Herndon Company Reaches into the Stars

January 16, 2018 | The Scoop

LGS Innovations, provider of specialized mission-critical communication research and solutions, has been awarded a contract to support the NASA Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) Project Laser Transmitter Assembly (LTA). The DSOC instrument will be flown on NASA’s Psyche Discover Class Mission as a technology demonstration and will be capable of transmitting engineering and science data from the Psyche Spacecraft in parallel with the Spacecraft’s existing X-band telecommunications system. LGS Innovations will deliver the first laser transmitter to support the deep space, high-bandwidth.

(BizWire)

The Washington Region’s Finest Hospitals

January 16, 2018 | The Scoop

The Washington region can finally boast its first five-star-rated hospitals — or, to be exact, its first three — in Inova Fairfax, Inova Mount Vernon and Inova Fair Oaks hospitals, according to the federal Hospital Compare website.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services-run website, designed to help consumers compare hospital quality based on measures including patient satisfaction, readmission rates and mortality rates, was updated in late December. That update came after a five-month delay by the federal government because of concerns over some of the quality measures.

It’s a notable swing for the region, which previously had no five-star hospitals on the rating system. Inova Fairfax, the largest hospital in Northern Virginia, previously had a three-star rating.

The changes can be pegged to CMS’ new rating methodology, aimed in part at addressing concerns by health care groups that the system was oversimplified. For example, some complained the previous methodology overpenalized hospitals that served higher numbers of low-income patients for having higher readmission rates, Health Leaders Media reported.

Before the update, the region’s highest-ranked hospital counted four stars, including the independently owned Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington.

(WBJ)

YOU HAVE TWELVE MINUTES

January 15, 2018 | Front Page, jeblog

What do you do when you have twelve minutes to potentially live or die? Saturday morning our Hawaiian Islands were rattled, as we quickly awoke in our hotel on the island of Kauai. Listening to the crashing of the ocean, I slowly reached over to grasp my glasses and IPhone from the nightstand & read the following message.

“EMERGENCY ALERT, BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL”

My mind immediately started to process and the retail trainer/facilitator in me started to work. Before I knew it, probing questions were filtering through my mind. Who, what, when, where, why? There was no time to panic and before we could react there had to be an immediate plan.

Suddenly, all these details that have been shared with us from the Hawaii government since the “War Games” threats began at the end of last year started to fill my head.

• Hawaii is about 4,600 miles from North Korea and a nuclear missile launched from there could reportedly be here in about 12-15 minutes.

• According to Hawaii Emergency Management Administration, current estimates of human causalities based on the size of North Korean nuclear weapon technology strongly suggest that an explosion would be less than 6 miles in diameter.

• “More than 90 percent of the population would survive the direct effects of such an explosion,” HEMA said in a fact sheet. “Planning and preparedness are essential to protect those survivors from delayed residual radiation and other effects of the attack.”

• “If a missile is launched from North Korea, the warning time available for Hawaii is only 15 minutes or less. Given the short timeframe, the public will have little time to react,” the release said. “The public is advised to prepare and exercise a plan for their families ahead of time.”

• Do I make a call to my parents and tell them I love them or do I just send a text and hope for the best?

A sick pit began to settle in my stomach as we pulled all the down pillows and comforters from the bed and huddled on the cold marble floor of the hotel bathroom. Before we could get settled, the hotel announced on an intercom that all guests should evacuate to the underground back of house. We were then informed there would be an investigation to verify the message we had all received on our devices and they would share more information as it became available. That is when it all got real.

I quickly went into think fast mode. My first thought was to grab all the things contestants on a reality show would bring before being dropped on a remote island and left to survive. Knowing we would potentially would not have power and need to stay inside for 2 weeks or more, I started to layer on clothes, lace up sneakers and lastly make sure I had my wallet with ID. Finally, we grabbed Christian our dog and off we went.

