The Nat Geo archive frames women’s lives in photos

Tens of millions of images collected since 1888 reflect the practices and prejudices of a changing world.Tuesday, 29 October 2019

A Nairobi goat herder, in an image captured by Lynn Johnson.
A Nairobi goat herder, in an image captured by Lynn Johnson.
photo by Lynn Johnson
This story is part of our November 2019 special issue of National Geographic magazine, “Women: A Century of Change.” Read more stories here.

The images in an archive form an invaluable record of the eras in which they were made. Looking through early files to find photographs for these pages, we were struck by how narrowly women were once defined. The pictures are often beautiful, sometimes funny or sad or even shocking—but they are reflective of the prejudices and practices of the times.

The archive holds more than 60 million images amassed since National Geographic’s founding in 1888: published and unpublished photos, slides, negatives, glass plates, and more. It’s almost certainly one of the world’s most comprehensive visual records of women in diverse societies and cultures.

In the early 20th century the magazine’s images—shaped by the technical limitations of photography then, and a very Western colonialist point of view—often portrayed women as exotic beauties, posed in their local costumes or bare-breasted. That reflects who was behind the lens in those days: mostly white men. As camera technology evolved, our images of women became more active, but still focused heavily on traditional archetypes: wives, sisters, mothers. It wasn’t until World War II that women turned up in more roles: boosting the war effort by working in industry, hospitals, the military. Postwar, the magazine reverted to more domesticated views; women smiled their way through a few more decades until the 1970s and the rise of photography that captured an unvarnished view of life.

The archive also documents the history of the women behind the photos: the magazine’s photographers and photo editors, the few that there were in the early days. Writer and photographer Eliza Scidmore’s first credit as photographer was in April 1907. She is believed to be the first woman whose colour photos—lovely hand-coloured images of Japan—were printed in the magazine, in 1914. The first female staff photographer, Kathleen Revis, was hired in 1953; the next two, Bianca Lavies and Jodi Cobb, not until 21 and 24 years later. Since then the magazine has sought out more female photographers to tell our stories.

I was one of those young photographers. I started freelancing for National Geographic in 1988. I remember the excitement in 2000 when we published a book, Women Photographers at National Geographic, with images from more than 40 contributors. Four years later I joined the staff as a senior photo editor. In 2013 I became the magazine’s first female director of photography. We’ve come a long way, baby!

2007, MONGOLIA | A pharmacist (at right) beams as she meets her hero, a widely admired actor, in a town square in Ulaanbaatar.
2007, MONGOLIA | A pharmacist (at right) beams as she meets her hero, a widely admired actor, in a town square in Ulaanbaatar.
photo by LYNN JOHNSON

Today, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the image collection, we’re telling real stories about real women in images taken by more women photographers than ever before. We encourage “the female gaze”: the idea that women photographers might see the world differently than men do, and choose different topics to emphasise and explore. Thanks to women photographers’ vision and images, we have the chance to bring you the whole world, not just part of it.

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