50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic
National Geographic Society, 2011
Reviewed by Leo Hsu
If you enter the main entrance of the R.P. Simmons Family Gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, by the museum’s dinosaur exhibits, you will be met with the show’s title signage: “50 Greatest Photographs” printed above National Geographic’s trademark yellow rectangle logo, both alongside the words “Every Picture Tells A Story”. You can then start on your left, with Mike Nichols’ 1991 photograph of a chimpanzee playing with Jane Goodall’s hair, perhaps the most famous photograph on display, though that honor might also go to Steve McCurry’s signature 1984 portrait of Sharbat Gula, also known as “Afghan Girl,” given pride of place on a wall of its own around the corner.
However, if you enter from the doors that give access to the back staircases of the museum, you are greeted by a different panel. From a distance it reads the same as the one in front, but a close look reveals very small words interposed in the title. The text on this side is in fact a question: “If EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY what do 50 GREATEST NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTOGRAPHS say about us and OUR PLACE IN THE WORLD?” It’s a playful device; as a means of engagement it effectively invites an “aha” moment. But is this even the question that the exhibit works to answer?
In the National Geographic magazine, where photographs are displayed in the context of picture stories, text essays, and maps: yes, the magazine’s stories tell a story about our place in the world. But 50 Greatest Photographs is not only about what the fifty photographs depict, it’s also about how photography is narrated. The exhibit is a collection of stories about how pictures are made. And if we step back further, it can teach us about how photography creates larger narratives, ones that propose what the world is like by proposing what the world can look like.
For decades the National Geographic magazine has educated its readers in matters of science, technology, nature and society. At the same time the magazine has been training us to look at photography. This includes teaching its readers about innovations that allow photographers to produce images under conditions where one simply cannot expect to be - the bottom of the ocean, the top of a plane - and advancing a narrative about the courage and ingenuity of its photographers, so often recounted on the magazine’s behind-the-scenes features. Both innovation and dedication are in the service of a set of ideas about how the world can and should look.
On display in the 50 Greatest travelling show, produced in 2011, are images reaching back into the 1960s, and as recent as 2009; all were made before the advent of Instagram and you can sense the professional authority that National Geographic enjoys. While all of the images display the photograph’s date, the show feels ahistorical, as though all of the images happened or are happening at once, as close as the recent past and as geographically remote as a place that most readers will never visit (Jodi Cobb’s 1988 photograph of Times Square is an exception). There are playful arrangements, such as Kevin Schafer’s Amazon river dolphin echoing a French student smoking on a boat on the Seine in David Allan Harvey’s study of French youth. Photographs are printed on large panels that float off the walls, and are accompanied by contextual information. Sometimes we are shown the frames that immediately preceded and followed the selected image. Most images include a brief photographer’s account of how the picture was made.
The exhibit is complemented by an iPad app that includes most of the information here and more, but the physical exhibition inspires a kind of engagement that the app cannot. The feeling of moving in and out of different places and moods as you follow the spotlit images down the wall inspires reverence. Each time I visited, the galleries were well-attended, and hushed. Visitors took photos of Afghan Girl on their phones, couples moved slowly in tandem, reading the texts. It’s a monumental show that allows the visitor to dig in for detail at every opportunity.
We learn how Robert Madden made an extraordinary picture of a small aid plane crashing while landing in high winds after the 1976 Guatemala earthquake (he saw how windy the approach on the airstrip was but was surprised nonetheless). In 1977 Bruce Dale affixed a camera to the tail of a Lockheed Tristar plane and was delighted at its spectacular results. We learn that Amy Toensing had a hard time illustrating the drought in New South Wales in 2008. Her photograph of a girl shielding her eyes as the side mirror reveals a father lifting a child out of the truck bed is an incredibly strong composition. It’s also a nice call back to Arthur Rothstein’s famous “directed candid” dust bowl photograph. In both cases the photographer shows the viewer what to believe: Rothstein had to arrange that image in 1936 and Toensing notes that arid areas were hard to come by and that there is in fact a puddle in the middle of her picture. As Erroll Morris observes, “photographs concern belief, not truth”.
