Arts, Culture & Media

National Geographic celebrates 125 years of iconic photography



National Geographic

For generations of armchair adventurers and nature enthusiasts alike, National Geographic magazine has been essential reading.

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In its October issue, the magazine is celebrating its 125th anniversary and revisiting some of its most iconic photographs — that haunting image of a young Afghani refugee girl is on the cover.

In a way, National Geographic's photo archives are also an archive of modern photography. As cameras became better and more compact, some previously impossible photos became possible.

But, for a magazine that is now defined by it's dramatic photos, National Geographic's beginning was more visually modest, says Sarah Leen, the magazine's director of photography.

"The first issue in 1888 was pretty much like a little pamphlet almost. It was started as a scientific journal that reported back from explorers and scientists that were sent out into the field," Leen said. "It was just only text at the very beginning."

The magazine didn't start using photographs until 1904 when an article fell through and the editors decided to fill the space with a set of images from Tibet. Though it would eventually kickstart modern photojournalism, the story was not well-received by all.

"Some people were shocked and dismayed and thought it was just the end of everything," Leen said

Similarly, National Geographic was one of the first magazines to run photos of topless women, often from different parts of the world. The magazine's photographers, Leen said, often hear from men who say National Geographic was the first place they ever saw a bare-breasted woman.

After one "poor soul" sifted through all 125 years of the magazine, they found that there had been 529 bare-breasted photos published throughout National Geographic's history. That discovery gave Leen the idea to do a feature called "Naked Truth" in the October issue.

"Everybody always mentions the nudity in National Geographic," Leen wrote in an introduction for the feature. "For the special issue of photography we figured we should mention it too and document how much the magazine has actually published."

As camera technology continues to push the devices into smaller and stronger packages, they are becoming more accessible than ever. Leen says she welcomes the change.

"It' just an exciting time for photography in general," she said. "I mean, I'm one of those people, you know. I'm photographing with my phone all the time and posting to my Instagram feed, and we have a really robust Instagram feed ourselves."

National Geographic's Instagram feed currently has 2.3 million followers, a sign that quality photography has an audience in the interconnected world.

"Photography can help you relate and connect to other people and get you to care about things," Leen said. "And I think once you start getting people to care about things you can get them to get involved and maybe even help change the world."

  • 11-01_NGM_125_1013.jpg

    Steve McCurry’s iconic photograph of a young Afghan girl in a Pakistan refugee camp appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine’s June 1985 issue and became the most famous cover image in the magazine’s history. It also graces the cover of the 125th anniversary issue


    Steve McCurry/National Geographic

  • 12-02_bigger_thaw_1013_MM7246_002.jpg

    2006 Columbia Glacier, Columbia Bay, Alaska. When James Balog first photographed the debris-streaked Columbia Glacier, its face had retreated 11 miles since 1980. That pace compelled him to launch the Extreme Ice Survey, installing cameras at 18 glaciers to witness climate change.


    Photo: Extreme Ice Survey with Matthew Kennedy

  • 13-03_bigger_thaw_1013_MM7246_003.jpg

    2012 Columbia Glacier, Columbia Bay, Alaska. Iceberg-choked Prince William Sound reveals that the retreat of the Columbia Glacier is accelerating: It’s lost two more miles of ice in six years. And since 1980 it has diminished vertically an amount equal to the height of New York’s Empire State Building.


    James Balog/National Geographic

  • 14-04_north_korea_1013_MM8203_007.jpg

    At dawn, portraits of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il are still lit up in Pyongyang. Even during the city’s blackouts, electricity is reserved to light the flame atop Juche Tower.


    David Guttenfelder/National Geographic