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National Geographic: ‘America’s lens on the world’ marks its 125th birthday

A man touches a photo as he visits a photographic exhibition of National Geographic Society in Gijon, Spain, July 19, 2007.


My childhood experiences of National Geographic mostly occurred in my doctor's waiting room, so my deepest gut feelings towards the magazine are anxiety and boredom. Wonder came third, though for the magazine, provoking wonder at the world's diversity and magnificence has always been a top priority. It's no surprise that part of Geographic's 125th birthday celebration is a set of three oversized books full of photos meant to astonish you at almost every page. The $500 (U.S.) set, from German photo-book specialist Taschen, is a pictorial history of the splendours and shortcomings of the publication that became – to crib from the title of a 1987 history – "America's lens on the world."

National Geographic is one of the most-circulated and longest-kept periodicals, and has expanded into the digital age with a dynamic web site and a YouTube channel that boasts over 1 billion views. In recent decades, it has focused on issues such as global warming, habitat decay and conflict over resource exploitation. But for much of its history, it avoided suffering and strife, and anything else not in harmony with what David Brinkley, in a brief Taschen essay, calls "a middle-American sense of status quo." The magazine, guided throughout its history by a well-connected Washington family dynasty, has always claimed to be apolitical, but has traditionally offered soft but potent support for American global interests and prejudices.

It first appeared in 1888 in a plain brown cover, as a text-heavy journal aimed at gentlemen scholars and adventurers like those who had founded the National Geographic Society a few months earlier. The magazine soon formalized a gentlemanly approach to its subject, pledging that "only what is of a kindly nature is printed about any country or people, everything unpleasant or unduly critical being avoided."

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The magazine's early editors quickly grasped how the still-new medium of photography could tell vivid stories to a broader public. Geographic was a genuine trail-blazer in that sense, pushing ahead of the pack with "natural colour" photography after the First World War, and adopting 35-millimetre Kodachrome in 1938, just two years after it was introduced. The richness of that now-vanished film type became part of the magazine's visual signature, and the basis for "the cheery Kodachrome travelogues that were once such a popular Geographic staple," as Mark Collins Jenkins writes in another short essay in the Taschen books.

In the Geographic world, there were no dull views or ordinary vistas. Wherever the magazine's cameras went, they pursued a visual aesthetic of the marvellous. Each issue offered a magic carpet ride that skimmed past the unpleasant stuff and encouraged the feeling that the world Out There was a wonderful place. There were three broad categories of sights to be seen Out There: colourful locals, majestic wilderness, and picturesque settlements. The notion that there might be versions of modernity Out There that conflicted with the American norm was discouraged.

You can see this in the Taschen books, which are full of images of brown people naked or in traditional costume, living in rustic simplicity. There are 229 pages of African photographs, but only eight show the modern urban Africa where 40 per cent of the continent's population lives. The most recent of these urban pictures was taken in 1970.

The five images of indigenous people in the America volume all date from 1916 or earlier, and are faced without comment by this quotation from a 1937 Geographic article: "After these enterprising people had discovered America, populated it, and developed their interesting and diverse cultures, it remained for the Europeans to discover the Indians." That line is both shocking and up-front about the traditional Geographic point of view, which attributed action and progress to American settlers and their heirs, and passivity to almost everyone else.

There was no place in that scheme for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, so Geographic ignored the USSR until Richard Nixon visited in 1958. It then got the vice-president to write a piece for the magazine, called Russia As I Saw It.

At about the same time, the magazine moved towards a more photojournalistic visual style, with "less posing, fewer costumes [and] a more natural feel," writes Mr. Jenkins. The change in visual orientation anticipated a slow shift in overall attitude that eventually allowed Geographic to explore what might not be right with the world. The first issue of the current anniversary year, for example, featured a 40-page cover feature called Rising Seas, including a 10-page fold-out poster that showed what shorelines would look like if all the ice caps melt.

But a more journalistic approach didn't fully displace the old ways of depicting things Out There. The August issue's cover feature on the chemistry and economic history of sugar is followed by a photo spread of costumed Indian mahouts sitting on brightly decorated elephants, one of which has been made up like a stylized U.S. flag. With a few tweaks to the brief text, this item could have run in any issue in the past 80 years. Geographic also retains a soft spot for pristine wilderness and spectacular photography, whatever the topic. Every recent issue opens with Visions, a short barrage of striking disconnected images, some of them contributed by readers. Geographic hasn't really gone through phases, it has just added layers to what it has always been, the way a tree grows new rings.

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In 1995, National Geographic started a Japanese-language edition, and has since spun off versions of itself in over 30 languages (Canadian Geographic is an unrelated publication, founded by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 1930). The satellite editions' websites show strong family resemblance, though "America's lens on the world" is no longer singular nor entirely American. It has become a prism, through which children in doctors' waiting rooms, and less anxious readers, will go on discovering aspects of the world for years to come.

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