Through the eyes of women—a century of National Geographic photography

“Women often see things… a man would not notice,” conceded National Geographic’s first editor. Our archive reveals their courage and empathy.

By Cathy Newman
Published 24 Nov 2019, 08:00 GMT
In the shade of their tent near Timbuktu, members of a Tuareg family doze through the ...
In the shade of their tent near Timbuktu, members of a Tuareg family doze through the midday heat.
Photograph by Joanna B. Pinneo, Nat Geo Image Collection
This article is part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special – celebrating the women around the world who fearlessly push boundaries. The November issue of National Geographic is the first issue in which all written and photographic content has been created by women contributors.

The history of women photographers at National Geographic has been one of exception rather than rule – but that was then, this is now. We are beyond the days of women depicted as decorative objects dressed in waterfalls of silk (the predictable debutante ball shot) and the assumption that the creator of the image was a man.

Yes, it was assumed. A 1967 photograph in the archives inscribed “greatest photographic team in the world” shows 25 coat-and-tie-suited men surrounding the desk of then-National Geographic Editor Melville Bell Grosvenor, suggesting, as photography historian Naomi Rosenblum wrote, that “the universal language of the photograph upon which this publication (and others) depended was solely a contribution of the male eye and mind.”

“And when will your photographer arrive?” Sisse Brimberg, a staff photographer would still hear in the 1980s after lugging half a dozen or so cases full of lighting equipment through a museum door in preparation for shooting artifacts.

“She has arrived,” was her terse reply.

Faithful residents reach for a palanquin containing a religious image in the Philippines.
Photograph by Sisse Brimberg, Nat Geo Image Collection
Exiled Tibetan children hang laundry before going to school in the Tibetan Children's Village in Dharmsala, India.
A flaming inferno flushes Viet Cong soldiers from a hut at night in the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam.
Photograph by Dickey Chapelle, Nat Geo Image Collection

In 2000, when I told a male photographer on staff that I was writing a book on Women Photographers at National Geographic with Kathy Moran, now deputy Director of Photography, he replied as if flicking a piece of lint off his collar: “Women photographers? It’ll be a short book.”

Reader, it wasn’t.

Contestants pray together during Clark Atlanta University's Miss Collegiate 100 scholarship pageant.
Widows enjoy Holi at the Gopinath Temple in Vrindavan in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The celebration was once thought to be inappropriate for women like them.
A mother and her baby celebrate the end of her cuarentena, or quarentine, with an herbal bath. The tradition, common throughout Latin America, requires new mothers to rest under the care of their relatives for some 40 days after childbirth.

At present, 47 women take pictures for National Geographic in print and digital (compared with 67 men), but women photographers have contributed to the magazine since 1914, when Eliza Scidmore published “Young Japan.” Scidmore was a friend of the first editor, Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, with whom she enjoyed a relationship of mutual respect and admiration; it also didn’t hurt that Grosvenor’s wife, Elsie, was a suffragist. “Women often see things about...people...a man would not notice,” he once wrote.

Middle school girls perform calisthenics in Japan.
A British model holds a silicone mask of her face. Sarah Leen, who took this photo, was a photographer for National Geographic for more than 20 years before becoming a photo editor for the magazine, and then the first female Director of Photography.

In Iran, a teenage girl holds her mother's shotgun.

In the first half century of the magazine’s existence, the work of women sometimes came in over the transom, like that of Dorothy Hosmer. Hosmer, 26, quit her job as a secretary, bought a third class steamship ticket and filed a story and photographs published with the breathless title: “An American girl cycles across Romania: Two-wheel pilgrim pedals the land of castles and gypsies, where Roman Empire traces mingle with remnants of oriental migrations.” It ran in 1938, but not before associate editor John Oliver La Gorce expressed misgivings. “I should imagine...[mothers] wouldn’t want their daughters to read this story fearing it might give them the idea that it was all right to travel the world on one’s own if such an account appeared in the Geographic.”

Young brides sit together in the Saxon church in Cisnadioara, Romania.
Photograph by Dorothy Hosmer, Nat Geo Image Collection
At this wedding in Kabul, Afghanistan, the bride wore green, which is associated with prosperity and paradise in the Islamic tradition.
Vacationers swim with their dog in the Neversink River in the Catskill Mountains in New York.

Other early pioneers included the remarkable Harriet Chalmers Adams, who published 21 stories in the magazine from 1907 to 1935; though listed as an author in the National Geographic Index, she took photographs as well. One of the first and few women correspondents of World War I, Adams was an explorer, who before her death in 1937 retraced the trail of Columbus, crossed Haiti on horseback, and according to the New York Times, “reached twenty frontiers previously unknown to white women … including every linguistic branch of the Indian tribes from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.”

A Peruvian local sits atop the Incan fortress of Saqsayhuamán overlooking Cusco, Peru.
Female African lions pounce on an African buffalo in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
An animal keeper and a rescued orphan elephant share a moment at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Kenya.

Finally, in 1953, the magazine hired its first woman staff photographer. Her name was Kathleen Revis and she happened to be the sister-in-law of editor Melville Grosvenor. “Melville wasn’t a bit afraid of smart women,” said Mary Smith, one of the first female picture editors at the Geographic, who worked with Revis. “He was particularly gender unbiased, especially for a man of his generation.”

