Chris Johns grew up following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.
His father — a geography teacher and principal — was a huge fan of the famous explorers. He would load his Rogue River Valley, Oregon, family into the car and they’d head east to explore their historic route.
It was Johns’ first look at western Montana. It left an impression.
“Missoula is very similar geographically to the Rogue River Valley where I grew up,” Johns said. “I have a strong affinity for western Montana.”
Turns out that it was strong enough to bring him back to Missoula after a storied career as editor-in-chief with National Geographic that offered opportunities to explore this country and others, including long stints in Africa.
On Wednesday, May 15, Johns will offer a presentation titled “Cheetahs in the Bitterroot: A Photographic Journey of 34 years at National Geographic,” at the Hamilton Performing Arts Center at Hamilton High School starting at 7 p.m.
The presentation is sponsored by the Bitterroot Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Johns’ career in photojournalism officially began in 1975 when he joined the Topeka (Kansas) Capital-Journal as a staff photographer. Four years later, he was named National Newspaper Photographer of the Year.
But photojournalism wasn’t his first choice when he first began college at Oregon State. His goal initially was to become a large animal veterinarian. But then he signed up for a journalism class in hopes of getting an easy “A” to keep his grade point average high.
A “fantastic” journalism professor named Ron Lovell changed his path. A childhood friend, Dennis Dimick, joined him in his studies of photography and journalism. Both eventually spent decades working at National Geographic.
“When I was editor and chief, Dennis was the environmental editor,” he said. “He did a fantastic job.”
Johns' first break with National Geographic occurred while he was working in Topeka. He met some people affiliated with the magazine and proposed a story about the life of an interagency hotshot firefighting crew called the Rogue River Roughriders.
For a four-month season, he became the 21st member of the crew that traveled all over the West, including time in Missoula, where his relationship with western Montana grew.
On Wednesday, Johns will share photographs taken during his 34 years at National Geographic in the context of the importance of developing a relationship with the place you choose to live.
“Place is so important to all of us,” he said. “In many cases, we fall in love the landscape and the people who live there. Those thriving relationships can help you find your calling and help you decide what you want to do with your life.”
His presentation will be a “visual history of my life from growing up Oregon to my experiences throughout the world, particularly in Africa,” Johns said. “I’ll wind it up by talking about why I feel so strongly about this place and why I’ve decided to spend the rest of my life here in western Montana.”
Johns and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Missoula.
He will serve as the University of Montana School of Journalism’s Pollner Professor in the spring semester 2020, teaching a course on conservation journalism. Johns continues to work with National Geographic as a contract journalist focused on conservation issues in the West.
Bitterroot Valley Chamber of Commerce President Susan Wetzsteon said Johns’ presentation will complete the first year of a lecture series presented by the Chamber’s Leadership Bitterroot group that began with a talk by UM President Seth Bodnar.
“We wanted to do something a little different this year with the leadership program,” Wetzsteon said. “We decided to search out people who could talk about what is a good leader and what makes a good leader in our community.”
Wetzsteon said she’s excited that Johns accepted their invitation to come to Hamilton to speak.
“He’s been a photojournalist for more than 34 years with National Geographic,” she said. “We have all grown up reading National Geographic and enjoying the incredible photography. I think it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime kinds of things to have this opportunity here in Hamilton. I hope that a lot of people take advantage of it.”
The program is free and open to the public.