The journey to the safe place was where it all started to come together and shock was over. Emotions and fear were settling in. I was suddenly filled with feelings that I had not experienced since a tragic September day back home in Washington, DC. A tragic day in our US history where all I was trying to do was evacuate my office at the Washington Design Center and find a safe place. It was a sense of fear and uncertainty that so many of us felt and hoped to never feel again. Like that terrible day all you could do was look up and pray nothing would be dropping from the sky. I can no way compare the two days but the emotions and thoughts were so similar and not knowing if you would survive was the same.

Fortunately after the longest twelve minutes of my life along with another twenty minutes, we were finally notified that it was a false alarm.

Why today do I share this? The emotions that I had were overwhelming for me and fellow Hawaiians and tourists from all over the world. You might have not felt the impact of our morning while you were going about your Saturday on the mainland. In many cases I had friends reaching out to me hours after the incident, as they just weren’t aware. But can you only imagine how you would have reacted knowing that you might only have a few hours left to live? What would you do? My Hawaiian family and friends have all been in a state of “disbelief”. People were opening manhole covers and dropping their children underground, students at the university were running to take cover and people in their cars were essentially stuck with no where to go. Are you prepared? This is no longer a threat to Hawaii but it is reality to all of the United States. We are now living in era of a true survivor reality show lead by a former reality personality. We must, as American citizens be there to support each other, have a plan and be ready. Aloha and God Bless America!

David Brown
Mulberry Seed Design

Rihanna’s Property Up for Rent

January 15, 2018 | The Scoop

Pop and hip-hop chanteuse Rihanna recently put one of her investment properties on the rental market. Rihanna—who has been busy of late with the skyrocketing sales of her line of cosmetics and related products—is a landlord in the making, looking for a tenant who wouldn’t mind parting with $16.5K a month for a dramatically renovated 1926 Spanish eclectic in West Hollywood.

Rihanna purchased the home in August of last year, for $2.75 million, and listed it for sale again in November with an asking price of $2.85 million. Rihanna also purchased a super-contemporary, 7,100 square-foot dream house this past August, which may be the reason why she changed her mind and offered the smaller home for sale. And barring a sale, why it is now offered for rent.

The most striking thing about the house is the broad range of style and period represented by exterior front and interior. From outside, the house is still mainly a classic Southern California Spanish charmer from the heyday of the eclectic craze—tiled roof, stucco, tiled walk, a wrought-iron balcony streetside—with new windows and a new front door suggesting the up-to-date goings-on within.

Inside, though, the house is now a modern Spanish-style, open-concept, modern lighting and smart features, a modern kitchen. The modern look extends to the back of the home, where an industrial-inspired second-floor balustrade adds a touch of the contemporary. The four-bed, four-bath residence measures 2,650 square feet.

Rihanna seems to be juggling dual roles as seminal performer of our time and savvy businesswoman with her typically effortless sense of poise. Her cosmetic line—for those who didn’t know—is called Fenty Beauty.

(amlu)

The Marriott Family’s Palace Intrigue

January 15, 2018 | The Scoop

John Willard Marriott III looks nervous. We’re sitting in the living room of his rented Georgetown rowhouse on a crisp, sunny morning. Nearly ten of these could fit inside the Potomac mansion he used to share with his wife, Angela, and their three daughters—before their marriage fell apart, unleashing, Marriott says, a cascade of events that left him estranged from his parents and his siblings. It’s why he’s invited me here: to detail a life of hidden pain and regret, and explain why he’s going to court against his own family, which happens to control the largest hotel empire in the world.

