Long Exposure: Our Friend Wentzel's 50 Year Adventure

Latest update April 5, 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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In The Field

A few weeks ago, we discussed how we needed to peruse the photo archive in order to unearth images from his assignments that were not published in the magazine. While Sara and I were reviewing images from Wentzel’s assignments in Sweden, India, and West Virginia, we found a couple of black and white negatives that appeared to have oddly raised bubbles within the negative. With neither of us knowing what type of deterioration was occurring, we went into research mode and contacted resources.


As a result of our research, it was determined that we have plasticizer exudation occurring. Plasticizer exudation occurs when the plastic that the image binds to begins to degrade. The plasticizer migrates from the acetate base and forms bubbles of crystals or liquids. To further confirm this diagnosis, we reached out to fellow colleagues at NGS in the Exploration Technology Lab and borrowed their microscope for a detailed look at this degradation. In one of the images below, the crystalline structure depicted is what we found within the bubble. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do to repair the image but we can prevent it from getting worse by placing these negatives into an even colder storage room. We may attempt to soften the contents of the bubbles enough that they will flatten enough to get a high-quality scan of the content but we will assess that at a later date.

For further information, please visit FilmCare.org

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One famous story in National Geographic lore is how Wentzel began a multi year project in India. Legend has it, he was told simply to “Do India.” Getting to the bottom of this story is something we wanted to find out since we started working on this project. Was it really that simple? Did he really not have any other instructions?


It turns out it was that simple. In his oral history Wentzel was called into Franklin Fisher’s office just after it was decided that the new 35mm Kodachrome film would be the preferred color photography film for the institution. Wentzel remembers standing in front of Fisher’s desk as he said the words “We would like to have you do India.” Things are not quite that simple anymore.

Wentzel knew almost nothing about the country, which at the time was still under British rule. He dug through his contacts and found a connection with an ethnographer at the National History Museum in New York City. She made a few in-country connections that helped him navigate the four year adventure ahead of him. While making these connections, Wentzel also gathered the cameras he would take - a Linhof, Roliflex, Leica, and Graflex in addition on a motion picture film camera. Also, each of these cameras had a different size of film (4x5, 120mm, 35mm, 5x7) which put him in the conundrum of how to manage all that gear while traveling the country. This much gear took up about 15 cases, which traveled with Wentzel via freighter to India. On a side note, current expeditions still take up to 12 cases of gear, but they are filled with RED cameras, lenses, and hard drives instead of film. It took Wentzel one solid month to get to India, passing through Cueta, Alexandria, and Suez before landing in Bombay (now known as Mumbai).

When he arrived, a fixer helped him get the 15 cases of camera equipment to Delhi. He still had no solution to his conundrum of how to travel the entire country with that much equipment. So, on the advice of his Natural History Museum contact, Wentzel called then Viceroy Wavel for help. Wentzel had heard of disposal yards full of vehicles no longer being used and Wavel helped him get access to a yard Kolkata. Of course, when he got there the vehicles were all wrecks, and nothing looked useful. He finally ran into an Indian army captain who helped after a little coaxing. Once the captain learned Wentzel worked for National Geographic he inquired, “Is there a way of becoming a member?” Wentzel responded with “Certainly, you can become a member if you help me get a vehicle.” The captain advised Wentzel to come back in a few days, and Wentzel returned to find an old WWII ambulance with a lousy battery and hand crack which he purchased for about $500. Later on the trip, Wentzel would paint the side of the ambulance with a map of India and “National Geographic Society Photo Survey of India” written in Urdu, Hindi, and English, making the vehicle look rather official.

So here Wentzel is, ready to go out and explore India and he received a worrisome letter from the finance department at National Geographic Society questioning why he withdrew the large sum of $500. But shortly after came a telegram from then president of National Geographic Society Gilbert H. Grosvenor, also known as GHG. The telegram said something along the lines of “Congratulations, acquisition National Geographic Photo Survey Car. Bon voyage.” And so begins one of the longest assignments Wentzel will carry out over his career at National Geographic.

Here is a letter from Wentzel to GHG at the start of the trip, along with a few photos and video of his trip. All of the film and the photos you see below were shot on 35mm Kodachrome film, showing off the brilliant red the film was known for.

