Senior Writer William Oscar (Bill) Johnson and Photographer Jerry Cooke, the talented combination that produced the Yugoslavian travel story that begins on page 86, have been traveling the world as a team for SI since 1969. In Norway, Austria, China, Russia, Japan, Switzerland and now Yugoslavia they have dealt with and survived, at times triumphantly, tangled bureaucracies, exotic customs and some of the world's more challenging cuisines. "We had a problem with a boiled sheep's head in Norway," says Cooke. "In China," says Johnson, "we had a meal they said was pig but we think might have been dog."
At first glance, Johnson and Cooke would appear mismatched, something of a journalistic odd couple, in fact. Cooke's tailor is Savile Row. Johnson's is L.L. Bean. Cooke's pace in all things is measured. Johnson's is often frantic. When Johnson travels he carries two dirty duffel bags, a typewriter and, frequently, the manuscript of a novel in progress. Cooke packs, in addition to several hundred pounds of photographic gear, a silk dressing gown, a reading light, a 220-volt coffee pot, soup cubes, Mozart on tape and several articles carefully clipped from The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal for reading on planes. Cooke was born in Russia in 1922 and lived in India, Italy and Germany before settling in the U.S. in 1939. He speaks six languages, and in his English there remains just a hint of a Continental accent. Johnson, who was born in Wanamingo, Minn. in 1931, has polished his native tongue in Georgia, Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, but Minnesota survives unmistakably in his vowels.
Yet the chemistry works. "I couldn't think of anybody better to travel with," says Johnson. "It's hard to go someplace Cooke hasn't been, and he never forgets anything. He first went to Yugoslavia 29 years ago, the same year I graduated from college, and he still remembers restaurants, details of scene and history—everything." Says Cooke, "It isn't easy for a writer and a photographer to travel together. Their aims are so different. But we seem to do it very well. We don't get in each other's way."
In 1973, Cooke and Johnson joined a delegation of U.S. basketball players on a trip to China, the fourth such visit allowed following the 1971 thaw in Sino-American diplomatic relations. Both agree that the trip was the high-water mark of their travels together. "It was like going to the moon," says Johnson. "Like nothing you could imagine." One of their stops was Tao Chiao, China's famous Swimming Village on the Pearl River. Says Johnson, "When we arrived, just the two of us and our interpreter on our own boat, everybody jumped in the river. The entire town. The water was filled with heads. It was like being the Messiah."
October 23, 1983
The product of that trip was "Faces on a New China Scroll" (SI, Sept. 24 and Oct. 1, 1973), a memorable story to match a memorable event, the lifting of the so-called Bamboo Curtain. This February, the Winter Olympics will be held in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia—for the first time in a socialist country—and Johnson and Cooke have come up with a story to do justice to the event.