Between making their luck and downplaying their planning, the subtext of the show seems to be that many of these photographs were unlikely, either grasped in a few frames or through extraordinary preparation, or both. National Geographic regularly astounds its readers with photographs that seem all but impossible and the exhibit wants to confirm this. Whether it’s by sleight of hand or extreme innovation, it is amazing that these images exist at all.
Not all of the images are there because they describe the incredible; many are included because of the way that they mythologize the mundane. Running through the show is a story about the power of nature, exemplified by Joanna Pinneo’s 1997 photograph, made for a story on the effects of climate change, of women and a girl, dust on her face, napping in Mali. Others address uncontrolled technology - nature abused - as we see in Gerd Ludwig’s portrait of a group of Russian children with birth defects living in Moscow neighborhoods contaminated by industrial pollution.
How does Toensing’s, or Ludwig’s photo, or Sam Abell’s picture of pears on a window sill overlooking Red Square, or Jodi Cobb’s picture of the Colton family, “become” a National Geographic photograph? Certainly, each was assigned, and the tradition of long commitment to stories is central to National Geographic’s approach to photography. They entered the magazine as components of carefully planned essays, expressions of the photographers’ on the ground research and visualization in the service of a specific story. But somehow in this exhibition these pictures now represent something else: a larger story that imagines the world and these subjects tied into something more powerful: nature, history, beauty - majestic or melancholy. Human experience, as depicted in the National Geographic, is recognized as both particular and timeless. Human diversity is celebrated both in its mundane aspects and as exotic spectacle.
In March of this year Teju Cole wrote an essay for The New York Times Magazine in which he criticized Steve McCurry for producing photographs that persist in invoking a colonial fantasy, relying on long-held imaginations that define societies in terms of the exotic, and inevitably, as subject to Western consumption. These portrayals, notes Cole, do not do justice to the ways that lives are really lived and histories unfolded. “What honors those we look at, those whose stories we try to tell,” writes Cole, “is work that acknowledges their complex sense of their own reality. Good photography, regardless of its style, is always emotionally generous in this way. For this reason, it outlives the moment that occasions it. Weaker photography delivers a quick message — sweetness, pathos, humor — but fails to do more. But more is what we are.”
It’s worth considering how Cole’s conception of “good photography” compares with what National Geographic asserts as “great photographs”. Cole doesn’t explicitly extend his critique beyond McCurry and I don’t think anyone should paint the photographers in this exhibit with a broad brush. Nor do I think that this show is exemplary of the kind of colonial fantasy that Cole calls McCurry out for, though there are certainly elements within the show that are vulnerable to such questioning. But criticisms have been drawn against National Geographic before, perhaps most thoroughly in Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins’ Reading National Geographic where the authors analyze the magazine’s colonial eye. In these 50 Greatest Photos, is the subjects’ “complex sense of their own reality” reflected in the photographs? In Cobb’s picture of a tired man surrounded by his tired family, it surely persists. But when photographs become icons, like Afghan Girl, is there a point when their status as National Geographic images eclipses their story-telling capacity?
A tension exists between the fine, detailed knowledge conveyed in National Geographic stories, and the mythological story about our planet and its inhabitants that reaches into every spectacular, mysterious, ordinary, unlikely visual statement that the magazine’s photographers have made. 50 Greatest Photos of National Geographic presents two opportunities. The exhibition is educational both about photography and about National Geographic. But it’s also an opportunity to reflect on what happens to individual images when they become part of the larger, spectacular National Geographic narrative. What is behind the curtain behind the curtain? How do these photographs become part of a larger National Geographic story about the world, about our relationship to nature, about the role of skill and luck in establishing something that feels like a nugget of truth or an undeniable fact? The story stands so strong and massive; can you see around it?
50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
June 18–September 11, 2016
October 1, 2016–January 15, 2016
February 4 – June 4, 2017
Teju Cole "A Too Perfect Picture," The New York Times Magazine, March 30, 2016
Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins, Reading National Geographic, University of Chicago Press, 1993
Errol Morris, Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mystery of Photography, Penguin, 2014
Leo Hsu is based in Toronto and Pittsburgh.
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