While vivid imagery has always been NG's stock in trade, it's tended to present anything not consonant with mainstream America as something exotic, or Other -- when it bothered to acknowledge it at all.
Billowing smoke from burning Kuwaiti oilfields in 1991 provide a dramatic background for more traditional Geographic subject matter – proof of the magazine’s gradual shift towards photojournalistic shots and tough topics.
There’s always room in National Geographic for exotic animals and tribal people in skimpy traditional costume. This 1970 image of Brazilian tribesmen carrying a python seems to imply that both are forms of “wildlife.”
(W. Jesco Von Puttkamer)
National Geographic’s hunger for dramatic animal imagery made it a fan of fast lenses and cameras made for specialized situations. An underwater camera’s glimpse down the maw of a seal achieves an almost unreal degree of clarity.
The earliest photos made for National Geographic included static, posed shots of masterly explorers, like these climbers surveying the view from a Swiss summit in 1910. Slow shutter speeds made action photos impossible.
(S. G. Wehrli)
National Geographic’s long love-affair with colour-rich Kodachrome is on vivid display in this shot of U.S. airmen watching a turbaned Moroccan snake charmer in 1954. The photo also typifies the way the magazine encouraged readers to think about West and East.
(Franc and Jean Shor)
Geographic pioneered the use of colour photography in magazines, using hand-tinting to dramatize this 1912 shot from Hong Kong. Flashes of eye-catching red became part of the magazine’s photographic style.
(S. R. Vinton / PDIL Hasselblad)