Dean Conger 1927-2023


Photographer Dean Conger, in Moscow’s Red Square. Moscow, Russia, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

By Tom Peterson

Dean Conger

Kurt and Robyn Conger are still grieving the loss of Kurt’s father, Dean, who passed away on September 7, 2023, in The Dalles at the age of 96. 

Dean Conger was a world-renowned photographer with a resume of awards so extensive, it’s hard to list them all. He was a trailblazer in the field of photography, leaving an indelible mark on the world through his lens.

Dean’s photography journey was nothing short of extraordinary, marked by numerous accolades and groundbreaking achievements. 

He was named Newspaper Photographer of the Year three times during the 1950s and Magazine Photographer of the Year in 1962 in the Pictures of the Year competition. In 1987, he received the National Press Photographers Association Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award for a lifetime of outstanding work in photojournalism.

The original seven US astronauts selected in 1959 signed this photo taken by Dean Conger and gave it to him. Conger worked months to get this busy group together for a portrait.

Among his immense body of work, Dean captured iconic moments that will forever be etched in history. One such moment was when he photographed Astronaut Alan Shepard opening the hatch on the Mercury Freedom 7 Capsule after the first US manned space flight in 1961. 

Dean Conger was also there with his camera when Astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom returned to Earth in the second US manned space flight on July 21, 1961. Here Grissom is taking a phone call with President John Kennedy. Grissom had almost drowned after the hatch, which explosively separated for a quicker escape, blew off prematurely. Grissom quickly jumped through the hatch and into the Atlantic Ocean as the capsule filled with water. A Marine helicopter attempted to retrieve the capsule with a cable. But the helicopter was almost pulled down into the water as well. The helicopter dropped the cable and retrieved Grissom as he fought to stay afloat in his leaking space suit. The capsule sank and was not recovered until 1999.

Conger captured Astronaut John Glenn after being the first to orbit the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962. Dean Conger was also there to capture this shot upon the pilot’s return. Shephard would eventually walk on the moon in 1971 during the Apollo 14 mission.

Dean Conger and Mercury 13 Astronaut Alan B. Shepard

His lens not only captured significant historical events but also chronicled the ever-changing world, including his travels to the Soviet Union on more than 40 trips prior to its collapse in 1991.

Dean Conger titled this shot I’m 4.” Conger took the photo of the Russian Girl taken during the Cold War, capturing her humanity and innocence as she played in the snow outside a typical Russian concrete apartment building.

“The essence of creativity is artistic plagiarism,” was just one piece of sage advice the elder Conger gave his son, noting all great work was built on the shoulders of others.

Kurt Conger surrounded by his father’s work in his basement in The Dalles. Kurt said his dad took some 100,000 photos during his career using film, prior to the digital revolution. When he was on assignment around the world, he shipped his unprocessed exposures to his magazine without really knowing how the shots turned out.

He also told his son that you “had to earn anything that you called your own.”

Kurt took that advice to heart. He earned a degree in power system engineering and is the current Assistant Manager at Northern Wasco County People’s Utility District. And he is a detail guy, providing leadership for the Fun Group and the lighting of the star in West The Dalles.

Conger captured this shot of reindeer pulling sleighs in Siberia.

Kurt said he accompanied his father on one of his trips to Russia after his father meticulously put together the visas and received State Department clearances. 

The pair flew into Kyiv in modern-day Ukraine and took a train to Yalta and toured Crimea in the summer of ‘78. 

  Dean’s work for National Geographic Magazine and the Society book Journey Across Russia garnered well-deserved recognition, including a citation of excellence from the Overseas Press Club and the World Understanding Award from the University of Missouri, the National Press Photographers Association, and Nikon.

Travelers await trains at the Trans-Siberian Railroad Station in Novosibirsk, Russia. Novosibirsk is the third largest city in Russia, mainly because of its place on the Ob River and its role as a transportation and commerce hub. Photo Dean Conger/ National Geographic

During his career Dean’s articles in National Geographic Magazine included Project Mercury, Loire River, Chartres Cathedral, Moscow, Siberia, Transportation, X-15, Java, Philippine tribes, biblical patriarch Abraham, Idaho, Ob River, Singapore, Borobudur, People of the Long Spring (Soviet Arctic), and others.

And it was through the love and support of his courageous wife Leona “Lee” that he was able to explore and explain the immense diversity of our world. 

Leona “Lee” Conger

Dean had an affinity for photography and aviation from a young age.

And their courtship was rather quick and unusual. 

After seven months, Dean flew Lee and himself back to Minnesota to meet her parents. During the same trip, the couple flew to Wyoming to meet Dean’s parents.

On the plane ride home, Dean proposed. 

He did not get an answer for a week.

“I knew she was the one,” he later told Kurt and Robyn. “She knew too.”

The Marriage of Dean and Leona

The couple married in 1953.

They were married 70 years until Lee’s passing on July 31st, 2023.   

Dean, who was born in 1927 and raised in Casper, Wyoming, initially worked for the Denver Post where he met Lee in the 1950s. There, he achieved considerable success, being named Newspaper Photographer of the Year thrice. 

However, his life took a profound turn in 1959 when National Geographic came calling. 

He and Lee were in the midst of building a home in Arvada. Lee was expecting their first child, Eric. And they had just laid the foundation for their new house.

But the couple jumped at the opportunity. 

Lee later reflected on this pivotal moment, telling Robyn Conger:

“That’s not the kind of job you turn down.”

The couple eventually purchased a home in Bethesda, Maryland outside of Washington D.C. where they raised three sons. 

After 30 years with National Geographic, he retired on September 1, 1989. Dean and Lee moved to Durango, Colorado where they built a southwest-style home, hiked, and skied.

In 2012 they moved to Bend, Oregon to enjoy their sunset years, and in 2022 they moved to The Dalles, Oregon, to be closer to family.

Kurt said his father never looked back, noting life was too interesting and inspiring to have regrets.

At the end of his life, Dean Conger was focused on one thing – reuniting with his beloved wife who had passed just five weeks earlier. 

“I’m on a final assignment to go find her,” he said in the days before his death. 

Dean is survived by his three sons – Eric, Kurt, and Chris; three grandchildren – Joel, JR, and Jenney; and great-granddaughter Serena. His legacy lives on not only through his incredible body of work but also through the love and memories shared by his family and those who were fortunate enough to know him. He will be dearly missed, and his contributions to the world of photography will forever be cherished.

Lee and Dean Conger at his going away party at The Denver Post.

The photos below are also part of Dean Conger’s library. The skilled professional had an absolute knack for telling a story with a single shot.