Boys wait to dive from a log into Lake McDonald at Glacier National Park in Montana.
A man bathes in a Tokyo bathhouse decorated with a mural of Mount Fuji.
Behind netting, a polar bear dances at the Circus on Ice in Kazan, Russia.

Still, it’s fair to ask about the relevance of gender in the world of photography. Hadn’t Laura Gilpin, a photographer noted for her images of the American Southwest, said: “Either you’re a good photographer or you’re not.”

Tara Houska, an Ojibwa of the Couchiching First Nation in Ontario, uses law and advocacy to champion indigenous people's concerns.
A butterfly catcher on Bacan island, Indonesia, sorts his specimens, which he’ll sell in Bali.
A family of Iranian women work together at a loom weaving carpets for export.

Point taken. But gender does matter—in experience and access. In some settings, the door may open more readily to a woman. Two stories photographed by Jodi Cobb, the third woman photographer hired on staff—Saudi women (October 1987) and Japanese geisha (October 1995)—could never have been done by a man. “The women in Saudi Arabia didn’t mind me photographing them," she recalled, “But they didn’t want the men to see me photographing them.” Likewise a 2011 story on child brides by Stephanie Sinclair and Lindsey Addario’s January 2019 magazine story on maternal mortality were arguably made possible by their gender.

A Bedouin woman adjusts her veil in a tent at Wadi Nisah in Saudi Arabia.
Althea Tolidanes, eight, watches videos amid gifts of sheets, pillows, and curtains from her father, who works at a burger joint in Saudi Arabia.
The designs of the Harrania weavers in Egypt have won them worldwide acclaim.
Photograph by Lynn Abercrombie, Nat Geo Image Collection

“It’s a huge part of your identity and I have used that to my advantage,” Dina Litovsky, a photographer whose first National Geographic magazine story "For girls in science, the time is now" appears in the November issue. “I was recently photographing Amish girls playing volleyball on the beach. I am pretty sure it would be different if I were a man. My camera is less threatening.”

At the International Science and Engineering Fair in Anaheim, California, Russian high school student Inna Larina peers through a viewing device for the visually impaired that she designed with another student.
From a greatly diminished ice pack in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, a harp seal pup watches its mother swim underwater.
Bei Bei, a giant panda at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., peeks through the door a zookeeper. Bei Bei was born at the zoo but is being sent to China this month as part of the country's breeding program.

“Twenty years on and we are still talking about it,” Lynn Johnson says, with a perspective informed by 30 years of photographing for the magazine. “The reality is women have been invisible and now they are not. The label now carries weight and significance that we tried to bury out of a lack of pride in gender. When I was younger I denied it. Now I claim it.”

A father caresses his newborn daughter in the Republic of Tuva in Russia.
Muslim women perform morning prayers at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
A family creates a towering haystack on a hillside in Breb, Romania.

And National Geographic has claimed them as well. In bringing more women’s lives and voices into the light and conversation, the magazine has reached out to women of different cultures and countries to help make that happen. In illustrating a story in the November issue about the impact of women on Rwanda’s renewal, we asked Nigerian photographer Yagazie Emezi, whose work focuses on issues surrounding African women, to document that process. Saumya Handelwal, an Indian photographer, who talks about “stealing moments from what I see” was responsible for the forceful images of a story about women’s safety in India in that same issue.

The Rwanda Women's Network provides safe spaces for women to spend time together and acquire vocational skills. In the eastern Mugasera district, Nyirabizeyimana Immaculee (at right) learns sandal making.
Photograph by Yagazie Emezi, Nat Geo Image Collection
Gregg Deal, a Pyramid Lake Paiute, uses performance art to challenge misconceptions of Native American identity. The handprint on his face is part of a performance piece called “The Last American Indian on Earth.“

A final thought. Women, a photo editor observed, seem to want to talk more about the experience and the relationship with their subjects and at the risk of edging into stereotype, the idea holds truth.

“Sometimes I want to put my arms around all the people I’ve photographed and scoop them up with my heart, the way a woman gathers up flowers or berries in her skirt and carry them with me always,” said Maggie Steber, whose "The story of a face" (with Lynn Johnson) published in August, 2018, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. “These people, then, are my family,” Steber says. “Forever connected by the click of a shutter and a moment frozen in time.”

Before Katie Stubblefield had a face transplant, she posed for this portrait, showing her severely injured face.
In 1967, the “greatest photographic team in the world“ was all men, posed around the desk of then-editor Melville Bell Grosvenor. That is no longer the case, as the 2019 photo of some of National Geographic's female photography contributors and members of staff demonstrates.
To see photographs by more of our female contributors, follow @natgeo on Instagram and read our November 2019 special issue in National Geographic magazine, "Women: A Century of Change".
Former National Geographic Editor-at-Large Cathy Newman is the author of Women Photographers At National Geographic. She wrote about “The Immortal Corpse” in the magazine's January 2019 issue. Follow her on Twitter @wordcat12.


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