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National Geographic’s American Pride

For more than 100 years, National Geographic magazine has been known for exotic photos of distant lands, but for much of that time, the magazine has been equally focused on America. A new two volume book, National Geographic, The United States of America, published next month by Taschen, collects, state by state, highlights of the magazine’s domestic photography, from Edwin L. Wisherd’s 1931 image of the the Calhoun County Free Library book-mobile in Alabama to Richard Olsenius’s 1993 view of Christmas lights on a log cabin near Grand Teton, Wyoming.

In the books’ essay, David Walker describes the particular brand of upbeat, color photography that the magazine became known for, starting in the 1920s, “as clear, aspirational, and visually enticing as a magazine advertisement,” he writes. While other visually-driven mid-century magazines cultivated a social documentary style that relied on the particular vision of the photographers they hired, National Geographic photographers “approached their work as craftsmen rather than as artists,” writes Walker (who is also an editor at PDN). The magazine was famous for its early and enthusiastic use of color photography—it first published a halftone color image in 1914, and photographers quickly switched to Kodachrome when it became available in the 1930s. National Geograph photographers, writes Walker, “were going out of their way for images with bold primary colors, particularly red, which Kodachrome reproduced so well and print engravers enthusiastically amplified in the pages of the magazine. To the chagrin of later generations of photographers, several photographers of the 1940s and 1950s even carried red shirts in their camera bags for use as visual props.”

Made at a time when domestic travel was still expensive and out of reach for many in the U.S., the magazine presented the nation’s sights—cities and countrysides, national parks, industry and people, sometimes at work but more often shown in leisure. Writes Walker, “America is home territory, and National Geographic has celebrated it with upbeat fervor for well over a century, capturing the country’s optimism, patriotism, frontier spirit, and prosperity with images that highlighted the beauty, variety, and bounty of the land, and the rugged individualism of its people.”

Related Stories:
The National Parks’ 100th Birthday, in Pictures
The Vintage Good Life Goes On
Reality Check: Randy Olson in the Glamour of Shooting for National Geographic

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