This isn’t easy for him, he says. He stammers and laughs at awkward moments. He fidgets with a pen, clicking it open and closed, as we talk. He’s spent his whole life trying to please his billionaire father—John Willard Marriott Jr., known as Bill—and to live up to the impossible expectations attached to his famous name. As a boy, John says, he attended high-pressure private schools, followed a religion he didn’t believe in, and smiled through severe depression, all to appease his dad. Even as an adult, he says, he could be rebuked for the smallest transgressions, such as growing a beard when he was around 50: “My dad was so mad at me. I was supposed to make a speech to give him an award that night. He said, ‘You can’t make that speech unless you shave that beard off.’ ”

Now, as punishment for leaving his wife, John alleges that his father is trying to drive him into financial ruin—cutting him off from the Marriott fortune and forcing him out as CEO of a separate, privately run hotel business called JWM Family Enterprises. As a result, John says, he was left with no choice but to sue both his father and his uncle, Richard Marriott, who share control of the trust established by their parents, alleging breach of fiduciary duty. John wants them both removed as trustees and to be made whole for the millions of dollars he alleges he’s losing annually now that he no longer earns a salary from JWM or has access to his trust. “I’ve gotta stand up,” he says. “Otherwise they’ll destroy me.”

By going public with his claims of mistreatment and betrayal, the 56-year-old Marriott is threatening to shatter the carefully cultivated image of one of Washington’s most powerful families. In John’s telling, the Marriotts come off as fractious and unforgiving, controlled by a domineering patriarch willing to cast out his own if they displease him. The family and their representatives reject John Marriott’s claims—and say they’ve worked hard over the years to help him address his drug-and-alcohol addiction. Whatever truth unspools over the course of the litigation, it’s bound to complicate the picture of wholesome tranquility conveyed by the oil-painted family portraits that hang in the lobbies of many of their hotels.

Bill and Donna Marriott raised John, his sister, Debbie, and brothers Stephen and David in a brick ranch house off River Road in Bethesda’s Kenwood. Religion was the center of their lives. For a period in the 1970s, Bill devoted 25 hours a week as a Mormon bishop, on top of the 70 hours he spent as CEO of Marriott, according to a 2007 Washingtonian profile of the family.

To friends and neighbors, they seemed happy and, considering their vast wealth, surprisingly normal. John enjoyed throwing a football around and appeared to get along fine with his parents. “He was a good son, I think, in every respect,” says Paul Thaler, who grew up with him.

That Bill Marriott held his kids to high standards is not in dispute. It was, after all, the family way: Bill’s father, the original J.W. Marriott, “was never happy,” Bill told the Wall Street Journal in 2005. “I got Bs and he wanted As. He challenged everything I did.”

Bill expected his own children to work hard, adhere to the Mormon faith, perform well in school, and never take advantage of their last name. “My dad knew everybody would be looking at us as Marriotts and expect the worst—lazy, spoiled, all of that—and none of us are,” says John.

But in his lawsuit, he alleges that obeying his father also meant covering up a dark reality. John says that as a sixth-grader at St. Albans—the prestigious boys’ school where a 2009 addition was named Marriott Hall—he contemplated suicide. He says the rigorous coursework was too much to bear for a kid with anxiety and ADD, and he begged his mom and dad to let him transfer to public school. He says that one night as he lay in bed thinking, “I can’t deal,” he decided to walk down to his parents’ room to ask for help.

“I didn’t understand depression or any of that at the time—I just knew I was so sad,” John remembers. “My dad just kind of said, ‘You’ve got everything you need. Go back to bed.’ ” Within a year, John says, his anxiety worsened to the point that he couldn’t sleep. According to his lawsuit, his father’s solution “more than once” was to give him “a strong adult prescription drug (Valium).”

Despite his alleged struggles at home, classmates at St. Albans remember John as a likable, athletic guy with a cool car. (It was a ’73 Firebird. John still has it, along with a collection of vintage Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Corvettes, and Jaguars.)

Everyone knew that John was Mormon, of course, but he wasn’t rigid about it. He went to parties. Friends recall that he may have enjoyed a beer every now and again, but nothing more.

“He was certainly more restrained than many of my classmates were in the late ’70s,” says Tom Challinor, who met John in first grade at Beauvoir. “There were kids who were wildly running around and doing lots of drugs and conquering ladies—you know, long hair and loud—and I wouldn’t call John any of those things. He was private but always very friendly, and he moved very easily through the different cliques.”

