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Thomas J. Abercrombie; Photographer For National Geographic Magazine

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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006

Thomas J. Abercrombie, 75, a National Geographic magazine photographer and writer who negotiated countless near-death ordeals during his 38 years of world travel, died April 3 at Johns Hopkins Hospital of complications from open-heart surgery.

His escapades are legendary among the globe-trotting, adventuring set. Shortly after arriving at the magazine in 1956, he was sent from an assignment in Lebanon to Antarctica. Once there, he won a lottery to be the first journalist to the South Pole. The plane froze, and he was stranded in Antarctica for three weeks, prompting a superior to ban further flights "until the weather warms up to minus 50 degrees."

Mr. Abercrombie dived with Jacques Cousteau, which he said was "like swimming with a fish." While suffering from typhoid in the Himalayas, he amputated the frozen toes of a pilgrim as gangrene set in. He slipped off his yak in Afghanistan and narrowly escaped plunging into a 1,000-foot chasm. In Venezuela, he was knocked off the top of a mountain-climbing cable car and bore the scar to the end of his life.

In 1965, while traveling through Saudi Arabia's "Empty Quarter," his sport-utility vehicle broke down, forcing him to repair the radiator hose with items from his first-aid kit and patch another leak with a poultice of camel dung and barley paste.

"If you wanted to tell stories, he could tell them into the night. I used to kid that every story he had ended in a near-death experience," said Marlin Fitzwater, Ronald Reagan's and George H.W. Bush's presidential press secretary and Mr. Abercrombie's neighbor for the past decade in Shady Side, Md. "He didn't brag, which was a big part of his charm. He was a man's man and an intellectual to boot."

The tale that everyone tells is his filing of what is regarded as the single biggest expense account item at a magazine once known for its outsize budgets.

Details of the story vary, but Mr. Abercrombie, bound for an assignment in Alaska in the mid-1960s, learned to fly, bought a Cessna 180 and took off for the northwest. Once in Alaska, he discovered he needed pontoons for the aircraft, so he bought those, shot his photos and flew home, mooring alongside his property. He called the office and told it that the plane he expensed could be picked up there.

"It was the latter that set off alarm bells in the accounting department, which might have been willing to let the plane pass, but not one with floats," said former executive editor Bob Poole.

To be fair, Mr. Abercrombie sold the plane, so the magazine recouped most of the cost. And in those free-spending days, Mr. Abercrombie estimated that he bought and sold a dozen Land Rovers in the magazine's name in many remote lands where no car rental agencies operated.

For example, during the civil war in North Yemen, when paper currency was useless, he had to weld a stash of gold to a vehicle. He then listed two AK-47s on his expense report as "auto insurance."

The point of all those travels was to bring back photographs and stories of the world, and Mr. Abercrombie was one of the magazine's foreign staff who handled a camera and pen with equal dexterity, disparate abilities rarely found in the same person.

At the South Pole, "he wanted to take a picture symbolic of the pole that could be taken nowhere else on the planet. He made an all-night exposure straight up in the sky, the stars making concentric circles. That picture to this day symbolizes the poles," said Gilbert M. Grosvenor, chairman of the board of the National Geographic Society. Many of his photographs are still sold through the magazine and can be found on the Internet.

A stump of a man, with hands like catcher's mitts, "he could destroy the inside of a rental car before you got out of the parking lot," said photographer Jim Stanfield, who worked with him on several articles. After listening to Stanfield's tale of eating a dinner of deep-fried, garlic-encrusted rats, Mr. Abercrombie commented dryly, "I bet nobody asked for doggy bags."

A native of Stillwater, Minn., Mr. Abercrombie graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. His first photography job was with the Fargo, N.D., Forum newspaper, and then in 1953 he worked with the then-Milwaukee Journal, which was known for its great photojournalism.

Bob Gilka, then the Journal's picture editor and later director of photography at the Geographic, said the soft-spoken young photographer immediately made an impression. He covered the salvage of a sunken merchant ship by learning to dive, then built one of the first underwater camera housings.

Mr. Abercrombie received the 1954 Newspaper Photographer of the Year award (for a portfolio, but he always claimed disdainfully that it was for a staged photo of a robin eating a worm) and the 1958 Magazine Photographer of the Year award. He was the first photographer to win both. He switched primarily to writing about 1984 and worked closely with his wife of 53 years, Marilyn, also a National Geographer photographer, on many stories.

She survives him at their home in Shady Side. He also is survived by two children, Mari Abercrombie of Newburgh, Maine, and Bruce Abercrombie of Shady Side; a brother; and two grandchildren. A son, Jon, died in 1958.

His friends said he picked up languages as easily as most people pick up souvenirs: He was fluent in German, English, French, Spanish and Arabic, and he could fake it in Italian. Before oil transformed the economy of the Middle East, Mr. Abercrombie was a well-known presence in that corner of the world, and he became friends with the Saudi royal family.

Yet his travels were not all swashbuckling adventures. On an early trip to Lar, Iran, he came across the aftermath of an earthquake. "I don't know if you've ever smelled 10,000 dead bodies," he told a Baltimore Sun reporter in 1999, taking a deep draw on his pipe. "But it's something you'll never forget."

Over the years, he became the magazine's expert on the Arab world, and he was so impressed by Islam that he read the Koran in Arabic and became a Muslim. He made four pilgrimages to Mecca, where he took the first photographs of the city made for the Western world.

He griped in a 1995 oral history that "probably the best story I ever wrote" never saw print. It was an exploration of the Palestinians, titled "Defiant Diaspora," which he said was spiked because of an excess of political correctness.

In retirement, he taught geography at George Washington University. He also began building a skipjack, a single-mast shallow-draft Chesapeake fishing vessels, by hand. When several white oak trees in his front yard blew down in a storm, he milled the wood and used it for the boat.

In a 1991 National Geographic article about Ibn Battuta, a 14th-century Muslim Sufi who traveled 29 1/2 years in search of Mecca, Mr. Abercrombie wrote: "Ibn Battuta never dwells on what drove him on. Curiosity? . . . More likely it was a quest for knowledge. One never seduced by a foreign culture can never appreciate the fetters of his own. Life, after all, is a journey -- a voyage of discovery.

"Why not take the high road?"


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