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The World According to Donna Grosvenor
Episode 424th February 2021 • The World According To • Michael Carychao
00:00:00 01:07:27

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Michael Carychao: [00:00:08] Welcome to the fourth episode of The World According To, a podcast that explores the unique worldviews of amazing people. In this episode I had the great pleasure of visiting the world according to Donna Grosvenor. We talk about her adventures as a photographer for National Geographic in the sixties, about being a yoga teacher with a flexible attitude towards perfection, about living with cancer, about the importance of love, and so much more . . . I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. Welcome to the world according to Donna Grosvenor.

Welcome, Donna Grosvenor.

Donna Grosvenor: [00:00:58] Well, it's always been a delight because I've been speaking with you for a lot of years.

Michael Carychao: [00:01:02] I feel like our conversation has continued even in our absences.

Donna Grosvenor: [00:01:07] Oh, it has, because we have all these connections through my daughter and through your sister, who is my other daughter and lives here in Santa Fe with your beautiful mother. I have all those connections to you and your lovely wife and your boys.

Michael Carychao: [00:01:23] Can you tell us about your name?

Donna Grosvenor: [00:01:28] Well, I've never paid very much attention to heritage. I have to tell you that. But, I do know that William de Grosvenor was with William the Conqueror in 1066. And I guess the name means Fat Hunter. So I guess he was in charge of the hunting for William the Conqueror. I also have Scottish roots. My maiden name, Kerkam, was three generations in the District of Columbia, in Washington, DC.

Michael Carychao: [00:02:01] So you've been a photographer pretty much all your life. Is that right?

Donna Grosvenor: [00:02:06] I wasn't even an amateur photographer, Michael. I went to work for the Geographic after college and met my husband, Gilbert, and we started doing assignments for National Geographic together. And the Geographic photo department decided it would be a great thing if I learned how to take pictures, because I could photograph women that Gilbert couldn't even talk to. You know, this was the 1960s and there were lots of places where women were very sheltered from any publicity or advertising or magazine people. And so I was taken under the wing of the photographers at Geographic, and they taught me how to shoot. I really loved it and I got into it deeply. The head of photography, Bob Gilka, decided he would send me to the Missouri Photo Workshop, which is still going on. It's, I think, in its 70th year.

They would send top photographers from all over the country to a small town in Missouri, a different town every year and the 39 or so participants would be chosen to go to this workshop as students to learn how to do "truth in photography" shooting. There were no posing of pictures. There was no setup allowed. Of course, it's all pre-digital. Photography was very different then. They chose a town called Marshall, Missouri. I was sent there and I had to pick a story to do that was sort of representative of the town. You had to get permission from the person you wanted to shoot the story about, and then you had to get approval from all these top photographers who had come from Life and Look magazine and all these places all around the country to be the faculty at this workshop. It was a week long. I started subscribing to the Marshall, Missouri newspaper about two months before the workshop. I was, of course, petrified because I was a new photographer. I hadn't been shooting very long.

So we went to Marshall, Missouri. I remember getting up at four o'clock in the morning to line up to get my story approved, because I knew other people might be wanting to do the same story, which was on the country veterinarian, because it was a rural community. Lots of cows and pigs and horses.

I was first in line and I got approval and I started following this country vet. You couldn't set up anything, but you could shoot three rolls of film that you turned in at the end of the day and it was processed. Then you'd meet with all the faculty and the students after dinner and they would critique the photographs that had come in and whether it was furthering your story or your essay. And it was brutal. I mean, it was really brutal. But I learned a great deal and I made several new friends and I did get a couple of pictures chosen for the final exhibit. But it was really a trial by fire. But it was very educational. It was very educational.

The most important lesson is "F/8 and Be There." You have to get up early and go and you have to be there to get the photographs.

Michael Carychao: [00:05:36] What were some of the lessons that you learned from those workshops? What did the fire teach you?

Donna Grosvenor: [00:05:44] The most important lesson is "F/8 and Be There."

You have to get up early and go and you have to be there to get the photographs. This was a time when—you know, now you can reshoot everything on your phone or on your digital camera, but then you couldn't do it. If you missed it, you missed it.

So you had to really plan ahead and you really had to have to know what you were aiming for. You had to have an essay in mind. That was great training to do that. I remember following the vet, but I had to ask him first. He was quite attractive. The first thing he did was, he said, "I have to have you meet my wife."

So I had to get the approval of the vet's wife to follow him around for a week.

I had to get up at four o'clock in the morning every day to go out and vaccinate pigs and castrate horses and do all these things that I ended up having to do. It was really very, very enlightening.

I was following him around and we went one day to a cattle auction where he was the visiting vet at the cattle auction. I was walking back among the stalls, where they kept all the animals, and this piglet escaped from one of the stalls. And I, being as naive as I was, carrying my cameras on my shoulder, tried to stop this pig that was running down the aisle.