Whether his buddies noticed or not, John says that by age 17, he was into more than the occasional beer.

John says he’s divulging his drug-and-alcohol problem because he has “nothing to hide” and his family has used it as “a weapon against” him in the past.

“It’s something that I’ve struggled with my whole life, and continue to struggle with,” he says. “I’ve sought help and continue to seek help. But I think it’s important to be upfront about it. While I was really struggling, I still performed above and beyond even my own expectations.”

John says he did well both academically and socially at the University of Utah, where he met his future wife, Angela Cooper. They made a striking pair—John sandy-haired and blue-eyed, Angela a beautiful blonde. John says that like him, Angela had doubts about the Mormon faith.

Nonetheless, they married at the LDS temple in Salt Lake City shortly before graduation in 1986. John, who’d taken nearly two years off from school to complete a Mormon mission in Japan, was 24. Angela was 23. (In his lawsuit, John says his dad told him “he needed to get married by the time he finished college” and that he’d rather his son “come home in a pine box than . . . engage in premarital sex.”)

The couple settled in Washington, and John joined the family business, beginning his ascent toward the job that appeared to be his destiny: CEO of Marriott International.

John’s elder brother, Stephen, was born with a muscular disorder called mitochondrial disease, which eventually rendered him blind and deaf. Stephen died in 2013, when he was 54. Debbie, the eldest sibling, devoted most of her adult life to raising her five children, joining Marriott’s executive ranks only in 2006. David, the baby by 12 years, simply wouldn’t be experienced enough to take the helm, though colleagues say his personality is the closest match to that of his dad and grandfather.

That left John, who started as a dishwasher in the Crystal City Marriott at age 15. By the time he was an adult, it was clear Bill Marriott was grooming him as a potential successor. “With his gold-plated name, his all-American good looks and a quarter-century in the family business, Mr. Marriott, 41, would seem to be a perfect fit for his father’s shoes,” gushed a 2003 New York Times profile.

Though John held down a number of positions—hotel general manager, food-and-beverage director, finance director, executive vice president of sales, and ultimately, president of North American lodging—some colleagues doubted he had the talent to lead the whole company.

“John certainly did all that he had to do as he rose up, but if he was speaking at a grand opening or interacting in a room of media or interacting in a social setting like a cocktail party, he just never seemed that comfortable,” says Roger Conner, who spent about 30 years at Marriott before retiring as vice president of communications in 2009.

Others are harsher. “Senior and Junior were both very balanced, logical, calm, cool, collected decision makers,” says a former senior vice president, referring to the elder two John Willards. “John was none of those things. He could have a temper. He could be a rational decision maker, and at the next meeting or on the next decision, it would just be a different process. He was erratic.”

By 1997, John had been to rehab for abusing prescription medications and alcohol, checking into a facility in Loma Linda, California. Yet colleagues didn’t suspect he was struggling with addiction, says the former executive. “He was where he had to be, when he needed to be there.”

John alleges that his father knew about his substance abuse but didn’t care as long as he kept it under wraps. He insists he never let it get in the way of work. Whether or not that’s true, one thing John couldn’t control was Arne Sorenson’s arrival.

Marriott hired Sorenson away from the partnership at Latham & Watkins in 1996 to help with legal and financial strategy. The newcomer quickly impressed stockholders and coworkers alike, and within two years he was named chief financial officer. “He’s an extremely bright, extremely smart, charismatic guy,” says a former Marriott vice president. “Arne has it all.”

In 2005, John remembers, his cell phone rang while he was sitting in the Rockville Department of Motor Vehicles parking lot. He says it was one of his dad’s lawyers calling to let him know he was likely out of the running to become CEO.

