History of National Geographic Magazine
Today, print media is sadly on the decline and the largest newspapers, magazines, and even book publishers struggle to compete with the infinite libraries housed within our phones, tablets, and computers. On those rare times when we do come into contact with physical media—a doctor’s waiting room, a table at a coffee shop, or a lounge at an airport, we aren’t likely to be very interested in a stained copy of The Wall Street Journal or last month’s People. However, there is still one piece of print media which succeeds in catching the eye and inspiring interest and wonder even in an age when the tangible is becoming obsolete.
No other magazine but National Geographic is so symbolic of and synonymous with adventure and excitement. No other publication blends so well the thrill of travel with the aesthetic excellence of fine art, and so it is no wonder, with its full-cover images of the faraway and unseen that it still has such an impact on even the random bystander.
And such has been the case practically since the magazine was founded. For within each golden issue is held the legacy and heritage of more than 130 years.
Origins: The Society and the Magazine
On January 13, 1888, a cadre of wealthy and educated elites met together in a club in Washington D.C. to formulate plans for a new organization. Interested in science, geography, and travel, the aim of the group and their project was to drive and disseminate knowledge of the world and all its wonders. This enterprise became known as the National Geographic Society, and to achieve their goal, they compiled and printed the first National Geographic Magazine in September of that same year.
The first issue, admittedly, was somewhat lackluster. Readers could peruse a report about erosion, refresh their memory on a large Atlantic storm which had occurred that past March, or hear about the rigors and challenges of topographic mapping in the state of Massachusetts. These topics made sense, given the specialties and vocations of the men who wrote it, and the fact that the earliest issues were only circulated among society members.
Luckily, the magazine would not remain the stuffy newsletter of a private lodge for long. When Gilbert Grosvenor became editor in 1899, he transformed the magazine from a technical journal into a genuine piece of travel literature. By the early 1900s, two million subscribers could read about things like the Maori of New Zealand, glaciers in Alaska, castles of the Balkans, and the mist-wreathed peaks of the Andean highlands. It was a truly public magazine, accessible and interesting to the whole populace.
With the money from these increased subscriptions, the society was soon able to fund its own expeditions, reaching places as forbidding as the North Pole and as impenetrable as the deepest jungles of Africa, all the time generating more fantastic content in the process. For the next century, the magazine printed articles on everything from distant cultures and diverse wildlife, lost civilizations and medicine, to deep-sea expeditions, art, and space travel. The golden rectangle became synonymous with the far away, the unexplored, and the beckoning call of adventure.
National Geographic also evolved into a conduit for discussion about the dangers and challenges facing our planet. Articles on endangered animals of the savanna, bleaching of coral reefs, overfishing in our seas, and pollution of the whole climate rallied people and organizations to causes of protection and preservation. Though the society always attempted to avoid outright political bias, the magazine nonetheless strove to publicize the plight of exploited and vulnerable peoples across the globe. National Geographic is, thus, not merely a magazine; it is at once a portal into the exhilarating unknown, a celebration of the variety and beauty of the Earth, and a force for change and justice among all its inhabitants.
Photography and Visual Media
And yet, the words contained in National Geographic only make up half the story. What has truly set the magazine apart from other publications over its long lifetime is its photography.
The earliest editions of National Geographic contained only text, but with Grosvenor’s overhaul, photography soon became a major component of each issue. Along with expeditions, the funds from the massive rise in subscriptions went to hiring and supporting photographers who chronicled these incredible voyages. Grosvenor didn’t want the stiff and stale documentary photographs in style at the time, but instead encouraged the capture of dynamic images which captured the motion and vivacity of the real world. In a way, these early views and works can even be considered stepping stones to the ideas later held by Ansel Adams and Group f64.
Of course, the first images in the magazine were in black and white, occasionally accompanied by color illustrations or photographs tinted to appear in color. With the coming of the 1930s, however, and the introduction of Kodak’s revolutionary Kodachrome slide film, true color became possible and was immediately adopted for the magazine. This period also saw the invention and explosive popularity of the Leica rangefinder—a compact 35mm camera which could produce high quality images on a small emmulsive surface. National Geographic photographers were now freed from the limitations and physical burden of carrying around a tripod-mounted large-format camera, and could now engage in a truly modern form of photojournalism.
Some of the most pivotal moments and the most iconic images of the twentieth century have come from National Geographic. When NASA landed on the moon in 1969, many people saw the first high-quality stills of the stark and (literally) alien lunar surface in the December issue of that year. Famous landscape photographer Galen Rowell got his start in National Geographic and shared a new and daring world of technical rock climbing among the granite spires of the Sierras. When the Titanic was rediscovered lying at the bottom of the Atlantic, seventy-three years after its maiden and final voyage, National Geographic was there to capture the ghostly shell of its tragic luxury. Perhaps the most famous photo from the magazine, and one of the most iconic pictures of all time is that of the Afghan Girl, taken by photographer Steve McCurry in the midst of the violence and bloodshed of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Photography was and is the core of National Geographic, but other forms of visual media also played an important part in the society’s mission. Alongside photojournalists, cinematographers were also sent on far flung voyages and exhibitions to film documentaries about the spectacular and the unknown. Central American jungles, the sea floor, cave divers, Jacques Cousteau, volcanoes, outer space, Tutankhamun, and Pearl Harbor were just a few of the vast array of topics covered. Though never as popular as the magazines, these films helped bring many distant places to life and brought many important causes and struggles closer to home.
National Geographic Fine Art Galleries
There was previously a number of fine art photography galleries called the National Geographic Fine Art Galleries. I was even invited to participate as a featured artist in this galleries, an offer that I respectfully declined. The galleries were located in La Jolla, Laguna Beach, Honolulu, Miami and New York City. National Geographic has since terminated its contract with the owner of these galleries, Bekim Vessel, over legal complications, which has rebranded itself as National Gallery of Fine Art.
National Geographic Photography
Today, you can read a vast number of amazing stories and articles about National Geographic Photography on their website. A collection of amazing stories and images from around the world. National Geographic has and continues to create wonder and fascination of our incredible planet through its wealth of artists, videographers, writers and editors, bringing millions of people closer to places that may never have the opportunity to see in their lifetimes. For that, I believe we are forever in debt to National Geographic and everyone who has ever played a part in its success big or small.
All in all, the history of National Geographic is not just a story of good journalism, but a triumph of the visual arts. No other person or organization has come closer to transplanting and reproducing the true thrills of exploration, travel, and adventure. Even though the advent of the Internet and the rise of social media have dulled the exotic wonder once imparted by its pages, the continued success of the magazine shows that it was never travel which was attractive or hard-to-find, but the stories that such journeys lead to.