And this little piglet upended me in about five seconds and I crashed onto the concrete, my cameras falling on all sides, and I took the skin off both my knees. The vet—my vet—came and sprayed my knees with gentian violet, which I don't know if you know about it? It's purple—

Michael Carychao: [00:07:43] I don't know about it.

Donna Grosvenor: [00:07:43] —and it does not come off.

And so when I got back to the Geographic at the end of my photo workshop, Bob Gilka got on the elevator, the day I got in the elevator to go up. He didn't say anything. He just reached over and lifted up the edge of my skirt to see the gentian violet and that's all he needed to do because I found out that he was following everything I was doing at the workshop by just that one gesture.

Michael Carychao: [00:08:19] Right.

Donna Grosvenor: [00:08:19] He was the legendary head of photography at Geographic. He championed women photographers in those days. This was in the sixties and there were not many of us that were out there shooting on assignment. So that was one of my favorite stories about the Geographic, was Bob Gilka lifting up my skirt and not saying a thing.

Michael Carychao: [00:08:44] You could tell it all from that gesture.

Donna Grosvenor: [00:08:46] You really could.

Michael Carychao: [00:08:48] When you're going around on those trips with the veterinarian and you're looking for pictures, what pictures pop out? What images were you looking for?

Donna Grosvenor: [00:08:57] You had to have a sense of what his life was like, what his daily life was like. He started very early and he would go out and he would wear a vest that had syringes and all sorts of things in the pockets, a multi-pocketed vest. He would pull out the syringe and give them a vaccination.

Then he would pull out the knife and cut off the testicles of the pigs and he even gelded a horse while I was there. Those were his sort of typical days. I had pictures of him at the end, walking home with his dog following behind him. It was to give a picture of what his life was like, on a daily basis. But you didn't know from one day to the next what he was going to be doing.

I remember one time we were going to somebody's farm and there was a fence to climb over. The farmer, who was there with us, reached over to help me get over the fence. My veterinarian said, "She doesn't need your help. She can handle herself." That was a nice indication that he figured I was okay and I could do my job. The first thing you learn as a woman photographer is: you better carry your own equipment. You don't ask the guys to carry your cameras. Ever.

The first thing you learn as a woman photographer is: you better carry your own equipment. You don't ask the guys to carry your cameras. Ever.

Michael Carychao: [00:10:25] It's hard to put yourself back into the sixties.

Donna Grosvenor: [00:10:31] It's really hard. The thing is that photography was so different. It was so different. When you went out on assignment, the cheapest commodity was your film, because there was no digital and there was no instant processing. We had to find a pilo—when we were in remote places, in Asia—we'd have to find a Pan-Am pilot who was willing to take our film from us and deliver it to the Geographic.

And then we had photo editors at Geographic who would see the processed film and let us know, by cable or long distance phone call, that we'd gotten the pictures for whatever event it was. We were photographing in tropical places. You had to find a way to keep your film cool, because it could be ruined.

We had to wait days to find out if we got the pictures we were taking. And most of those things were one-shot deals, like the Perahera in Sri Lanka, which was a hundred decorated elephants parading in the streets for this festival. You either got the pictures or you didn't. You were either in the right spot or you weren't.

It was very challenging.

Michael Carychao: [00:11:55] What's it like to shoot blind like that? Do you feel like you're taking pictures differently now that it's a digital age?

Donna Grosvenor: [00:12:02] Oh, sure. Because everybody's doing it now, and it's instant results; but then, you had no idea. So film was your cheapest commodity. We shot a lot of film.

Michael Carychao: [00:12:15] Is there anything that was an advantage to not having the instant feedback of the picture?

Donna Grosvenor: [00:12:25] I would say it kept you on your toes. It definitely kept us on alert. You have to remember that a lot of the places were very exotic places. People were not traveling everywhere. If you were going to Sri Lanka when it was called Ceylon, nobody had been there taking color pictures for 30 years.

They had a new government that was coming in, a democratic government after the communist government. So they were eager to have us be there. We had access that we probably would never have had without that. Of course, Geographic got access because we were nonpolitical. That gave you access in places you couldn't have gotten into. It was very exciting and stressful all at the same time. I actually had been to a couple of places in the North of Bali where they hadn't seen white women. It was just a different world, Michael. It was thrilling for me. I loved every minute of it.

We were doing these assignments together that, if I knew how to take pictures, I could photograph women where there were still many places where women were protected from strangers, and particularly men.

I could photograph women where there were still many places where women were protected from strangers, and particularly men.

Michael Carychao: [00:13:53] What did you see? What did you get access to in the lives of women that otherwise wouldn't have been seen?

Donna Grosvenor: [00:14:02] Everything. Because women's lives are pretty much alike, even in places where they have fewer rights and fewer privileges in the sixties. All the same demands were on women: to have the children and to bear the children and to raise the children. We all had common interests and that was very, very helpful. It gave me access.

