National Geographic's Evolving Image

Magazine's path from `picture book' to poignant chronicler of events is traced in book, Washington show

Marking the evolving role of photography, ``National Geographic: the Photographs'' is a collection of 245 quintessential National Geographic images. Rather than simply documenting events or recording the physical appearance of their subjects, each photograph tells a story and gives the viewer a deeper understanding of its subject.

Leah Bendavid-Val's book (published by Thomasson-Grant and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 363 pp., $50) emphasizes the magazine's modern era. This period roughly coincides with the tenure of current editor, Gilbert Grosvenor. When he took up the post in 1970, the magazine began covering more realistic and sometimes controversial subjects, such as life in Harlem and Cuba under Fidel Castro.

The purpose of photography at the National Geographic Society was originally to ``educate members and to support scientific research,'' Bendavid-Val writes. As technology ad-vanced, photography became an increasingly important part of the magazine, though it was sometimes thought to be frivolous. In the early years of National Geographic, two members of the board of trustees resigned in protest over the magazine becoming a ``picture book.''

``Born in an age of invention, the National Geographic Society fostered photographic invention, particularly the use of color,'' Bendavid-Val writes.

``National Geographic magazine's brand of photography blossomed when photography became the key to reporting world events. Later, when television lifted the news burden from the still image, National Geographic magazine's approach to photography persisted. Ideas about what made a good picture ran deep, linking one generation to the next.''

Recent years have seen further changes in photography at the Geographic. Photographs such as an image of an accused Kurdish terrorist in a Turkish court would not have been published in past years, Bendavid-Val says.

To the media-weary public, a photograph like this may seem somewhat tame compared with the riveting and often bloody images splashed across the pages of weekly news magazines.

But such a photograph is significant for two reasons. First, it illustrates how far the Geographic has come from days when only the bright and intriguing side of exotic subjects were published.

Second, the photograph of the accused terrorist - as well as other poignant photos in the collection - tells its story in a subtle yet powerful manner, which is what the Geographic perhaps does best. With so many shocking images available to us - so many that they become easy to dismiss - perhaps the more restrained images of the National Geographic are somehow more real and also more human.

``National Geographic: the Photographs,'' billed by the society as a ``landmark book,'' which also gives the ``inside story'' about being a Geographic photographer, is accompanied by an exhibit at the society's headquarters in Washington.

A minor disappointment is that some of the photographs are the same ones used in ``Odyssey,'' a book of National Geographic photography as art published by Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art and the society in 1988.

Though the books' purposes are somewhat different, they seem to overlap, lessening the ``landmark'' quality of the more recent publication. Surely, with thousands of images in archives, the editors could have published a brand-new collection.

Nonetheless, the book and exhibit will appeal to the magazine's readers as well as photography buffs. National Geographic photography is a wonderful example of how images can not only appeal to the eye, but also arouse curiosity, educate, and bring the faraway closer to home.

* National Geographic: the Photographs will be on display at the society's Explorers Hall until Jan. 8, 1995.

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