Ira Block was a 27-year-old photographer with one National Geographic assignment under his belt when he was asked to cover legendary Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura’s attempt to be the first person to journey alone to the North Pole.
It was 1978, and in those days things worked a bit differently in the magazine’s photography department than they do now. For one, there were no budgets for the stories. Regardless of cost, “You just went out and did them,” Block recalls. And then there was the legendary director of photography, Bob Gilka. “[He] liked to test new photographers—to take them out of their comfort zone, see what they could do,” Block remembers. Block grew up in Brooklyn and was a self-described city kid with street smarts. It was his first trip to the Arctic.
Block made several trips to visit Uemura during his 500-mile journey. Savvy to the fact that the success of this explorer’s journal would rely on the combination of his photos, along with Uemura’s own accounting of his days while alone, he spent time teaching Uemura the basics of using the camera National Geographic had provided, even modifying the camera with a large shutter release button so that Uemura could take photographs while wearing his thick gloves. In the process, Block became adept at cold weather photography himself, no small feat in a climate where the film would become brittle and streaked with static electricity marks. “If I didn’t get the pictures from him, they would have killed the story,” he says, acknowledging an eager young photographer’s desire to rise to Gilka’s challenge.
“For me it really worked,” he says of being dropped into an entirely new situation and left to get by on his wits. “I thought a photographer was supposed to ‘record’ events. On this trip I realized that being part of the event and getting close to people emotionally was what one needed to do in order to expand the scope of the photography. I was to become more than just a journalist in the future, but a documentarian of the world and it’s people.”
Uemura made history when he reached the top of the world on April 29, 1978. The next day, Block flew in to capture the moment. Uemura gave Block his diary, which needed to be brought back to National Geographic headquarters and translated for the magazine story.
A month later, all was ready to go, save a few details that Uemura needed to verify. Today this might be achieved by sending an email or maybe even calling via satellite phone, but back then, this involved hand-delivery. Who better to do this than Block, who had mastered the logistics of navigating the polar climes? Uemura had since moved on to circumnavigate Greenland, so Block met him out on the ice, manuscript in hand.
The story of the 37-year-old explorer who was the first to trek alone to the North Pole and the 27-year-old photographer on his first trip to the Arctic made the cover of the September 1978 issue.
This month, the Japanese edition of National Geographic—the very first of our local-language editions—is celebrating its 20th anniversary. On the cover is a retelling of Uemura’s trek, which includes Block’s recollections of their time together. Uemura died in February 1984 on Mount McKinley, shortly after becoming the first person to make a solo winter summit. Block recently met with Uemura’s widow, Kimiko, while on a visit to Japan, bringing full circle this story of two men with explorers’ souls.
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