The contemporary periodical I’m choosing to examine for class is good old National Geographic magazine. This may seem like a safe or even obvious choice, but National Geographic is one of the most enduring, recognizable, and consistent periodicals of the past century. It’s an icon of the print world. For most literate people, in North America at least, this is one of the first magazines we can recall seeing and reading. National Geographic has the appearance of timelessness – Timelessness is really a rhetorical device in the dissemination and presentation of information in the magazine.What is most striking about reading National Geographic in 2012 is how similar it is to reading the magazine in 1996, 1972, or even 1888, when the society was founded.
The National Geographic society was once an exclusive, private organization of only 165 members (Grosvenor, 87), which has expanded into a populus, popular non-profit group with 8.5 million members worldwide. As a media source through their magazine, the society has been a major influence on the shape and tone of culture through the last century. The society funded scientific and exploratory ventures, including sponsorship and promotion in the work of defining 20th century figures like Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Dr. Richard Leakey (89). The focus of the magazine and society has shifted to global social and ecological problems since the 1970s, drawing attention to “ecological crisis, nuclear energy, acid rain, the pesticide dilemma, world-wide air pollution, illegal trade in wildlife, and the fate of the rain forests” (90). In a 1988 article on the history of the society for its centennial, the then-president Gilbert Grosvenor even speculated (with a vocabulary that reads quite quaintly to us now) on the future of the magazine’s print form; “What will it be like, I wonder, by the end of the National Geographic society’s second century?[ …] Will the index of all the volumes of our magazine – the entire compendium of our past – be contained in a microchip the size of my finger? Will we be disseminating geographic knowledge by laser beam through machines not yet invented instead of printing magazines, books and maps?” (92) National Geo’s often forward-looking, intellectually curious outlook has captured the imaginations of many, but vestiges of the society’s 19th century, academic beginnings remain in the look and composition of the print magazine.
I purchased most recent issue of National Geographic, May 2012, which features stories on sketches of the Civil War, threatened Koalas (I like to think of this as “the Koalacaust”), the skeletal structure of hands in various species, and conflict in Egypt. As usual, the photographs are the dominating characteristic of the magazine. The text of the articles is usually small, somewhat cramped, and hidden in caches between the sumptuous images. National Geographic is best known for the quality of its photographs, and the photographs have maintained a remarkable consistency since they first appeared in colour in 1967. There is, however, a noticeable sharpness in the digital images that have replaced the softer film images of the 70s and 80s. The overarching style of the May 2012 photography is consistent with the long photographic history at the magazine, especially in a set on the landscapes of Iceland
The Iceland images are typical of National Geographic’s landscape photography – we might throw around adjectives like “majestic” or “colossal” to describe them, but the most conspicuous sources from which these works draw inspiration are 19th century Romantic paintings.Consider Orsolya and Erlend Haarberg’s image of Myvatn Lake from the May 2012 issue Iceland photographs beside Caspar Friedrich’s Monk By the Sea(1808),
or Friedrich’s Rocky Reef On the Seashore (1824) with Jim Richardson’s Scottish Hebrides, from a feature in the January 2010 issue;
Another culprit is Randy Olsen, with his image of Russia’s Putorana Plateau (2009),
which looks like a crossbreed of Monk By the Sea and Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818). These are just a few images in tide produced by the photographers at National Geographic, where a clear bent toward the Romantic is evident. If some of the basic concepts of Romanticism were “the primacy of spontaneous and intuitive feeling, […] and a new pantheistic vision of nature as part of a unified cosmos”, (Furst, 121) the images in National Geographic clearly speak in this tongue. They frame nature very specifically, as spectacular, awe-inspiring, even sublime. These images romanticize nature, but they also romanticize the work done at the magazine, as though the photojournalists and writers are reporting back from exotic, authentic wildernesses, relating pure experiences which most of us only dream of having. National Geographic romanticizes itself; the society cultivates a folk-tale through exacting editorial standards, and this is what we buy into when we buy National Geographic.