• January 27, 2014

Bill Bonner: The Archivist of Photographic Memories

Bill Bonner has seen hundreds of thousands of photographs during his 31 years as the archivist at National Geographic. In fact, he watches over some eight million images in the vintage collection.

Before I met Bill, I thought I knew what having a photographic memory meant—you know, being able to remember everything you see. But he showed me another side, one that is literally filled with memories, both simple and important.

A hand-tinted photograph from the early 1900s found in the vintage collection of National Geographic, overseen by Bill Bonner.
A hand-tinted photograph from the early 1900s found in the vintage collection of National Geographic. Excerpt from video by Kathryn Carlson

Bill works alone, in a cold windowless room in the basement of National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington. But even though he spends the days mostly by himself, he says he is kept company by the millions of people immortalized in the photographs. To him, they are his ancestors, and he treats each photo like it is the greatest treasure in the world.

Before picking up any photo, he dons one of his many white cloth gloves to protect the integrity of the image. He can look at a picture he hasn’t seen in five years and be able to tell you the photographer who took it, the location, the assignment it was taken on and what was happening in it.

Bill Bonner oversees 8 million images in the vintage collection of National Geographic. Excerpt from video by Kathryn Carlson
Bill Bonner oversees 8 million images in the vintage collection of National Geographic. Excerpt from video by Kathryn Carlson

The respect that Bill shows each photograph is heartwarming. He firmly believes that each image holds a memory, and in many cases those memories have been buried alive by time. They are forgotten and unseen by the outside world, even though they hold great insights into its past.

Autochromes on display in the vintage collection of National Geographic supervised by Bill Bonner. Excerpt from video by Kathryn Carlson.
National Geographic autochromes on display in the archives overseen by archivist Bill Bonner. Excerpt from video by Kathryn Carlson

The first time I went downstairs to film Bill for this video, he was busy searching for old photos about South Africa, at the request of a magazine editor. One of the unpublished images he pulled has stuck with me. It was taken during the apartheid era at Christmas time, and it showed dozens of white men standing along a pool’s edge, tossing money into the water where black mine workers were fighting for their Christmas bonuses. It was a simple photograph, but it thrust me into the small, yet appalling moments of racism. There were no broken bones, no starving children, no corrupt cops. But there was degradation. There was merciless humor. There was struggle, strength, pride, hope, pain, entitlement, hate. That photo showed me apartheid. And Bill remembers that image, and those people, and the photographer every single day. He pays homage to their lives by keeping these moments safe in his memory, and sharing them with anyone who wants to learn.

View more photographs from the archive on the National Geographic Found Tumblr.

Kathryn Carlson was the most recent multimedia apprentice for National Geographic

There are 50 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Shawn
    February 3, 2015

    Thank you for this. I really appreciated the respect Bill gives all the photographs. I’ve always loved looking at old photographs because you see people long gone who remain living through the pictures. I recently watched Ken Burns classic film, “Baseball” and loved seeing the vintage photos. It’s haunting and beautiful to enjoy the pictures of people’s lives who are immortalized through photographs.

  2. Betty Pierce
    November 20, 2014

    Love NG but it would add to our education if you would include the option of speaking/meaning for any word or name used.

  3. Sandra García Pérez
    May 30, 2014

    Yo también he trabajado de archivera en mi país España y conozco esa sensación de familiaridad que surge entre nosotros y los documentos que están a nuestro cargo. Me ha encantado el video pero me he quedado con ganas de conocer más del trabajo de William.¿Hay algún artículo sobre cómo se organiza este fascinante archivo? Me está siendo imposible localizarlo por ningún sitio.
    Saludos desde España.

  4. Judy Rugg
    May 17, 2014

    I would like to make a suggestion that National Geographic dedicate ONE month per year be dedicated to the Archives. With 8 million images you can’t run out. Starting with the oldest and most interesting images. I would look forward to that issue every year. Thanks Judy

  5. Marion
    February 19, 2014

    I know Bonner is spelled differently from Bonar, but are you related to the 19th century Bonars of Edinburgh/ New Zealand? Sometimes the spelling varied…Just wondering…

  6. littledarling
    February 6, 2014

    I love national geographic’s photograph, I love classic of these photograph. They’re great storyteller.

