‘I Like to Play’
Campus Loses Half a Photographic Institution
Here are 10 things you didn’t know—call them snapshots—about Bill Branson, the longtime NIH photographer who retired Apr. 29, but who, along with his brother and fellow photographer Ernie, made “Call the Bransons” as reliable a professional shorthand as “Make a Xerox copy” or “Google it.”
- He used to play tackle football, without equipment, with a bunch of Bethesda neighborhood kids on the land where the NIH Firehouse now stands.
- He was a track athlete at both Walter Johnson High School and Montgomery College, competing in pole vault, high jump and javelin, and was on MC’s first swim and track teams.
- While in Marine Corps boot camp on Parris Island, he was the corps champion in pull-ups and was one of the four best riflemen in his battalion.
- He came under friendly fire as a Marine serving in Vietnam and later drove the truck that transported the shooter and his victims to a helo pad for medical evacuation.
- He once pulled from his beard an Ascaris (parasitic worm) that had crawled out of his intestines and up his esophagus while he was asleep in Isfahan, Iran.
- He has lived and worked in both Peoria, Ill., (laborer by day, restaurant by night) and Barrow, Alaska, (janitor, videographer) but cannot recommend that anyone consider them retirement destinations; Phoenix, however, where he was an apartment manager for 3 months, is okay.
- He once flew home from Europe and, discovering there was no one to pick him up at Dulles, simply unpacked the 10-speed bike he had bought in England and pedaled back to Bethesda.
- He’s probably the only guy you know who graduated from Mankato State University, a Minnesota school he chose only because it was cooler than Vieques, Puerto Rico, where he mustered out of the Marines following a 3-year hitch.
- He spent time as a teacher in both Mexico City and in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, where he introduced basketball to middle schoolers and acquired a lifelong love of squash.
- He trekked for 3 months by bus with 23 other travelers from Katmandu to London, stopping along the way to hike for 10 days in Nepal.
- While getting his master of fine arts degree in photography at Southern Illinois University, he lived in a series of rooming houses and trailer parks with Ernie and both earned internships on the local daily newspaper, the Southern Illinoisan.
Wait. Was that 11 items? The snapshots should be generous—together they sketch a biography testifying to resilience, adaptability and adventure that will likely beggar Branson’s post-retirement gig: assembling, at the request of the Office of Intramural Research, the vast archive of photos he took at NIH from January 1984 until the present. He has been given an office in the Cloister to tackle this task, as the Office of NIH History’s emeritus photographer.
“They told me I can be as busy as I like,” said Branson, who, in reviewing his life, realized, “I’ve had kind of this Forrest Gump mentality. [Gump] went to get the mail and just kept running.”
There may be no better way to describe Bill Branson than as an ambassador whose good-nature and talent won him the respect not only of NIH leadership and the many IC and NIH directors whom he served, but also a worldwide cast of friends with whom he still plans adventures.
Topping the latter list is completion of the 300-mile Catamount Ski Trail in Vermont, only half of which he has finished. “I want to be an end-to-ender,” he said. “There’s only about 80 of us.”
“I always knew Bill was amazing, and whenever he passed me on Jones Bridge Rd. on the way to work, I knew he must not be new at biking,” said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins. “But I had no idea of his checkered past. Talk about a non-linear pathway! But Bill has brought all of those experiences to his work at NIH and we are the better for it. Nobody had to say ‘cheese’ when Bill was taking the pictures. His skill and happy demeanor just made you smile.”
“Bill is as much a part of NIH as any person or structure on campus,” said NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci. “It is hard to imagine this place without Bill running around and climbing up a ladder with his camera, telling us one of his silly jokes to get us to smile. He has documented almost everything that I have done over the past 4 decades, from being the photographer at my wedding 32 years ago to taking the annual picture of me with my laboratory. We will certainly miss him.”
Added NIA director Dr. Richard Hodes, “Bill Branson is an extraordinary person who both captured photographically and himself became an integral part of NIH, its mission and its history. Each of Bill’s pictures evokes not only the memory of those photographed, but of Bill himself as dynamic and delightful friend, behind the camera, on ladder, on foot or on bike. It is our great fortune that Bill’s lifelong adventures brought him to NIH for a memorable stay.”
