About Nathan Benn
I had the extraordinary good fortune to serve on the photographic staff for the National Geographic Society from 1972 into 1991. During my tenure as an NGS Contract Photographer, 300 of my photographs were published in National Geographic Magazine, and hundreds more in numerous NGS books. I am especially grateful to Robert E. Gilka, the legendary Director of Photography at National Geographic for nearly three decades. Mr. Gilka hired me as a green, but eager summer intern in 1972. He tolerated my mischief with patience and encouragement and afforded me the best job in the world. I often describe my career as a NGS photographer as a twenty-year graduate course in the humanities — with a generous expense account.
Even the best job in the world has a season. By 1990 I was frustrated that I did not see an opportunity for further creative growth at National Geographic and feared burnout. At the same time, and in collaboration with NGS colleague Cary Wolinsky, I developed an interest in emerging digital technology and began to see the challenges and opportunities for photography in digital media. I decided that 1991 would become my sabbatical year and perhaps a permanent transition to a post-photographer career. I packed up my Leicas, Nikons, and Hasselblads, put 350,000 transparencies into storage, and jumped ship. Eighteen years later I have yet to regret the choice.
With Cary, Jeff Weiss, and funding from SRA International and Tribune Company, we started Picture Network International (PNI), the first “internet portal” to sell stock photography online. “Seymour,” PNI’s first online service, was launched in 1993, three years ahead of online services from Corbis and Getty Images. Seymour introduced the paradigm of keyword search, thumbnail results, online lightboxes and shopping carts, interactive rights-managed pricing, and fully automated 24/7 licensing. All subsequent online stock photography services utilize methods and technologies that were first developed and introduced by PNI. During the decade that online commerce emerged, stock photography grew from annual revenues of $200 million to $2 billion.
Eastman Kodak purchased PNI in 1997. Kodak later spun PNI off as eMotion.com (now Artesia On Demand) to Corbis and PictureQuest to Jupiter Images.
In early 2000 I became Director of Magnum Photos Inc., the prestigious agency of documentary photographers. During my term at Magnum we published the award-winning books RFK Funeral Train and New York September 11 by Magnum Photographers. I was fortunate to work for, represent, and develop friendships with many legendary photographers including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cornell Capa, Elliott Erwitt, Bruce Davidson, Leonard Freed, Inge Morath, Jim Nachtwey, Martin Parr, Susan Meiselas. The idea of being the “Director of Magnum” is widely considered to be an oxymoron, but I consider my three years at Magnum as one of the richest and most satisfying episodes in my career.
After leaving Magnum I turned my attention to my long neglected archive from my decades at National Geographic. After years of facilitating distribution of other people’s photographs, I enjoy editing and digitizing my own images. In 2008 I began an initiative to increase findability of my images by developing subject-specific picture sites based on the topics that I photographed. My intention is to enable people to find my images directly through popular search engines, rather than restricting my images to deep web search at portals such as Corbis and Alamy. It will take some time to see if this initiative results in more awareness and utilization of my photographs, but it is a good target for organizing one’s archive.
In addition to editing and digitizing my photographic archive, I work on business development for Orange Logic LLC, an internet-services company that manages 4 million pictures globally including the picture libraries of the Reuters, Magnum Photos, Art + Commerce, Art Resources, Greenpeace, and UNICEF. I also serve as a trustee for the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film (www.eastmanhouse.org). At GEH I chair the Committee on Interpretation and Education. I am especially interested in initiatives related to increasing virtual access to the museum’s collections and expertise.
I am a native of South Florida and graduate of the University of Miami. I live in Manhattan with my wife Rebecca Abrams, a fine arts photographer and our son Augie. As avocation, I find much satisfaction in studies related to American decorative arts of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly mahogany furniture of Salem, Boston, Newport, Providence, and New York. Cabinetmakers of the eighteenth century worked with limited tools, often for clients of conservative taste, to fashion useful and practical objects that also expressed their personal creativity and pride. As a National Geographic photographer in the late twentieth century, I felt a keen affinity for the art and craft of these cabinetmakers and the tangible fruits of their labor.
New York City
March 22, 2009