Where there was a language barrier, body language always helps. There was a lot of curiosity and it was a very amazing time because so many of the places that I went had not been photographed or done. The first thing we did was to go on the Nile on the boat called the Yankee with Exy and Irving Johnson who sailed their boat on the Nile for a story for Geographic.

We joined that trip and sailed the Nile and this was just at the time when the Aswan Dam was being built. All these villages along the Nile were being evacuated because the water was going to flood them all. We got to walk in these villages that were deserted. The only thing they had to leave behind were their dogs. There were all these wild dogs running around in these villages that were going to be flooded. Signs of their domestic life were everywhere. But there were no people.

Signs of their domestic life were everywhere. But there were no people.

Michael Carychao: [00:15:45] Right.

Donna Grosvenor: [00:15:46] Nobody. As we were sailing the Nile, it was just at the time when they were talking about relocating the temple of Abu Simbel—you know, Ramsey the Second and Nefertari—their temple in Nubia on the Nile was going to be flooded like so many famous temples.

They were just starting to discuss how to disassemble Abu Simbel and rebuild it on a higher ground so that it would survive. It was part of the precursor to a lot of temple-saving all over the world because it worked so well.

I got hoisted off the bowsprit of the Yankee at the feet of Abu Simbel. It was quite an amazing experience. That was in 1964-5.

And then we went to Africa with the Leakey family after that and had wonderful experiences with Louis and Mary Leakey and Richard Leakey, who is now the sort of the older generation of that family. He's still alive and has fought against the ivory trade and all those things—and had his plane blown up.

These were the days when, in Nairobi, the streets were all dirt roads still. And two minutes outside of Nairobi, you were in country that had wild game in it. The new Stanley Hotel—literally there was a dirt driveway up to the door. Ten years later I went back; I wouldn't have known where I was.

I got hoisted off the bowsprit of the Yankee at the feet of Abu Simbel.

Michael Carychao: [00:17:39] You really got to see this transformation.

Donna Grosvenor: [00:17:42] I really did. If you've ever seen Out of Africa, the film, I got to see it just about those days—a little bit later. It was still a wild place and it has become much more urbanized, but it was still wild with their roads right up to the door of the new Stanley Hotel.

When I first went there in 64. 63, I guess.

I wasn't doing the story on the Leakey family, other photographers were doing it. We were there having a trip to meet them and familiarize ourselves. We became very close with Richard at that point and have stayed close with him and our daughter, your friend, Lexie stayed with the family. She named her daughter Samira, which is the name of Richard's daughter—one of his daughters. And they became friends. So that was a lovely connection that was maintained over the years.

The first stories we did were the Nile and Africa with the Leaky's, but we also did a story on Monaco in 1963 and then in Copenhagen in 1964. I remember going to a spa in Copenhagen where they made all the women's strip and jump in this cold pool. Hanging on a rope and jumping in a cold pool. That was a whole new experience me.

I remember going to a spa in Copenhagen where they made all the women's strip and jump in this cold pool.

Then after that we did a story on Sri Lanka, which was still called Ceylon in 1966. No one had done color photographs of it. They had a new westward-leaning prime minister, Dudley Senanayake. And so we had absolute access to the whole country and it is the most beautiful, spectacular place.

There were events like the Perahera with a hundred decorated elephants. I remember once they put me on the back of an elephant and that elephant wanted to go in the water and there was nothing I could do to keep it from going in the water. And the mahouts had to come and help him get out of the water, but I was wet to the hips before they turned him around. That was really exciting.

Michael Carychao: [00:20:15] When you're on assignment like this, do you go back to the States in between?

Donna Grosvenor: [00:20:19] No. It's usually a month or two. A month or two full-tilt. And of course in those days there was no way to buy anything you needed that you didn't have with you from film to personal effects to anything. If you hadn't brought it, you weren't going to get it.

If you hadn't brought it, you weren't going to get it.

Michael Carychao: [00:20:39] What did your travel kit look like? What were some of the essential items?

Donna Grosvenor: [00:20:43] Well, you had to be absolutely sure if you needed any medications, which I didn't then. You had to have that with you. You had to be sure all your camera equipment and film were there. That was the most important thing. And you had to have very wearable, washable clothing and very little of it.

You went lean and mean.

You went lean and mean. Now, you had an extra pair of shoes, for working. That was always critical. And, you had to know— mean, we did a lot of research before we went on these trips. So we knew what the temperatures were likely to be. We knew what altitudes it was going to be, and we prepared accordingly.

Michael Carychao: [00:21:24] So what does this research look like? Are you at National Geographic? Do they have a Research facility?

Donna Grosvenor: [00:21:30] Oh, sure they do. We have researchers who will help you look up stuff and there's a library and there's all of that. They were doing research and we knew what the big events were going to be. You know, you have to do a lot of homework...