WASHINGTON — At first, Norm Matheny wasn't really interested in becoming a photographer.
He was working in the production side of The Christian Science Monitor at the time, and his ambition was to be a reporter. Like other young employees on the way up, he tried to write stories as often as he could. Unlike many of his fellows, he took well-composed photos of the people and places he covered - and some of those pictures caught the eye of the Monitor's legendary photographer Gordon Converse.
Was Norm interested in joining the paper's photography corps?
Norm didn't think so. Writing was his goal.
"Then Gordon said, 'There's a lot of travel, and it pays better than reporting,' " says Norm. "I said, 'Oh, really?' "
Thus did a self-described farm boy from Oregon find a life's work of self-expression. Over three decades of work he refined a worldly, expressive photojournalism that was always recognizable as his own. He always tried for something deeper than just a pretty, posed shot. He looked for the flash of action or emotion - the laughing camel, the cock of JFK's head - that expressed a truth about the moment.
Along the way he visited every continent on earth. He went down in nuclear submarines and up in tiny aircraft. He went to China three times, the South Pole twice, South Africa when it was explosive, and the Middle East at its most dangerous. He was based in Washington for 20 years, from Lyndon Johnson's second term through Ronald Reagan's first.
He saw the doomed shah of Iran reviewing his troops at an desert parade. He rode a C-130 airlifter on skis as it dove to the ice cap to insert a research crew hundreds of miles from the nearest human. He gave a Chinese government guide a tip big enough to buy a refrigerator. (The functionary has since moved to the United States. Norm is going to visit him in retirement.) Among Norm's regrets: He never got to Tibet. Or outer space. "I gave up on the moon a long time ago," he says.