A pinhole camera that Volkmar Wentzel built with his photo-chemist father at age nine in Dresden, Germany, launched him on a long and adventurous career. “My camera became the passport to a fascinating life,” he once said.
During World War II, he helped develop a new technique for rapidly charting North Africa and other military targets. As an aerial photographic intelligence officer in the Pacific theater, he was decorated for his service and cited for heroism that saved lives.
Among his outstanding assignments for National Geographic was a two-year photo-survey of India. In an ex-ambulance that he converted to a rolling darkroom and sleeping quarters, he explored some 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) of that vast subcontinent. He photographed maharajahs on tiger hunts, dined with Pandit Nehru, visited with Gandhi, and descended 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) into the hot depths of the Kolar gold mines.
As a member of a joint Yale University-National Geographic zoological expedition, Wentzel braved leech-infested jungles and pelting snow to make the first photographs and motion pictures of eastern and western Nepal. Among them was a spectacular view of Mount Everest later used by Sir Edmund Hillary to plan his historic climb.
After retiring from National Geographic in 1983, Wentzel devoted himself to an important collection of chromes, negatives, and glass plates—preserving, printing, publishing, and exhibiting them around the United States. His book, Washington by Night, was published in 1993 concurrent to an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. For his artistry Wentzel was decorated by Austria and knighted by Portugal.