April 7, 2006 by

Thomas J. Abercrombie


Categories: Artists, Writers/Editors

As a writer and photographer for National Geographic magazine, Thomas James Abercrombie was paid to travel to the ends of the earth and take pictures of some of its most awe-inspiring sights.
The Minnesota native earned a degree in art and journalism from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. He broke into the news business as a staff photographer for the Forum newspaper in Fargo, N.D., and the Milwaukee Journal. In 1956, Abercrombie landed a job as a correspondent for the National Geographic and set off on a life of adventure. Over the next four decades, he shot pictures of deserts, quake-ravaged towns, geishas and African natives, wrote stories from every continent and befriended peasant and prince alike.
In 1957, the publication sent him to Antarctica, where he won a lottery to become the first reporter to visit the South Pole. Before he could take off, however, the plane froze, leaving Abercrombie stranded in the frozen wasteland for nearly three weeks. He finally made it to the pole, and set up an all-night exposure of the sky to show the stars making concentric circles.
Known for putting his own life at risk to get the perfect shot, Abercrombie’s exploits became the stuff of legend. He took stunning underwater photos during a dive with Jacques Cousteau. He survived a plane crash while trying to cover a civil war in Yemen. He fell off a yak in Afghanistan and nearly plunged into a 1,000-foot chasm. On an assignment in the Himalayas, Abercrombie nearly died from typhoid and had to amputate the toes of a pilgrim after gangrene set in. A scar across the bridge of his nose marked the time he got knocked off the top of a mountain cable car in Venezuela, but was rescued by a Swiss guide who caught him by his belt and hauled him back to safety.
One of Abercrombie’s favorite shoots involved climbing up 5,000 feet of vertical rock and ice to take pictures from the top of the Matterhorn. Soon after reaching the summit and viewing both Italy and Switzerland, a squall drove him back down to the picturesque town of Zermatt.
His most famous story, however, ended up costing the National Geographic a fortune. Back in the mid-1960s, Abercrombie took an assignment in Alaska. He learned to fly, bought a Cessna 180 and took off for the northernmost state. Once there, Abercrombie purchased pontoons for the aircraft, shot his photos and flew home. He then expensed the whole experience to the magazine. The company reluctantly paid for it all, but Abercrombie helped out by selling the plane and giving the proceeds back to his employer.
Although he was fluent in German, English, French, Spanish and Arabic, Abercrombie was frequently described by friends as a man’s man, one who could ride a camel, smoke a pipe and write off AK-47s on his expense report as “auto insurance.” Married to National Geographic photographer Lynn Abercrombie for 53 years, Tom and his wife often worked on assignments together.
Abercrombie won the 1954 Newspaper Photographer of the Year award and the 1958 Magazine Photographer of the Year award; he was the first photographer to win both honors. After retiring, he taught geography at George Washington University and spent his spare time building a skipjack by hand. His life and work were chronicled in the documentary “White Tiger: The Adventures of Thomas J. Abercrombie,” which was shown at the New York Film and Video Festival in 2004.
Abercrombie died on April 3 of complications following heart surgery. He was 75.
Watch a Trailer for “White Tiger”
View Posters of Abercrombie’s Work

12 Responses to Thomas J. Abercrombie

  1. Edgar Lescas

    I’m a Mexican living in Minnesotta now.
    I love reading the National Geographic magazine and the issue about your work and your life is amazing!!
    you really enjoyed your life my Amigo.
    I love traveling and I hope to see as many places as you did.
    you were Amazing!!
    Edgar Lescas.

  2. Ra

    I am Indonesian girl now living in Germany.
    I admire Thomas J. Abercrombie and his valiant adventures.
    I hope he’ll find peaceful there in the life after death.
    and may one day I could meet him personally.

  3. Valerie Smith

    I was stunned to learn of Mr. Abercrombie’s passing this past April, and am pleased to read the many obituaries for him both online, as well as in the August 2006 Geographic. He had quite the career, and did some amazing coverage in the Middle East; I was also fascinated to learn of his conversion to Islam. I commend him and his wife for sustaining an enduring marriage, and can only hope I’ll have the opportunity to meet him in the next world, to give him thanks in person for all his photojournalistic skills.

  4. Tamara

    Thomas wrote about an interview with my father in a visit to Marbella. I randomly came upon that article published in National Geograpahic Vol. 174, No. 1, July 1988 (“When the Moors Ruled Spain”). Could anyone help me get it? Thank you.

  5. M

    I hope that Mr. Abercrombie has found his peace and paradise Insha’Allah– I loved his work and he will be so sorely missed… I just made a thread about him in LI (islamicboard.com)– I pray your family finds peace and solace…. I Wonder if the rest of Mr. Abrecrombie’s family are Muslim as well?
    What a shame for this world to lose such a talent =(.. I really do pray you have found your peace and heaven! your work and art will live forever in this world– your good deeds and your spirit in the next… until we meet you fi janat alfirdws you’ll have our love and admiration
    your truly
    a fan


    As a regular reader of NG I can say that I’ll miss Tom for his very special character and his noble personality which I felt in his worh. I may say that for me he is a real adventurer and real explorer, spendind his life in the big quistion which I hope he finaly have the answer to.

  7. Betsy Bentz Kraemer

    I was at the NGS, working in the photo library, when Tom went to climb Everest. I gave him flags to leave on the summit. He was a hoot. One day he came past my desk and offered me a cup of coffee. Being a photo archivist, I was appalled because we were not allowed food and drink around the photos. Tom had a thermos that looked exactly like a camera, and he poured me a cup of coffee. He said a frient had it made for him.He was the most brilliant photographer I have ever known. His genius was belonging to wherever he was. There are many stories, I am sure, I could add more. I am thankful for being able to share this.
    Thank you Tom,
    Betsy Bentz Kraemer

  8. Larry J. Johansen & Jean D. Johansen

    I remember sitting near the fire place in Tom’s library in Shady Side Maryland drinking wine and tasting a great pepper cheese he had prepaired and the International food party at his home. We were the Abercrombies neighbor’s and friend. Jean and myself were sorrored to here of his passing. Friends will always be remembered and loved. I hope his wife Lynn is well and the same for his son and daughter. We will always keep the fond memories we had with the Abercrombie’s. Tom was an amazing person and a wonderful family man. He lives on in our memories and his writings—Love from the Johansen’s.

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