Friday, March 5, 2010

A Geographic View of the World


by J. Ross Baughman

Just as a river slowly changes its course, or a continent drifts across the ocean, so too the standards for photography have evolved at the National Geographic Society.

For all those who grew up reading National Geographic magazine during the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, there came to be a comforting familiarity about how the world appeared in its pages. One might gawk at the golden hours of sunrise and sunset painted across a landscape, frequently seen from a pilot's point of view. Next would come one of Norman Rockwell's kids, or a close-up of the most wrinkled face in town.

National Geographic's editors squeezed the whole world into their own little idea of a globe, even if it meant moving one of Egypt's great pyramids a few feet to the left or right with photographic magic. There was a time when the magazine's color printing was much more primitive than it is today, and so any scene from a tropical climate came out monochromatically green. To liven up their pictures, some National Geographic photographers traveled with a bright red, long-sleeved shirt in their kits so that any local person shimmying up a tree or wading across the stream could put it on and better catch the reader's eye.

When it came to looking back over the long history of the magazine for Through the Lens, however, almost none of the pictures taken from 1950 through 1980 made the cut. Of the tiny handful that did, most were taken by amateur photographers who happened to be working for NASA as astronauts. Quite tellingly, Leah Bendavid-Val and her team of editors chose 60 percent of what we see here from the work of the past decade.

With 250 pictures mostly splashed across double-page spreads, this is the largest single volume ever compiled by the society. As may be expected, the book is organized geographically into six chapters: Europe, Asia, Africa & the Middle East, the Americas, the Oceans and Space.

But this is not just a book. It will also be a marketing blitz: Released simultaneously in 20 languages, it arrives complete with an hour-long television special, a 40-image touring exhibition that will reach ten world capitals, a lecture series at the society's headquarters in D.C., and art gallery sales of selected signed prints.

In recent years, the traditional Geographic formula has finally cracked, with old-hat surveys giving way to more and more narrative moments. Putting emotions and other crucial content into the pictures seems to be the most important lesson that the society has taken to heart. For instance, they have addressed the subject of wolves over and over again. At first, the pictures only showed fleeting, shy figures, caught at a distance. When photographer Jim Brandenburg made a recent effort, in a remarkable cover story titled "At Home with the Arctic Wolf," a powerful new familiarity with the mythic creatures was set down in print. Mr. Brandenburg joined a pack while they loped across bleak landscapes and gingerly hopped from one piece of iceberg to the next.

However, not until Joel Sartore returned to the subject in 1998 did wolves, and all that they represent in the human imagination, truly come to life. If the depiction of a wolf does not have as its center of attention those canine fangs, that snarl, and the kill, then the viewer will not feel fulfilled.

Mr. Sartore would settle for nothing less. For starters, he would need a camera that could be controlled remotely from a safe distance, and because it would be smack dab in the middle of a feeding frenzy, it would also have to be wolf-proof. The technical wizards at National Geographic built him a plexiglass cylinder to house his camera; its circumference was too wide for a wolf's jaw to clamp down on it.

Once set up amid the snows of Ely, Minn., it took another week of meticulous planning for Mr. Sartore to get his image. Educators at the International Wolf Center helped supply a deer's carcass they had just found run down by a motorist, and in no time the alpha female from a nearby wolf pack made her claim. Neither Hollywood nor any ten-year-old boy could dream up a more frightening picture.

"Animals are thoughtful and emotional," believes Mr. Sartore, "and my job is to make viewers think about that. The readers of the magazine trust us to be as familiar as possible with our subjects."

Another of his best pictures is taken from the eye level of a hunting dog, still transfixed long after necessary by the pheasant in the grip of his master in Long Bow, Neb. Other, deliciously complete moments include Mr. Sartore's 77-year-old California orange picker bending his tired back; a blues guitarist wowing the ladies in Clarksdale, Miss. [William Albert Allard, 1999]; French tourists tickled to be carried ashore from an outrigger in Tahiti [Jodi Cobb, 1997]; and the wall of a mosque in Mali swarming with workers who patch its cracks [Esha Chiocchio, 2001].

Pages are set aside to honor the magazine's creative mothers and fathers. The first managing editor, Gilbert Grosvenor, showed an American inventor sailing through thin air while hanging on to his multi-winged Katydid glider back in 1907. Cannibals in Papua New Guinea slice the back of a tribal member in a "bloody and dangerous initiation rite" as recorded by F.J. Kirschbaum in 1929. At a New Year's celebration in Japan shortly after World War II, Horace Bristol saw a large room choked with thousands of barely dressed men who hurtled themselves after sacred batons.

The cursory text, written by a few scientists and a couple of the photojournalists, skates over centuries, mountains and oceans with no chance of rivaling the pictures. All in all, this is a big, gorgeous book. Also beautiful is its affordable price. Everyone who loves photography and this old world should ask for this as their next gift.

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