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After finishing the assignment in West Virginia, Wentzel was sent to Sweden which marked his official graduation to staff photographer. He was handed a manuscript written by Elizabeth W. Wilson called(at the time) “Under Swedish Roofs and Skies.” Elizabeth had married a Swede and wrote about her experience as an American in Sweden visiting her husband’s ancestral farm. Wentzel was there to illustrate the article through photographs. They were up in lake country, which in his opinion is one of the prettiest parts of Sweden. Incidentally, Wentzel was in Sweden in 1939 at the time World War II broke out and was scheduled to head to Holland after completing his assignment in Sweden. He wired Mr. Fisher to ask if he still wanted him to head to Holland with these turn of events and thankfully, Mr. Fisher told Wentzel to “come home as quickly as possible.”


Here is what Wentzel had to say about being sent on assignment, “One of the annoying things was, you'd come back from an assignment, and you'd go down into the cafeteria and you'd sit there with the rest of the boys. I mean, there were these segregated dining rooms, which again was in the spirit of the time. It just was the way it was. In the dining room, then you'd sit down, and you'd be full of interesting experiences. They would talk about some things like, well, the latest Packard car or just little things, and that was kind of annoying, and they would say, "Oh, did you have a good time on your assignment?" as if assignments were a great lark. They were not; they were hard work, even if it was in a pleasant place like Sweden. You were always--and I learned that from Tony Stuart--you thought in terms of that damned color series. Tony was quite methodic about it. He would say, "Well, now, I need a lead picture, and I need this, and I need something to show some crafts, and something about folklore, and something about industry." He laid it out in his mind. So we all worked hard.”

Take a look at some of the pictures taken of Sweden.

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So, Wentzel started as a lab tech as did every staff photographer of that day. Everyone had to start at the bottom and work their way up to a staff position. While Wentzel played pranks and enjoyed the company of his fellow lab techs, he also paid close attention to the staff photographers above him. After all, he did not want to spend his whole life developing someone else’s photos.


B. Anthony Stewart also had a four decade long career photographing for the National Geographic Magazine. While his contemporaries were obsessed with new cameras and film emulsions, Stewart focused on his visual aesthetic. According to Wentzel, Stewart “...drank to much, produced good pictures…” and was a was a workhorse in the field. He set the example that the staff photographers should do every assignment given to them without complaint - whether it be documenting a banquet dinner or a far flung location.

Stewart not only set a good example as for the type of photographer one should be, he also ties directly to Wentzel’s first assignment in the field. Stewart was in the middle of documenting West Virginia when he was called off on assignment halfway around the world. Wentzel was asked to step in and finish the piece, bringing him back to the place he finished high school.

Both photographers had photos published in West Virginia articles in the August 1940 issue. But what was published hides the true differences in the visual styles. Wentzel had a straightforward aesthetic reflecting his German upbringing while Stewart was a bit more poetic. Stewart had mastered the use of layering his compositions, while Wentzel was still experimenting with form and shape. Wentzel’s photos are full from edge to edge, with people overlapping each other leading lines that take the viewer in and out of the frame. He focused on the feel of the culture of West Virginia, while Stewart isolated his subjects in his compositions and focused more on portraiture.

With his solid foundation Wentzel produced a quality of work that satisfied the editors enough to give him more assignments. His next assignment called him off early from West Virginia to photograph Sweden.

Below are two photographs by B. Anthony Stewart and two by Wentzel, all shot for the West Virginia story.

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Picking up from the end of our previously included clip, “Teenage Pipedream,” Wentzel received his photos back from the Royal Photographic Society and was walking past the National Geographic Society (when there was only there was only the main building on 16th Street in Washington, D.C.) and decided to stop in to see if he could receive a tour of the laboratories on site. It was around noon when a Ms. Haney suggested that there was a young man that could show him around. Once the tour began, Wentzel was thoroughly impressed. There were chemical mixing rooms with exhaust fans and tiled dark rooms, facilities which he had never had the opportunity to work in before. He was so impressed that he thought, “my God, if I could just wipe the floor here or mix chemicals, anything.” He asked his tour guide how one gets a job at National Geographic and Wentzel was instructed to head to the Eckington building and speak with Ms. Strider. So, Wentzel head to Eckington in a taxi which he described, “at the time, it was as if he was taking the Concord to Paris.” Upon arriving at Eckington and meeting Ms. Strider, Wentzel asked how to apply for a position, at which point, she gave him a form to fill out. It was at this point he realized he was still carrying the photos he had received back from the Royal Photographic Society and he offered to share his photos with her. Later in the year of 1936, Wentzel received a letter from the chief of the Illustrations Division, Mr. Franklin Fisher, requesting Wentzel to come in to see him, he was hired on the spot.