  7. Richard Duncan
    February 5, 2014

    Great story, realty like working with old prints and negatives myself, so it made the story even that more interesting. Spent 24 years working in NYC
    darkrooms and printed a number of vintage negatives.

    Then 12 more years doing digital printing, though not as much fun as the darkroom. Now I volunteer at a local photo archive center and get a look at old prints and negatives from the past every day and now I warm up the scanner to save the past.

  8. Roswitha B
    February 4, 2014

    Each of those pictures are like portals to the past. Magic doorways, showing us what life was like. Little time machines they are. What an awesome job!

  9. Marissa Gross
    February 4, 2014

    Such an important job to have, and a huge part of history to be responsible for indeed. I am both jealous and in awe of your position! Simply amazing!!! :)

  10. eddy de wilde
    February 4, 2014

    Good work Bill, I hope you live forever and that your library is flood proof.

  11. Margaret Walsh
    February 3, 2014

    Can we buy from the archives, I’d love to have the one with the two Native Americans. I saw others I’d like to have as well to frame and hang on the wall.

  12. S.K.Thakral
    February 3, 2014

    I am delighted on two counts. First that Nat Geo has a versatile person like Bill Bonner, who has such a fantastic memory and takes tender care of all the assets in your Archives and secondly your Archives are live and kicking and truly a treasure for the whole grateful mankind who can have a glimpse of past through this collection of images. All the Best.

    February 3, 2014


  14. Pavel
    February 3, 2014

    Amazing. This archive is a treasure and I hope it gets digitalized in the future so we can enjoy it.

  15. Joan Murphy
    February 2, 2014

    Bill, thank you for your dedication and commitment caring for these photos.How fortunate for you and all of us that you enjoy and love your work.

  16. Larry Ferguson
    February 2, 2014

    Do you have pictures involving Barry Bishop. I would love to purchase some. He came to our farm once and played in our barn.

  17. Anh
    February 2, 2014

    national geographic is treasure,Bill doing terrific job

  18. Kristin Lundgren
    February 2, 2014

    People like Mr. Bonner are part of our national treasure -those who quietly keep track of, care for, and love our heritage. Those who rarely are recognized for the enormous service they do us. I am humbly grateful, Mr. Bonner.

  19. Anita
    February 2, 2014

    Natgeo should consider offering up prints of some of Bill’s favorite photos to purchase. I looked at some of the vintage prints being offered and many of the images Bill highlights in the video piece are much more interesting and visually dynamic.

  20. Julie Gasparek
    February 2, 2014

    Truly beautiful and should be cherished !
    I she’d

  21. terronez
    February 2, 2014

    I love this kind of work myself. Would love to join Mr. Bonner as it must be a magnificent obsession

  22. Ruth Shipley
    February 2, 2014

    My husband, Richard, and I have every issue of NG since he joined the society in May 1951. Our girls used them throughout their school years; and now, the oldest says, “Don’t ever get rid of those National Geographics, Mom.” Yours is a wonderful job archiving the marvelous photos taken for Nat Geo. I envy you. And I fully appreciate what you have been doing for the past 31 years. Thank you.

  23. Mj
    February 2, 2014

    I was disappointed that the video did not CLEARLY show the photographs and chose to BLUR them ….

    • Janna Dotschkal
      February 2, 2014

      None of the photographs were intentionally blurred. The blurring that you see is due to the shallow depth of field on the video camera. You can view more photos from our archive at natgeofound.tumblr.com

  24. Thevanathan
    February 2, 2014

    Great job. Why dont you exhibit them worldwide. I appreciate the care taken by dedicated staff of NG

  25. Howard Lambert
    February 2, 2014

    Photography with film is a ‘Slice Out of Time’, a record that only gains value with time. A glimpse into the past and is man’s greatest invention. MAGIC!

