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.
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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.
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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
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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.
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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
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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
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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