On January 2, 1937, Wentzel began his first day of what would be a forty-nine-year career. He began with mixing chemicals and was later assigned to a dark room. He was very proud of his darkroom and would keep a certain level of discipline of cleanliness in his space. But the lab guys knew how to have fun with the job too. In his oral history, Wentzel says “I mean, it wasn't all serious work. We'd do little tricks, like Wildung, who had Germanic punctuality, he did everything by the clock. At ten minutes of five, he would come out, look at the clock and so on, and get himself ready to go home. So one day Louis Marden and I, we set all the clocks ahead. We set the clocks to befuddle him. So poor Wildung was totally befuddled until he finally found out that it wasn't time to go home. Another thing we did with him, we put flashbulbs in all his safe lights and the printer. He came back from lunch and he'd flip on the light. Boom, there would be this flash, and there would be another flash. So we had a lot of fun. It's sort of ironic. Louis and I always made fun of some of the more patriarchal persons in this place, and we used to say to each other, "You know, we ought to have a couple beards in the cloakroom that we put on in the morning when we come in to look more dignified." [Laughter] But the place was dignified. You had to wear a coat in the hallway and all that sort of thing.

Take a look at this clip from a 1940 film that Louis Marden shot of National Geographic headquarters to get a feel for what it was like to work here back then. The attached photos are of various departments at NGS Headquarters from approximately around the 1930s.

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Knowing that our staff photographers wore many hats in the field, we know that we can’t illustrate his oral history solely with film or photos. When our photographers were in the field, they would shoot film, photos, write an article, and often lecture on their experiences upon arriving back in DC. As a result, the photographs and video often consist of differing content depending on the circumstance. One of the complications with old and large archives is that we often need to pull the original physical asset to determine preservation and digitization priorities.


You always need to start somewhere when beginning to digitize your collection and it had been decided many years ago to begin with the photographs that were published in the magazine. The published photos are only the tip of the iceberg in regards to the photographic content of an assignment. Often, a photographer would be on assignment for months at a time, or years at a time and send back hundreds of rolls of film. With 36 frames per roll and around 100 rolls of film....that around 3,600 images. For one assignment. About 20-30 photos would get published, leaving a lot of great material hiding in the archives.

We really wanted Wentzel to illustrate his oral history and decided to dive into the unpublished photos to find some gems that evoked the imagery he spoke of. We found a variety of negatives and sorted through the imagery while reading through his oral history to be sure our choices mirrored his story and the people he mentioned. We are eager to put faces with names and view landscapes the way he saw them so many years ago.

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Wentzel was eleven years old when his family immigrated to the United States in 1926. His father got a job with the Ansco Company, a photography glass plate, film, and paper manufacturer based in Binghamton, New York. Taking a steamer across, Wentzel remembered his fathers description of seeing New York for the first time: "It took eleven days in those days. We came in, in a foggy morning with all the fog horns going, and there out of the fog emerged the Statue of Liberty, and of course that meant new hope and all of that."


Oral History with Volkmar Wentzel, 10/03/1995

By the time Wentzel turned nineteen, he was restless and ready to leave home. He schemed with a friend to hitchhike from Binghamton to Rio, Brazil. Take a listen to the clip below to find out what came of their "teenage pipedream" that took them (literally) to the front steps of the White House.

As Wentzel spent more time in Washington, DC, he began working in the darkroom for Underwood and Underwood mixing chemicals and printing other photographers photographs. Of course, darkroom work wasn't enough. One of his earliest solo projects was inspired by a well known European photographer based in Paris.

Austro-Hungarian photographer Brassaï is mostly known for his photographs of Paris at night. Photographs of dreamy, empty, lantern lit streets and bars crowded with myriad characters that make up Paris's quirky nightlife. His book "Paris de Nuit" inspired Wentzel to do a similar project of DC at night. Though he avoided bars and nightclubs, Wentzel wandered the empty streets of Washington, DC, photographing monuments, fountains, and landmarks in a similar ethereal style for his book "Washington by Night."

Brassaï lived in Paris between WWI and WWII, when photography (and other art mediums) was undergoing a transformation in aesthetics. The surrealist circle of photographers, including Man Ray, sought to create fantastical images that tapped into the unconscious al la Freud, giving their images a dream-like essence that distorts reality. Around this same time, photography was gaining in popularity amongst the European illustrated press as a powerful communication tool. These photographers published images that straddled both the surrealist ethos and documentary, combining the artist principles of composition and form with documenting life.