  26. Dennis Foltz
    February 2, 2014

    incredible. i hope NG is digitizing all these photos.
    i also hope, as a previous commentor noted, that he has an apprentice to follow in his footsteps.
    thank you, Mr. Bonner.

  27. Sheri
    February 2, 2014

    This is a wealth of historical fact as seen through the eyes of the photographers. We may not have been a part of past happenings; however through these photographs a visual history lives on. It is wonderful to know how much this means to Bill.

  28. Vasiliy Panchenko
    February 2, 2014

    Amazing collection. Photomaterials are more significant for history than newspapers or books. Any photo may be equivalent to newspaper’s
    article or more whole newspapers
    or even millions newspapers of any
    event or day,or year,or period of any
    nation, any country…So, NG can begin provide “Historical page” on
    demography, animals, continents, war and peace, arms, clothes, shoe,
    photocameras, ships, automobiles…
    Good luck…

  29. Joyce
    February 2, 2014

    I introduced our 9 and 11 year old grandsons to NG Kids with a gift subscription. They received their first magazines this past week and were enthralled! Brought me back to my first NG in the late 40’s. And all those pictures in between are still available. Remarkable! Thank you, NG!

  30. Janet Noall
    February 2, 2014

    You, sir, are a National Treasure !

  31. Margaret
    February 2, 2014

    I see amazing photos in antique shops around town. It makes me sad that these parts of history aren’t being preserved in some way.

  32. cathie leslie
    February 2, 2014

    reminds me of this movie I saw on Masterpiece Theater “Shooting the Past” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/archive/programs/shootingthepast/

  33. Spencer
    January 30, 2014

    I know that National Geographic does live events at their headquarters, one of the events that they offer is a tour of the archives. I believe the next one is on Feb. 19th. Find the brochure here;

  34. Robert C Brooke
    January 28, 2014

    Are Rev. K.William Hagstrom’s pictures of the tiger cubs his family adopted among the images Mr Bonner has seen?They were published in the September 12,1966 issue of National Geographic School Bulletin.Are photographs published in the Bulletin filed together with those published in the Geographic?At least one photo published on the former Flashback page was originally published in the Bulletin.That was the Flashback page for November 2006.

  35. Rich
    January 28, 2014

    I agree with some of the other comments; the NGS photo collection should be displayed in an exhibit.

  36. Carolina
    January 27, 2014

    I wish I had your eyes and your job :)

  37. Lakshman
    January 27, 2014

    Its a nice page for us.

  38. Brenda Goodsell
    January 27, 2014

    I hope you have an apprentice, with the same appreciation of life, photography is the history of life.

  39. Kathryn
    January 27, 2014

    Bryan- you can see some of the archival images on the FOUND tumblr that NG has: http://natgeofound.tumblr.com/

    Those are all archival images!

  40. Liliana Moretti
    January 27, 2014

    I really would like to visit the National Geographic headquarter in Washington and its archive. Is it possible?

  41. Elizabeth Masciocchi
    January 27, 2014

    That must be amazing to look at I would love to be able to draw some if you show them could I’m to get experienced through my drawings and photography, and I love history and artifacts.

  42. shafi ullah
    January 27, 2014

    dear Bill,
    hope you are fine with good health.sir I am very interested in to watch national geographic,to search on and now wish to work for national geographic.sir can you fulfill my wishes?

  43. cristina
    January 27, 2014

    why don’t you show them in a museum or something? it will be great to see some of those pictures

  44. Dadang Wahyudi
    January 27, 2014

    What a great job he has. Not every man in this world has a chance to get close and keep the priceless photo in this universe. Awesome

  45. Bryan hood
    January 27, 2014

    It would be nice for the public to see those photos and unbury past memorize. Here is an idea post a few everyday on Facebook . They are not doing any good in a basement somewhere give em back to the people. Just a thought.

  46. Jennifer Herrera
    January 27, 2014

    I’m hoping in the event of something disasterous they have everything backed up digatally on one of Nasa’s Servers?

  47. mario
    January 27, 2014

    i love nationalgeographic

  48. Lisa
    January 27, 2014

    He has the most fantastic job, and by the looks of it, is doing a most fantastic job at it!

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