The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Chris Johns Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Janice Dilg.

December 15, 2014


Christopher George Johns was born in Central Point, Oregon in 1951. His family moved to a small farm when he was eight, at which time Johns became active in 4-H. He graduated from Crater High School in 1969 and spent several months traveling around Oregon as the state president of Future Farmers of America. In Spring 1970 he entered OSU as an Agriculture major with the ambition of becoming a large animal veterinarian.

Johns' career path changed dramatically during his second year at OSU, when he took a journalism class. The professor who taught this class, Dr. Ron Lovell, became a mentor to Johns, coaching him in both journalism and photography. Johns' college roommate, Dennis Dimick - a future colleague at National Geographic - also supported Johns' growing fascination with photography and soon Johns became involved with the campus newspaper, The Barometer, as a sports photographer. This, in turn, led to an internship with the Corvallis Gazette-Times as a writer and photographer, as well as work with future Oregonian publisher Chris Anderson at the Albany Democrat-Herald during his senior year. That same year, Johns also became a copy editor for The Barometer and served on the University Publications Committee. While at OSU, Johns and The Barometer covered a wide array of memorable events relating to Vietnam War protests, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement, the bombing of an ROTC building, and the murder of Nancy Wyckoff, an OSU undergraduate who was stabbed to death in her dormitory room.

After graduating from OSU in 1974 with a degree in Technical Journalism, Johns studied photojournalism at the University of Minnesota, working during that time as a teaching assistant for R. Smith Schuneman, an accomplished photojournalist and businessman. Schuneman helped Johns obtain an internship at the Topeka (Kansas) Capital-Journal and, after completing the year-long internship, Johns accepted a permanent position with the newspaper, forgoing the remainder of his studies at Minnesota. In 1979, during his tenure at the Capital-Journal, Johns was named the National Newspaper Photographer of the Year.

That same year, Johns took a leave of absence from the newspaper to follow a crew of twenty firefighters working in Oregon just below Crater Lake National Park. This project led to his first connection with National Geographic magazine. At the end of the summer of 1979, Johns moved to the Seattle Times newspaper where we worked for three years before dedicating himself to full-time freelance work for Life, Time, and National Geographic.

In 1988 Johns was hired as a contract photographer for National Geographic and traveled to Africa to visit the Great Rift Valley. He was in Africa for two years and met the woman who would become his wife in Ethiopia. (They married in Nairobi, Kenya.) In 1991 Johns published his first book, Valley of Life: Africa's Great Rift, for which he supplied both text and photographs. He following that up in 1993 with photographs for Hawaii's Hidden Treasures (co-authored with Cynthia Ross Ramsay) and, in 2002, with Wild at Heart: Man and Beast in Southern Africa, another collaborative project, this time with essayist Peter Godwin.

In the late 1990s, Johns left the field and began work as part of the editorial team at National Geographic. In 2003 he became associate editor and, that same year, was named one of the world's twenty-five most important photographers by American Photo magazine. In 2005 Johns was named Editor in Chief of National Geographic, becoming the ninth person to occupy that position since the publication's founding in 1888. He was subsequently named Editor of the Year by Advertising Age Magazine in 2008, and he received an honorary doctorate from Indiana University in 2010. During his tenure as editor, National Geographic has received thirteen National Magazine Awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors, including Magazine of the Year in 2011.