Like many other photographers, German-American National Geographic photographer Gerd Ludwig initially got into photography through traveling.
Born in Alsfeld, Germany, in 1947, Ludwig initially studied German literature, political science and physical education to become a teacher. But after three semesters at university, he ended his studies and started hitchhiking through Europe.
“I supported myself with odd jobs as a bricklayer in Denmark and as a dishwasher in Norway, before I worked as a mess boy on a freight ship,” Ludwig said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “During this time I began to take photos to collect memories from my journeys. Very quickly, I realized that I liked working with a camera and decided to make a living with what I really enjoyed—photography.”
He subsequently studied photography with Prof. Otto Steinert at the Folkwangschule (now Folkwang University of the Arts).
After relocating to New York City in 1984, Ludwig took a job as a photographer for National Geographic, focusing on environmental issues and the changes following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He may best be remembered for a series of photo stories documenting the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, first in 1993 and again in 2005.
Ludwig has since earned many accolades for his work, including the 2006 Lucie Award for International Photographer of the Year; the 2014 Dr. Erich Salomon Award, a lifetime achievement award for photojournalists; and the 2015 Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism.
Ludwig, along with former National Geographic Picture Editor and Director of Photography Kent Kobersteen, will give a talk on Thursday, Sept. 29, at 6:30 p.m. at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Ketchum to discuss National Geographic’s unique approach to photojournalism, as well as display some of their work and talk about current and upcoming projects.
Kobersteen spent many years as a photographer for the Minneapolis Tribune and then editor of the Tribune’s Sunday magazine before taking a job with National Geographic in 1983, eventually becoming senior editor. He retired from National Geographic in 2005.
As picture editor and director of photography, Kobersteen worked closely with the magazine’s staff of photographers on their stories.
“It was very much a team effort and an operation that’s kind of unique in the business,” Kobersteen said in an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express.
One of the things that sets apart National Geographic’s photography—which Kobersteen will expound on in Thursday’s lecture—is the amount of resources that the magazine’s staff spends developing each photo story.
“The resources devoted to the coverage for each issue were tremendous,” he said, adding that in the heyday of the 1980s, money was no object for the magazine. “It literally did not matter how much money we spent on each project.”
During his tenure at National Geographic, Kobersteen helped oversee the rise of and transition to the use of digital photography over film—though by the time he left in 2005, he said, National Geographic had just begun using digital photography more often.
“What digital gave you in terms of speed you sacrificed in quality,” he said, adding that it’s taken a while for digital to catch up. “I think digital has now surpassed film in terms of quality and what it allows you to do.”
For example, he said many photos that came out of the Olympics this year wouldn’t have been possible with film.
“You wouldn’t have been able to get those shots in those lighting conditions and at that quality,” he said.
Still, he said the use of digital photography has its pitfalls. For example, he said that in the days of film, photographers tended to stick around longer to get the perfect shot, since they wouldn’t be able to immediately see how their photos would turn out.
But regardless of the medium, Kobersteen said there’s one thing true photographers all have in common.
“A photographer sees the world in a more unique way than other people do,” he said.