“I was devastated,” says John. “I sat in my car and cried for half an hour. So in my license picture, my eyes are all red.” His divorce records indicate that the time around the parking-lot call was a tough period for him. That same year, he received outpatient treatment for alcohol and prescription-pill addiction from Kolmac recovery center in Silver Spring.

By that time, both John and Angela were fixtures in Washington society. Angela served on boards for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the Washington Performing Arts Society, and the American Heart Association. As members of the board of the National Zoo, the couple helped spearhead the fundraising drive—including a $1.6-million gift from the Marriott family—to bring back the giant pandas.

Whatever their reservations about the Mormon church, they raised their three daughters in the faith, attending the LDS temple in Potomac. John taught Sunday school for a time.

“I’ve gotta stand up. Otherwise they’ll destroy me.”

Knowing he wouldn’t become CEO, he left Marriott in the fall of 2005, though he remained on its board of directors as vice chairman. In the press, the move was framed as entirely his decision. “John’s been thinking about this for a long time,” a Marriott spokeswoman told Bloomberg News. “He’s very entrepreneurial and has a knack for real-estate investing.”

Bill Marriott stepped down in 2011. As expected, Sorenson replaced him, becoming the first non-family member to head Marriott. By most measures, Sorenson has enjoyed extraordinary success. In 2016, he led Marriott International’s $13.6-billion acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, catapulting the company’s total number of hotel rooms to more than 1.2 million. According to Fortune, that makes Marriott 50 percent larger than Hilton, the world’s next-biggest hospitality player.

Marriott’s most recent quarterly profits totaled $392 million, a 460-percent boost over the previous year. In 2018, the company will break ground on its new $600-million Bethesda headquarters.

As the company flourished without him, John Marriott moved over to running the Marriotts’ private hotel venture, JWM Family Enterprises. He had started the business in 1993 as a part of creating a more tax-efficient estate plan. In part by contributing some of his family’s securities to JWM, John claims he helped save all the Marriotts “billions of dollars” in estate taxes. By 2014, he says, he had built JWM into a 16-property operation with more than $30 million in profits.

His home life, however, was unraveling. In 2010, the family moved from their 12,000-square-foot Potomac mansion into a 20,000-square-foot one they built two doors down from Uncle Richard—yes, the same uncle whom John is now suing.

Neighbors grew fond of John and “Angie,” who they say were always friendly and warm. Angie could be spotted riding her bike—“She’d look so pretty,” says Donna Ward, who lived a few houses away—and the whole Marriott clan would turn out for the annual Christmas party hosted by Richard and his wife, Nancy. To the extent anyone ever gossiped about the pair, the chatter revolved around John’s cars—was it true one was used in the 2013 movie version of The Great Gatsby? How many did he actually have in that big garage on their property anyway? “They were a happy family,” says Ward. “It just looked like the perfect picture.”

It wasn’t. Angie “was openly disappointed when he failed to succeed his father,” John alleges in his lawsuit. Sandy Ain, Angie’s lawyer, says that’s a mischaracterization: “Angie was concerned about John and his well-being is a better—and more accurate—way to say it, and his issues with drugs and alcohol. From her standpoint, it impacted every aspect of his life.”

In court papers, Angela says her husband “created an environment within the household that was inconsistent with a healthy, stable, and respectful marriage.” Between 1997 and 2014, court filings show, John enrolled in four different rehab programs for addiction to prescription medications and alcohol. Angela also alleges that her ex-husband cheated on her “numerous times,” which John disputes. He does acknowledge that in 2014 he began an affair with a French woman—whom he is still with. In the lawsuit against his family, he blames Angela for their split.

“Angela had embraced her public role as a Marriott wife. She relished that role and all that came with it,” reads his complaint. “But at home, the marriage had long been devoid of affection or compassion. After years of estrangement and loneliness, John met another woman and fell in love.”

Through her lawyer, Angela declined to comment for this story. Despite the problems in their marriage, Ain says Angela remained committed to John until he walked out: “She was devoted to him—that I can tell you—without any qualification or equivocation. She cared about him. She was worried about him.”

