If Luis Marden has a contemporary counterpart at the Geographic, it may be a bearded underwater photographer named Emory Kristof, 41. He does not speak several languages, and his interests tend to be too technical for most people to follow, but his objectives vary little from Marden's. They just cost a lot more. Romance for Kristof is deploying a robot in a thousand fathoms of salt water.
People in far-flung corners of the world don't say, "How's Emory Kristof?" because he isn't that well-known outside the Society. People at the Geographic say, "Emory's a wild man," even, "Emory's a pain in the ass." But they also say, "Emory delivers."
Kristof photographed tube worms in the Galapagos Rift, miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, with a remote-control robot he helped develop. It was Kristof who helped locate and photograph the wreck of the Breadalbane beneath the arctic ice, using banks of submerged 747 headlights. It is Kristof's -- and the Geographic's -- silicon-intensified target cameras with remote pan and tilt that monitor panda Ling Ling's sexual and maternal denouements at the National Zoo -- all for "reliability testing" for bigger projects undersea.
"I took a lot of the shallow water technology used by Marden and Bates Littlehales another Geographic photographer and tried to adapt it to deep water," Kristof says. "The oceans are the great unfinished business, one of two places where gross exploration can still be done," the other being space.
His shoes, propped on a desk in an office full of video and computer gear, look as if they were designed for bottom-walking; he also wears an open-necked shirt, the pocket stuffed with pens.
"I take a felt-tipped pen and draw diagrams on cocktail napkins in bars," he says of his work habits. "The first person they go to is Al Chandler, in the shop here. Al's a world-class machinist. He was part of the pit crew for racing prototype Corvettes in the '50s. He put up the big antenna in the Australian outback for NASA. He played backup guitar in Patsy Cline's band. He's an expert on silent weapons. I give all the cocktail napkins to Al, and it's up to him to take stainless steel and glass and neoprene and make something real."
Kristof heard about the Breadalbane, a 140-year-old ship, while diving beneath the ice cap at the North Pole with Joe McGuiness, a well-known Canadian diver. It was the sort of conversational situation that rarely comes up in ordinary life. "We were going down through a hole in the ice. We had to sit around between dives and, you know, warm up. Joe said he knew where the Breadalbane was."
The wreck lay under drifting pack ice; recovery seemed unlikely. Then Kristof heard about a robot that he thought could enter the wreck from above and take photographs. "I had to convince them here," he says. "I do some very esoteric things. If I say, for instance, that we have to spend $150,000 to look at animals with a solid-state camera" -- as he did in the Galapagos venture -- "people might think I've been smoking something funny."
Before going after the Breadalbane, Kristof wanted to find out what he could about cold, deep-water conditions.
"I talked the National Geographic into a story about Loch Ness. We put in a mid-water station for 53 days and made a wonderful collection of photographs of eelgrass on top of the lake and shoes on the bottom."
A colleague developed the theory that the Loch Ness monster was a Florsheim. "We had an expedition patch made up showing a monster eating a photographer. We called it the Loch Underwater Nessy Camera Hunt. In other words, LUNCH. As in 'Out to . . .' "
It became the second most popular story of the year. "That bailed us out," Kristof says. "We should have subtitled it, 'How We Took the Geographic for 60 Big Ones and Spent a Lovely Summer by a Quiet Scottish Lake.' "
The Breadalbane project required the deployment of a temporary village on the frozen ocean. The crew blasted through six feet of ice, covered the hole and lowered several large, very complicated and very expensive pieces of equipment to the ocean floor. Not only did they discover the Breadalbane, but they also brought up the steering wheel and toted it back for display.
Kristof says he thinks the project cost the National Geographic several hundred thousand dollars, but "I don't really know. It's a dangerous thing to talk about -- it blows all kind of whistles in accounting. In this business, if you back a loser long enough, it becomes a joke. Every time you tackle a new project, you can end up wearing it on your suit. If I spend several hundred thousand dollars and it doesn't work out, I'll be doing earthworm stories down in the parking lot."
The Galapagos Rift project involved the robot and a solid-state television camera. The Geographic, working with Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, photographed 15-foot tube worms and a whole ecosystem -- monstrous, hydralike creatures swaying in the glare of strobes. "It's based on chemosynthesis, the only plant system that doesn't eat toward the sun," Kristof explains. "We found animals eating back toward the source of the bacteria coming out of the earth. It's one of the most important discoveries underwater this century.
"I thought, 'I'm smoking my imaginary joint! It's real Tom Swift and his electrical grandmother!' Those moments are the great manifestations of this job. I don't want to make a movie about raiding the lost ark, I want to raid . . . I want real ships, real gold, real tube worms."
He estimates that his underwater projects have cost the Geographic $1 million. Now he wants to find and photograph the Titanic.
"It's all good science. It's where the Geographic should be. I don't know of any other organization that would let me romp and stomp over the world, and transfer Tom Swiftian dreams into reality. There's no other place like it in the world.
"I'm doing my best," Kristof adds, "to keep this place nonprofit."