Long Exposure: Our Friend Wentzel's 50 Year Adventure

Latest update February 15, 2019 Started on January 4, 2019

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

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We really wanted Wentzel to illustrate his oral history and decided to dive into the unpublished photos to find some gems that evoked the imagery he spoke of.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."


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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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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