John says he traveled to the family vacation compound on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire to break the news to his parents that he was leaving Angie: “I explained why and what was going on. My dad just kept saying, ‘You’re leaving the family.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t want to leave the family.’. . . I didn’t understand at the time that he meant he was kicking me out.”

From that point, Bill Marriott unleashed “a relentless flaying,” according to John’s lawsuit, denying John access to his trust, threatening to expose John’s history of substance abuse if he didn’t resign from the board of Marriott International, slashing his equity in the JWM hotels, and diverting a “substantial part” of John’s trust to “a non-beneficiary.” John declined to say whether the non-beneficiary is his ex-wife because the terms of their divorce settlement are under seal, though she remains close with his family.

He says his father also forced him out as CEO of JWM Family Enterprises and that the combined loss of that salary and his trust amounts to millions of dollars annually. That said, he’s far from destitute. An SEC filing shows he holds about $49 million in Marriott International stock. He also still owns the Potomac mansion he shared with Angie, valued at more than $8 million (though he says it’s in a trust for his daughters).

Through a family spokesman, Bill and Richard Marriott deny John’s claims. “Bill and Dick Marriott are saddened by John’s filing of a lawsuit,” a written statement reads. “Bill has worked very hard over the years with a great deal of understanding to help John address his own problems which, in the lawsuit, John himself acknowledges exist. That said, Bill has reviewed the complaint and the allegations of misconduct simply are not true and are baseless. Bill continues to hope for the very best for his son John, but now must defend John’s lawsuit to ensure the best possible long-term result for the entire family, including John’s daughters.”

For a man in his mid-fifties, John Marriott appears not to have shed a certain streak of adolescent rebellion. At his Georgetown rental, he has fastened a Ping-Pong net to the elegant dining table and hung Ferrari posters on the dining-room wall. As we sink into the overstuffed couches that came with the place, John says he’s deeply saddened by the rift: “To sue my dad and my uncle is the last thing I want to do, and the last thing I ever expected to do. I’ve always looked up to them, and I’ve always trusted them.” But for the first time in his life, he adds, he also feels free.

The rest of the family has a different take. In e-mails to me, John’s siblings Debbie Marriott Harrison and David Marriott—both high-ranking executives at Marriott International—say they’re concerned about their brother’s health and well-being. They call his allegations “false” and “unfounded.” David writes, “My Father and my uncle have always had the best interests of their children at heart, and I believe my Father has done everything in his power over the years to help John address his problems.”

All but cut off from his family, John spends weeks on end with his girlfriend in the resort town of Chamonix in the French Alps. He stopped going to church. “I got tired of trying to live up to an image, or whatever, that somebody else was imposing on me,” he says. “I figured I’d follow my own beliefs, and I try to be a little bit more open-minded than what I heard every Sunday for years and years.”

A court date is scheduled for the end of January, and John says he’s ready to fight: “This is not gonna end unless I stand up.”

This article appears in the January 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

DC Housing Review

January 15, 2018 | The Scoop

2017 was the year that a(n orange) real estate magnate took over the White House. It’s fitting, then, that developers who were already operating in the District continue to rake in the dough.

The local residential market may be cooling off a bit, but it’s still hot. Rents remain high despite new housing supply, and tenants—especially those who have lived here for years—are feeling the financial pressure. While D.C. home prices haven’t jumped as in past years, homes get sold quickly.

At the same time, many downtown office spaces remain vacant as organizations’ needs change. In light of this and scarce housing overall, some developers are weighing office-to-residential conversions.

Against that backdrop, the District government keeps touting its recent investments in affordable housing. But this year, it also limited access to emergency family homeless shelters and granted subsidies collectively worth tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to for-profit development firms.

