacy of film, photos, and letters documenting his travels. His oral history gave us a view into who he was as a person, and we also love his character. So he seemed the natural fit for this project.

Maybe we'll try to overlay some of his oral history with the film and photos from individual assignments. Maybe we'll try to colorize some of his early work. Either way, we are pretty excited to be able to dive deep into his past and work our creative muscles to make something new.

Expedition Background

Recenty, Peter Jackson released a film of colorized WWI archival film footage titled "They Shall Not Grow Old." After seeing the film, National Geographic Society archivists were inspired to take on a similar project with material from the NGS archives. Who better to start with than Volkmar Wentzel, the favorite photographer of Melissa, Senior Film Archives Technician and Sara, Senior Photo Archivist.


“(My mother) would read us stories from Sven Hedin explorations. Sven Hedin was a noted Swedish explorer. I'll never forget one story that she read of how they were crossing the Gobi Desert, and they didn't have any water, and they were all thirsty and just practically at their wits' end. Two members of the expedition, they took some aquavit or vodka or something like that--what is that Swedish drink, a very strong drink? -- And they mixed it with the camel's urine and drank it, and that made them go absolutely mad and berserk, and they ran out into the Gobi Desert and were never seen again. Well, that sort of adventure story made a great impression on me.”

  • Oral History with Volkmar Wentzel, 10/03/1995

Wentzel traveled extensively over his 49 years working for National Geographic. He dedicated years to one subject, amassing large collections of photographs and film from every assignment. Here, we seek to bring to light the quirky nature of this photographer and highlight photos and footage that has not been published before.

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