written by Kevin Max
Since 1888, there have been twenty-two U.S. presidents, ten Supreme Court chief justices, but just nine editors-in-chief of the venerable National Geographic. In 2005, Chris Johns, a small-town boy who grew up in Central Point, Oregon, became the ninth editor of the magazine and the first to rise to that title from its photography ranks.
Johns, now 59, went to Oregon State University to become a vet, but after taking a journalism and a photography class, his lifelong pursuit became documenting animals through his camera’s lens and not tending to them in a clinic.
As a young photographer, Johns worked his way through newspapers in Corvallis, Albany, Topeka and Seattle before taking leave to work on a project with National Geographic. In 1979, he traveled to fires across Western states with the Rogue River Hotshots fire crew, shooting what would be his first piece for National Geographic.
“National Geographic was a natural transition for me,” he says. “I grew up in southern Oregon, backpacking and climbing Mount McLoughlin. I was privileged to grow up in such a beautiful place.” Johns, who has family in Portland and childhood memories throughout the state, shares his favorite Oregon places with 1859.
ASHLAND, OREGON has always been one of my favorite places. I’ve always loved Lithia Park and the Shakespeare Festival. It’s one of those rare places where the downtown has retained its character. I go back there often to visit the graves of my parents and grandparents.
Another place I hold dear is CRATER LAKE. It’s Oregon’s national park and the place I was introduced to national parks. When I did my first story for National Geographic with the Rogue River Hotshots, we spent a lot of time just below Crater Lake. One thing I discovered was Crater Lake is beautiful in the winter—for skiing and snowshoeing. This was the first place in Oregon I took my wife.
In 1969, when I was the Future Farmers of America president and got to travel to nearly every town in Oregon, I discovered WALLOWA COUNTY. I’ve gone back with my family and backpacked into Eagle Cap Wilderness. It’s a beautiful area.
Another place that had a profound impact on me was the MCKENZIE RIVER. My father’s father was a logger. He had a cabin on the McKenzie close to Thurston. We used to fish and hunt there. As a fisherman and a hunter, my grandfather taught me a respect for nature. When I go back to raft or fish there, I remember my grandfather.
Another of my favorite places is the BROOKINGS HARBOR along the Chetco River. My father and I built a beach cabin there for my grandfather. It’s such a beautiful place and undeveloped.