(WCP)

A National Geographic Photographer Reflects on a Life in the Wild

January 12, 2018 | jeblog, John Eric

Seventeen years ago, a hippopotamus family slowly wandered down a white sand beach on the western coast of Gabon and Michael “Nick” Nichols followed them with his camera lens. He was on a long photography assignment for National Geographic, traveling more than 2,000 miles from the Republic of the Congo to Gabon with explorer Michael Fay and writer David Quammen, and would walk the beach in the mornings looking for animals.

Soon, the heavy hippos got into the Atlantic Ocean and began to surf the waves. This serves a purpose, Nichols says, as they walk from their lagoon to the ocean in the mornings and use the waves to carry them down a few miles where they can feed on new grass at night.

“It’s 4 a.m., we’re trying to get the surfing hippos coming up out of the surf,” Nichols said in his easy Southern drawl during a video diary at the time. “It’s very, very difficult to see them. But they symbolize something in my photography, too. Because I go after things that are unseen.”

Nichols ran back and forth on the beach, trying to get precise shots that would illustrate his goal of “trying to tell a story that might make people care about nature, and nature being wild.”

He succeeded. His surfing hippo photo was selected as one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential Images of All Time in 2016.

Nichols, 65, hails from Muscle Shoals in northern Alabama, near the Tennessee River. His mother raised three children with a fourth grade education. While playing as a child, he’d create his own fantasy worlds. “A forest behind the house would be the jungles of Africa. That, I think, led to where I went.”

The first time he picked up a camera in a college introductory photography course, he became enamored with the medium and knew he wanted to pursue it as a career. “I borrowed [a camera] that was on my shoulder for the rest of my life,” he says. That same semester, in 1972, he was drafted into the Army. He was able to keep up his skills during his service, however: His military identification card labeled him an official U.S. Army photographer. “Somehow, he persuaded them to hand him a camera instead of a gun,” Quammen said at a recent event. Quammen once asked Nichols what he would have done with his life had he been born long before the creation of photography. Nichols responded: “Well, I’d be in jail, I guess.”
Michael Nichols

In the Army, Nichols was depressed. He was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, looking for a creative outlet. He began exploring and photographing the state’s caves on the weekends. It was on these excursions that he taught himself about lighting and the functional techniques required to be a professional photographer. After completing three years of military service, he left the Army in 1975.

He started submitting his portfolio to National Geographic and received only rejection letters in return. But German educational magazine Geo, launched in 1976, was looking for reliable photographers stateside and came across his cave work. They were impressed, assigning him a cave story to photograph in 1978, which they published in 1979. He kept working for them, photographing dangerous river expeditions, rappelling off mountains in the Arctic. He went to caves all over the country, from Georgia to New Mexico. “People talk about danger, I never thought about danger, I just wanted to get pictures,” he says.

For the next ten years, he’d publish photos in Rolling Stone, Audubon, and Esquire. In 1989, he finally broke through with National Geographic, when the magazine asked him to return to New Mexico to photograph Lechuguilla Cave. He continued freelancing for the magazine for years. In 1996, he was hired as a staff photographer and after that, he never worked anywhere else, retiring from his official duties as editor at large for photography in 2015.

These days, he can look back on his career and all of the things he’s done with the perspective he couldn’t have when he was in the thick of it all. Nichols’ images for National Geographic are full of movement, brutality, and enduring life. Some are just as challenging to look at as they were to take. Some required him to venture into dense forests that no human had ever entered, others to get intimate with elephants and witness chimpanzees be tortured in the name of science. These challenges, he says, are a way to make people care.

Using camera traps—remotely activated cameras with motion sensors—and every manner of lens, he’s photographed Jane Goodall’s work and interactions with chimpanzees. He’s captured suffering chimps as scientists experiment on them, and chimps encountering humans for the first time as thousands of insects swirled around him. He’s gotten pictures of lowland gorillas, lions and tigers with their cubs, bears taking baths, herds of hundreds of elephants, owls with talons larger than human hands, the wilds of Yellowstone, and giant 3,200-year-old trees.

