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Wilbur E. Garrett dies; world photographer was 85

Bill Garrett signs a book at National Geographic

Bill Garrett signs a book at National Geographic Offices on Oct. 18, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Getty Images for TASCHEN America / Larry French

Wilbur E. “Bill” Garrett, a well-traveled photographer and onetime picture editor of National Geographic magazine, who was abruptly terminated as the magazine’s top editor in a policy disagreement, died Aug. 13 at his home in Great Falls, Virginia. He was 85.

The cause was a stroke, said a son, Kenneth Garrett.

Garrett left National Geographic in 1990 after 10 years as editor in a widely publicized dispute with the president and chairman of the National Geographic Society, Gilbert M. Grosvenor, scion of the family that had managed the society for a century.

Both men were reticent in public speech about Garrett’s departure, but others at National Geographic said its origins lay in a festering feud over Garrett’s intent to attract younger readers by breaking tradition and boosting coverage of current and controversial events.

On his watch, the magazine did stories on the postwar reconstruction of Vietnam, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, AIDS and “Growing Up in East Harlem.” Grosvenor, his boss and predecessor as top editor, was said to have favored closer adherence to the magazine’s time-tested fare, including photographic celebrations of nature and descriptions of global cultural customs.

Garrett joined National Geographic magazine as picture editor in 1954. His hiring was directed by Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the grandfather of Gilbert M. Grosvenor, and also a former National Geographic editor. The elder Grosvenor had seen some of Garrett’s work when the latter was a student at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism.

Wilbur Eugene Garrett, a native of Kansas City, Missouri, was born Sept. 4, 1930. He attended the University of Missouri intending to become an engineer, but his college years were interrupted by two years in the Navy. He was a photographer aboard an aircraft carrier during the Korean War. He returned to Missouri as a journalism student, graduating in 1954.

As National Geographic’s picture editor, he was responsible not only for photography but also for planning and editing stories. He began making annual trips to Vietnam in 1960, years before the U.S. became militarily committed to the Southeast Asian war. He went back year after year until 1968. The following year, he won the National Press Photographers Association’s Photographer of the Year award.

He then stopped visiting Vietnam because too many of his friends had been killed, and he no longer wanted to risk his life as a war photographer, his son Kenneth Garrett said.

Instead, he took pictures on the Colorado River, at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and at Mayan ruins in Belize and Guatemala. He combined picture-taking trips to Alaska with family vacations with his wife and sons.

When Garrett became editor of the National Geographic magazine in 1980, he made it a point to travel several weeks a year to a place he’d never been to before, just to expand his understanding of the planet, his son said.

Under Garrett’s leadership, the magazine published two of its best-known covers: “The Afghan Girl” in 1985 and the “holographic” cover in 1988.

“The Afghan Girl,” as she became known at National Geographic, was taken by photographer Steve McCurry at a refugee camp in Pakistan in December 1984. Initially, the photograph was passed over for publication, but Mr. Garrett was dissatisfied with the images that had been selected, and he looked through a box of excess pictures, finding the one of the Afghan girl.

Viewers would not forget that image: a girl, probably in her mid- to late teens, with piercing green eyes and a red shawl draped over her shoulders. It would become the only photograph to appear twice on the National Geographic cover, the second time for the magazine’s 125th anniversary issue in 2013.

For 17 years, she remained an enigma, an unknown and nameless woman whose face had become instantly recognizable to millions. In 2002, a National Geographic team was dispatched to find her. They found Sharbat Gula, then about 28 to 30 years old, living in the Afghan mountain region of Tora Bora.

The holographic image was published in December 1988, as the cover of National Geographic’s 100th-anniversary issue, with the theme “Can Man Save This Fragile Earth?” Depending on which angle it was viewed from, the hologram on the cover illustrated the planet earth as an intact terrestrial ball or as an exploding sphere.

After leaving National Geographic, Garrett maintained his interest in photography. There was always a camera on his kitchen table. He participated in a variety of conservation and eco-tourism activities and led a foundation to help preserve the Mayan ruins of Belize and Guatemala.

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Lucille Hall Garrett of Great Falls; a son, Kenneth L. Garrett of Broad Run, Virginia; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A son, Michael Dean Garrett, died in 2007.

In his years at the helm of National Geographic, Garrett was sometimes described as the chief of what came to be known as the “Missouri Mafia,” from what sometimes seemed to be a disproportionately large number of Missouri graduates at the magazine.

His editorial sessions were “dominated by a jocular authoritarianism,” a 1984 Washington Post article noted. “Writers and editors tend to go on about the moons of Saturn or religious festivals on Grenada. ... Out of those sessions, according to one who attends them, come ideas for unusual contemporary stores, such as ones on Burma, Kampuchea, children of the Dust Bowl, the shakeout from El Nino, and the global opium loop.”

As Garrett explained to The Washington Post, “We try to go to places that need to be explained. We get the stories that other people miss.”

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