Wentzel was not directly involved in this art movement, but took inspiration from Brassaï’s book. His photographs combines the surrealist fantasy with his own style which features more graphic lines and angles. Wentzel would soon begin working for the National Geographic Society full time (more on that to come), which favored a more straight documentary approach to photography. Wentzel would not dabble in art photography the same way again.

Also interesting to note is how much Paris has changed but DC's landmarks have stayed the same. You could walk around DC tonight, see the monuments (which is the best time to see them anyway), and imagine Wentzel photographing next to you.

Below is a photo of the Library of Congress from Wentzel's book "Washington by Night."

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It seems that Wentzel was destined for photography. Being born in Dresden in 1915, much of the egg-albumen paper used for photographic prints at that time were made in the city. Wentzel states, “you could smell the city miles away from the rotten egg albumen that was used in making these emulsions.” His father was an avid amauteur photogrpher from a young age with his first photos of his secret girlfriend sitting on a bench in Berlin. He later studied chemistry at the Photochemical University in Berlin and became a photochemist. Wentzel’s childhood memories are filled of his father with a camera. Memories like a magnesium powder flash used during Christmas plays the Wentzel siblings would put on. According to Wentzel it “...kind of ruined a lot of the dignity of the occasion because afterwards there was always that big cloud of smoke.” Take a listen to a portion of the oral history where Wentzel discusses a common punishment he and his siblings received involving a photo dark room.


My city also inspired my career. Being born and raised in Rochester, NY, Kodak was woven into the fabric of my being. I have a clear memory of my first camera - a Kodak, obviously, it had a purple casing with an emblem of Mickey Mouse. It was the Mickey-Matic with a flip eight bulb flash. My affinity for museums and cultural artifacts attracted me to pursuing a career in preservation and conservation. Through my studies and assessing which materials I was passionate about, I narrowed my interests to film preservation. As an adult, I have always collected photo and motion picture cameras, always marked “made in Rochester, NY.” Between my connection to Kodak and my collection, I was deeply affected by Kodak filing for bankruptcy. I felt an extreme desire to preserve my shared history with my hometown.

Sara did not grow up in a city surrounded by photography. But she still found the craft early in life. Many of Sara’s childhood memories involve taking photos, even just of family vacations. After one of these vacations, Sara had a few extra frames on a roll of film to use. These were the days before digital cameras were ubiquitous, and wasting any frame on a roll of film was like photography sacrilege. It was those last few frames of her dog that sparked something she hadn’t understood before. She got the photos back and they looked completely different from how she expected. So she began to learn more about photography and it didn’t take long for the 13 year old to be hooked. Sara studied Journalism and History in college, making the archives a natural fit for her two degrees.

So it seems like a by-product of our jobs is that Melissa and I still like to do things the analog way. Each of us printed out Wentzel's oral history, which we subsequently highlighted in bright pink (even though neither of us are really lovers of pink). This has always been my process. If I'm reading something and need to think critically about it, making margin notes and scribbles helps it sink it. Something about the physical act of highlighting on a piece of paper makes a huge difference.


Anyway, here is a photo different things we highlighted on the same page of Wentzel's oral history transcript. Melissa has a film and conservation background and I have a photo background, so often we are drawn to different anecdotes for different reasons. She loves his unquestioning ability to just go out and photograph. I love how photography surrounded him from birth and how he rubbed elbows with people who would go on to become well-known photojournalists (more on this later).

But on this page, we both found the same thing interesting: how he, quite literally, stumbled onto the steps of National Geographic headquarters. He walked in and asked to meet some of the darkroom staff as he was working in the darkroom for Underwood and Underwood at the time. Well, one meeting led to another and another and not long after he found himself in the darkrooms of National Geographic Society. But Wentzel would not stay in the darkroom for long.

We've included an audio clip that illustrates our first complication while reviewing the transcript of his oral history. The interviewer never questions Wentzel about one his travelogues along the various coasts of the Atlantic Ocean. The photos and footage he captured on this expedition are absolutely wonderful and we wanted to make sure we shared this story. The leader of this expedition was, Newman Bumstead, who was employed as a cartographer with the Society. When they returned from their adventure, Newman gave a lecture of their time away, this lecture audio may be our best option to include a first-hand account of their travels. Take a listen to the audio clip below of Bumstead's opening remarks of his lecture and for a fun anecdote about Wentzel and his interactions with penguins while on assignment. Because, who doesn't like penguins?

Also, here's a screenshot of how we are attempting to organize the jumble of film clips, photos, documents, and oral history highlights into something worth posting here. Its a work in progress right now, but don't worry! We won't post screenshots of excel spreadsheets on every post!

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Preparation

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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