National Geographic : 2006 Aug
He liked being married.In the Empty Quarterof Arabia, Tom and Lynn were traveling together when a local sheikh decided to claim Lynn, a tall, striking brunette he assumed to be Tom's daughter,as wife number four. He offered 30 camels for her. Tom countered with 50. Lynn and Tom's wedding, 1952 Japan and Cambodia, Tibet and Venezuela, Spain and Australia, Alaska and Brazil, and as the first photojournalist ever from the South Pole. But his most significant and enduring contribution surely lies in the 16 articles he produced on the Muslim world between 1956 and 1994, which guided GEOGRAPHIC'S readers through the glorious and tangled geography of what may be, now as then, the closest thing the Western world has to terra incognita. Abercrombie came to the Society in 1956, after a brief stint in the Army (scuttled by a foot fungus, which he'd picked up lifeguard ing) and work as a photographer for two mid western newspapers, the FargoForum and the Milwaukee Journal.Hard news coverage earned him Newspaper Photographer of the Year hon ors at the Journal,but it was a picture of a backyard bird-a robin tugging at a worm- that won the heart of GEOGRAPHIC'S Melville Bell Grosvenor, who said the picture could only have been taken by another robin. Abercrom bie flunked his GEOGRAPHIC physical-those feet again-but Editorial overruled Medical, and Tom was hired. He had never traveled outside the United States, but on his first overseas assignment, to Lebanon, he found that a short, gruff, good natured man from Minnesota could strike up a conversation with just about anybody. He lon gearingup for 5auaiArabia, 1965 interviewed Lebanon's president, Camille Chamoun, and made the notoriously stiff Chamoun so comfortable that he invited Tom to photograph him and his wife sprawled under a tree. And in a Lebanese town, Qabb Ilyas, he made his first visit to a mosque, an epiphany of sorts that he later described in the article: "After the service I mingled with the people, drifting with the human current out the door past a long line of beggars and down the nar row street. Walking and talking with them, I had a warm feeling of belonging; they seemed to accept me as one of their own." That moment, or something like it, played out thousands of times during Tom Abercrom bie's career, which brought him into close and welcome contact with the people of more than 80 nations. He often likened himself to a one man army when he set off into the field-in a customized Land Rover with metal gas cans lashed to the roof, a dozen or more hard cases, water jugs, sleeping bags, books, duct tape, baling wire, topographic maps, shrink wrapped rations, mounds of pipe tobacco, and, depending on local circumstances, a firearm or two-but humanity was his secret weapon. "Abercrombie was tough as nails, but he was incredibly gentle with people," says retired GEOGRAPHIC photographer Jim Stanfield, who traveled the Sahara with Tom in a 400-camel Portfolio View a retrospective of Abercrombie's photography at ngm.com/0608.