Michael Nichols wins 4th annual National Geographic Photographer’s Photographer Award

On Friday, January 10th, Michael Nichols won the 4th annual National Geographic Photographer’s Photographer Award. The award was given out by George Steinmetz at the conclusion of the Geographic’s annual photography seminar.

Perhaps the greatest pleasure I get from being head of the Photographer’s Advisory Board is to give out the annual National Geographic Photographer’s Photographer Award. To me, there is no greater honor than to be recognized by ones peers, especially with a crowd as accomplished as this. The award is for the photographer who has most inspired us by expanding the possibilities of our medium. This definition is purposely vague, as what inspires is almost always something unexpected.

In this room today, I think it’s fair to say, is the largest assembly of great photographic talent in the world. Take a look around… it’s pretty impressive. So I know what you’re thinking… maybe, just maybe, this time it’s me?

In the four years that this award has been given out, the voting has been very close. That’s not a big surprise, as the magazine is always filled with exceptional work. But this year, at least according to your ballots, one person’s work stood out as truly exceptional.

While it may seem that editorial photography is a young person’s game, this year’s honoree is not one of the youngest ponies in the stable. Also unusual is that this photographer won for a subject that had been photographed so many times that it is almost a National Geographic cliché. It’s really the most difficult thing to do: photograph something that everyone has done before, and then reveal it in a totally new way. But this particular photographer has made a career out of that, again, and again, and again.

This photographer began his career as something of a gonzo photojournalist, where the experience of taking the picture was a central part of the story. This gonzo genre was invented by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, who most famously said that “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” And that indeed is the fate that has befallen our winner, who has evolved from hippie to elder statesman.

Like Dr. Thompson, this year’s winner lives in a Woody Creek, and also like Thompson, he once joined the military to seek a higher calling. But as this photographer has matured, we’ve seen this gonzo veneer fade away to reveal one of the most sensitive, passionate, and innovative photographers in this room. He started out his career doing wilderness adventure stories, where time and day rates were uncounted in the obsessive, sometimes masochistic quest to get the picture. He would stay in the field, living on ramen noodles and picking off the leaches, until he was either flat broke or too ill to continue.

When I think of this photographer I’m reminded of the joke about what the masochist said to the sadist:
Where the masochist says to the sadist: “Whip me! Beat me!”

and the sadist replies: “No, I want you to suffer!”

But that’s not the way this photographer explains how he beats himself up in the field. No, he just says: “I’m sensitive!”
And how true that is. Over the years this photographer realized that the natural world he was adventuring in was fragile and disappearing, so he turned his photography into a tool for conservation, and became successful beyond his wildest imagination. While we all hope that our pictures can endure, or perhaps even make a difference in this world, how many of us have had our photographs convince a head of state to create thirteen national parks?

I first met our winner when I was just getting started in photography and we were both in our twenties. He has always been something of a mentor to me, and used to have these fabulous no-rules photo salons in his Berkeley loft, where he invited everyone from his mother to the FedX guy to come and share their pictures. These were freewheeling affairs, and were like a mini version of a photographic Woodstock for Bay Area photojournalists. And my how that mini-Woodstock has grown.

Well the nature of these kinds of award speeches is to keep everyone guessing… Who is it? or… Could it be me? But this photographer is almost impossible to disguise, like the proverbial elephant in the room, or the lion in the tent.

So without any more futile attempts at veiled description, I would like to present THE FOURTH ANNUAL NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTOGRAPHER’S PHOTOGRAPHER AWARD to our very own Hunter S. Thompson, Michael Nichols!

An emotional Michael Nichols (right) embraces George Steinmetz as he accepts his award.  Photograph by Vince Musi

An emotional Michael Nichols (right) embraces George Steinmetz as he accepts his award. Photograph by Vince Musi