Life as a photographer: James P. Blair reflects on ‘Being There’

MIDDLEBURY — To a room of more than 20 guests, James P. Blair stood strongly in front of his oxygen machine and welcomed the audience to the opening of his retrospective exhibit in the Middlebury College Museum of Art. “Being There: Photographs by James P. Blair” opened on Friday, May 24, and in 50 images traces the 88-year-old’s career as a photographer with National Geographic Magazine.
“This is a remarkable experience for me,” Blair said on Friday.
Perhaps the fact that his work is in a gallery isn’t that remarkable. After all Blair has shown his work in Iran, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and his photographs are represented in the permanent collections of the National Portrait Gallery (Washington, D.C.), the Museum of Modern Art (New York City), the Portland Museum of Art (Maine) and the Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh). And now his work is represented by Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury.
What’s remarkable then?
It became clear as Blair talked about how it all began.
“I am a documentary photographer — I was a student of Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago… Harry’s sink was right next to mine in the darkroom,” said Blair, remembering back to his days as a student. “He would give me little tips all the time… it was pretty remarkable to have a relationship between a student and a professor like that.”
Siskind asked Blair to take pictures for the Chicago Housing Authority for his final project.
“They were doing ‘urban renewal’ projects all over the South Side,” Blair writes in his artist statement on the Edgewater Gallery website. “So, in the early spring I went to the old, almost destroyed, neighborhood in the other end of town with a social worker from the CHA and she introduced me to Mr. and Mrs. Armister Henton. The idea was to show the ‘before’ life in this condemned house and then the ‘after’ when the family moved into a brand new high rise apartment building.”
Blair spent six weeks with the Henton family in their home.
“It was unusual to have a white boy spending time with a black family,” he said remembering that time last week. “I didn’t say much; I was careful not to intrude. I was focused on being there and being a nice person — it all comes down to being a nice person.
“My experience of being with the family taught me that love, like the unconditional love between mother and daughter, if it is really strong enough, can conquer all, even in a rat and cockroach infested condemned one room apartment with little heat and only cold running water.”
Those were the moments that solidified Blair’s path as a photographer.
“That family certainly has been in my mind forever… I had no idea what life was like in the black community,” said Blair, who grew up in Pittsburgh. “That was the first time I saw how lonely it was to be a poor woman.”
Shortly after, in the fall of 1954, Blair served in the U.S. Navy hauling first refugees from North to South Vietnam — and later bringing troops across the seas.
“In July 1956 my two years were up, and I went home,” Blair said. But the suburbs of Pittsburgh weren’t for him anymore; Blair wanted to pursue his career in photo-journalism.
Later that year, Blair headed to the Russian-Hungarian border to “take photos of refugee streaming out of Russia.”
He flew over on Christmas and spent Christmas night helping refugees cross the border — a deep, fast and dangerous canal.
“I couldn’t photograph at night,” Blair remembered. “So I helped. It was extremely cold, I remember and you can see it on the photos because my shutter froze.”
To get back home, Blair joined the refugees on the boat back to the United States.
“I remember everyone was hanging out on the shrouds of the boat,” Blair said from someplace away from the gallery floor. “First they sang the Hungarian anthem, and then ‘America the Beautiful’ — we all broke into tears as we passed Lady Liberty.”
Blair managed to get the photos from his time at the Russian border in front of Bill Garrett, former editor in chief of National Geographic, and the rest — as they say — is history.
Blair worked for 35 years as a staff photographer at National Geographic. He completed 47 assignments, 46 of which were published. He retired from the magazine in 1994, before the digital age of photography.
“Between 1959 and 1994 Jim Blair brought many of those (National Geographic) stories to life — from Tristan da Cunha and Haiti to Iran and South Africa,” writes Museum Director Richard Saunders in the exhibit introduction. “To do so he relied on his consummate photographic skills, such as a sense of timing, composition, lighting, subject matter, vantage point, color, atmosphere, and above all, patience. None of this happened by accident. Just as great athletes can make what they do look effortless, Blair honed his skills over the decades, so that being sure he would get the great picture became instinctive.”
“What you see here are pictures from that time period,” said Blair, looking around the exhibit of his photos paired with the edition of the magazine in which they appeared (well, mostly). “Some of the pictures were published and some I couldn’t get into the damn magazine.”
Like one photo that Blair took at a Nazi concentration camp in Poland in 1971.
“It’s a picture of the railroad tracks as they end at Auschwitz,” said Blair. “It was a rainy day, as it almost always is there, but the sun broke through the clouds for the photo… I thought it was just perfect, but no one else did. I took that picture through really deep tears.”
Blair — if you haven’t noticed yet — connects deeply with the moments he photographs. Yes, this exhibit is a retrospective of Blair’s career, but it’s also a beautiful explanation of what it means to honestly connect with a moment and simply “be there.”
Saunders calls Blair “one of the luminary photographers of the pre-digital age… Without photographers like him the world would be far poorer. His images not only transport us to places most of us will never visit, they make us feel like we are there. His best images have become part of our visual lexicon and they remind us that the world is a varied and stimulating place, sometimes breathtaking in its beauty and at other times heartbreaking in its degradation, but always informative.”
“Through all my life, what I’ve learned is that it’s all in that one frame,” Blair said, as he pointed to a photo taken from his last assignment at the Volga River in Russia. “Like in this photo, we were on a sailboat in 1992 and stopped for breakfast at a farmhouse. After the meal, I followed these kids to find this one incredible moment: the pure, complete and unadulterated love of a boy concerned for his sister… There was only one moment; so only one frame.”
The exhibit at the Museum of Art reveals Blair’s unyielding passion — absolutely. And if we had any question, his wife Elise Blair was there to corroborate.
“When Jim talks about photography, everything else drops away,” she said. True. Guests at Friday’s opening saw that first hand, as Elise pulled the curtains on Blair’s speech. “Enough,” she said after 30 minutes. And Blair sat down to a heartfelt applause.
JAMES P. BLAIR stands with some of his photographs at the Middlebury College Museum of Art in his exhibit “Being There.” The show opened on Friday, May 24, and chronicles Blair’s 35-year career as a staff photographer with National Geographic Magazine. A public reception will be held on Wednesday, June 19, at 4:30 p.m.
Independent photo/Steve James
Since retiring from his post as a staff photographer at National Geographic, Blair has continued to take photos and also teaches. He and Elise lived in Washington, D.C. until 2015 when they moved to their vacation home here in Middlebury full time.
Blair now focuses on his own personal photography.
“I might look like an old guy,” he said. “But I’m not.”
Although “Being There” is an exercise in reflection after 88 full year, Blair assures us all that he very seldom looks back — “I’m always looking forward.”

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