Despite the death of printed media, National Geographic seems to have continued to circulate every month since 1888. It has always been a pioneer and a showcase for photography. I confess to only flicking through copies in waiting rooms though – it was always both out of reach and not a thing we did when I was going up.
There was always that hint of imperialism too, in a ‘look at the quaint natives’ sort of way. I could be totally wrong about that though. Like I say, I was never a regular reader. All that I can really remember about it was the great photography.
Then I found a best of book in a charity shop. It’s called Through the lens: National Geographic greatest photographs. And it probably does what it says on the cover.
First impression? That photography got technically better. Look at a landscape (yes – yawn) shot on slide film and compare it with the digital stuff, even on somewhere like DIY Photography. Modern photography has finer resolution, wider dynamic range and endless opportunities for post-shot manipulation. Look at a National Geographic page and you see slide film – saturated colours, blocked shadows, high contrast. Technically you are looking at pictures spanning more than a hundred years. Some of them would be thrown out of a local camera club competition for not being sharp. But then you look at the pictures and begin to understand that the content matters more than the quality.
Remember Steve McCurry’s picture of the Afghan girl? It was on the front cover in June ’85. Seventeen years later he found the woman again and took another picture of her, holding a print of the original shot. You could say it’s a straight ‘stand against that wall, hold this, look at me, click’. But the girl was remarkable for her eyes and the woman is veiled. It makes you want to know the story.
Perhaps that is the best side of National Geographic – pictures that provoke interest and stories that explain and understand. Rather than a prurient interest in ‘foreigners’ it’s about confirming that we are all the same. Really – if the entire population of the world was wiped out except the people of Peru, humans would still retain 85% of their genetic diversity. (Superior; Angela Saini). So there is no them, only us.
[Which hasn’t stopped an idiotic political party segregating people by their names.]
There’s also the joy of being nosy. We’re social animals, so we spend a lot of time watching each other. It’s why groups of teenagers can’t just have fun – they have to have noisy fun so that other people know they are having fun. A person I know loves darker evenings, as people put their lights on but don’t pull their curtains. She’s not interested in the people as such but loves seeing other people’s houses. And it’s why I think empty landscapes can be boring.
Anyway – if you can get hold of some back issues of National Geographic, see what you think. And do get over the sharpness thing.