He now understands that his photos can help save the Earth and combat its human-accelerated destruction.

“‘Wild’ is an idea,” he says. “We don’t understand it, but we’ve got it in us. A lot of our behaviors are driven by that. So, that’s what the animals taught me. The planet is just not intact without the wild. And we’ve got to help keep it wild, we don’t want to tame it. Tame is so boring. The unpredictability of the wild is so special.”
In every project, he’s sure to not aggravate or harm the animals in any way. “If an animal told me it didn’t like what I was doing, I stopped doing it.” Once he realized that elephants hated camera flashes, he never used flashes again near them.

His work with National Geographic has brought about real change. Photos and data from his 2,000 mile trek through central and western Africa, on which he photographed the surfing hippos, were shared with Gabon’s president Omar Bongo, who was shocked to learn that all this natural beauty existed in his own country. This led to the creation of 13 national parks in Gabon, and brought significant U.S. funding to the Congo Basin.

“The most important thing in conservation is land, and that’s why what Fay and I did is so important, because we actually saved land,” Nichols says now.

His last international assignment sent him to Tanzania’s Serengeti plains in 2012. He had always dreamed of doing a photo project on Serengeti lions and entering their world. Using a robotic camera, he did, getting up close with several prides. He shot 200,000 pictures of the lions. National Geographic cut that down to about 13, he says.

But failures have also stuck with him and he’s learned from them. When he was on his final assignment at Yellowstone National Park from 2014 to 2015, he wanted to capture specific images of wolf packs. They didn’t let him, though, and avoided the areas where the cameras were set up. Nichols accepted the failure because the animals were wild, and the wild didn’t belong to him. “They defeated me completely. We learned that they are that wary, and it was cool to know that. Failure can sometimes be very positive.” 10NNW Michael Nichols WILD Exhibit39
Michael Nichols

Now he and his wife Reba, who have two adult sons, live in Sugar Hollow, Virginia, near Charlottesville and are, fittingly, still surrounded by nature. Instead of lions and tigers, he’s fallen in love with owls and the occasional bear, and recently got an iPhone X to take photos of his Australian cattle dog, Thermal. He sets simple camera traps on his land to try and capture the elusive coywolf. He’ll never stop being a photographer.

In all his adventures traversing the globe, his pictures haven’t come without a cost. By the time he got to the lion project, his body, he says, was starting to break. He’s contracted malaria more than 20 times, dealt with bouts of blackwater fever, and had five knee surgeries.

“It was what I begged for in life,” he says. “Once I had it, I just took it all the way, all the time. Now that I reflect on it, it was incredible to see all that. It does change you.”

For 40 years, he never stopped chasing adventure. Today, he’s trying to slow down. His photos currently adorn the walls of the National Geographic Museum on 17th Street NW in a new exhibit called Wild: Michael Nichols. It’s a celebration of his career and the nearly 30 photo assignments that have become storied images at the publication. He’s documented wildlife so well that each step of the exhibit is referred to as its own “room.” There’s a lion room, an elephant room, a chimpanzee room. The incredible photos on display represent everywhere he’s been. But where he’s going next, he doesn’t know.

“I’m just taking care of my family and my life around me, and enjoying the world around me,” he says. “Maybe someday I’ll have another project that I want to do, but I don’t know what it is right now. I’m trying to put that National Geographic guy to bed, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to die and not be a photographer.”

“Wild: Michael Nichols” is on view at the National Geographic Museum through January 15. 1145 17th St. NW. $15. (202) 857-7700. nationalgeographic.org/dc/exhibitions.

As published by Washington City Paper – Kayla Randall – 1-11-18

10NNW Michael Nichols WILD Exhibit39

09NNW Michael Nichols WILD Exhibit67

07NNW Michael Nichols WILD Exhibit58

04NNW Michael Nichols WILD Exhibit48

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