Branson, who just turned 70, didn’t pick up a camera until well after college. After spending 13 months teaching middle school to the children of Yugoslav and Greek immigrants in Australia, and having no job to return to stateside, “I took my time coming home. I flew off to Singapore and bought a camera [an Olympus OM-1], then traveled to Malaysia” before embarking on the epic truck ride from Katmandu to London.
“I took some photos on that trip,” he recalls, “and still have some of the color slides.”
It was in London that he purchased a Dawes 10-speed bike, got a youth hostel card then pedaled north out of town—“It took forever to get out of London”—falling in with two Americans from Washington State who had been cycling around Europe. The three rode together throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
In August 1975, after safely biking home from Dulles—a cop had pulled him over on the access road for doing 17 in a 65 mph zone and warned him not to get on the Beltway—Branson worked briefly for the Census Bureau before wanderlust struck him again.
A friend talked him into attending the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. They paid $300 for a VW bus, with the goal of visiting Alaska after the games.
Halfway across Canada, roughly north of Minnesota, the VW broke down. Branson found a replacement engine in a local junkyard and installed it himself; he was bound and determined to see the Canadian Rockies.
Once he reached Seattle, he became reacquainted with one of his bicycling pals from Europe, now working as a TV anchor. Branson stayed with him, sold the VW bus and got talked into flying to Barrow for a job. That’s where health and photography finally married.
Branson worked by night as a janitor in an Eskimo school, and then, because he had been a phys ed/health major at Mankato State, got a day job doing video documentation of the realities of rural health care for the North Slope Borough department of health & social services, which serves an area the size of Utah. The video gig paid $100 a day, enough for Branson to hire a high school student to assist him.
“That turned out really well,” he recalls. “I also did still photography for brochures and pamphlets.”
The school where he worked had a darkroom to which, as janitor, he had a key. He called Ernie, by then at SIU, “and he taught me over the phone how to process and print” film.
After 5 months in Barrow, a bare-knuckled whaling town, Bill was persuaded by Ernie to enroll in graduate school at Southern Illinois. “I don’t think I hesitated,” he recalls.
They converted their trailer’s bathroom and bedroom into a film processing laboratory and learned the trade together. Ernie graduated first and Bill stayed on for another year, finishing his MFA and working in the school’s botany department, where he had his own lab and a salary that paid tuition.
“I moved into a better trailer, too,” Bill laughs.
Ernie got hired at NIH, but it would be several years, and jobs, before Bill joined him. Bill worked at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, doing soup-to-nuts photography. “It was a sweatshop, but I learned a lot.”
In January 1984, Bill arrived at NIH as a photographer in the medical arts department, where he has remained, documenting presidential visits, major events, IC ceremonies, celebrities (for Bill Gates, he was given 20 seconds) and, for 32 years, weeklong Camp Fantastic assignments.
“What I take from my perspective is what a great place this really is,” he said. “There is such a variety of professions. People are really dedicated to their jobs here. I have yet to see anyone goofing off, everyone’s crankin’.”
He continued, “I have a great deal of respect for the mission here, and for NIH leadership, which is why I stayed so long. I’ve always been made to feel like a team member by the IC directors. I feel like I’m part of their world, but at the same time I’m not under anyone’s thumb.” He estimates, “99.9 percent of my customers have been really great.”
He also treasures the variety of friendships he’s made. “I’ve got a really good network of friends here…It’s nice to hang out with smart people,” he said. “You kind of hope some of it rubs off on you.”
In retirement, Branson, who confesses, “I like to play,” will indulge interests in paddling canoes, kayaks and stand-up boards, mountain and road biking, hiking and perhaps fishing with Ernie.
He plans to remain in the Bethesda area, with its access to beaches and mountains and rivers, but acknowledges a yearning for the Pacific Northwest.
Never too keen on photography’s digital turn, he doesn’t expect to be taking a lot of photos in retirement. “To take good pictures, it’s not easy. I worked night and day at it for so long. And besides, everybody has a camera now, with smartphones being so common.”