15 iconic images from the National Geographic archive

Over 115 years ago, National Geographic published its first picture essay and never looked back. These recent images are pulled from the National Geographic archive and celebrate the power of photography today.

By Whitney Latorre
Published 1 Nov 2022, 10:25 GMT
Tanzania, 2015
In his “Day to Night” series, photographer Stephen Wilkes creates layered images recording the progression of time across a single landscape. In Serengeti National Park, he and his assistant spent 26 continuous hours perched on a platform 18 feet above a watering hole, recording moments manually. A selection from the resulting 2,200 frames were then painstakingly pieced together into a composite showing night giving way to day.
Photograph by Stephen Wilkes

Today, the words “National Geographic” are practically synonymous with photography.

But the inaugural issue of the magazine had not a single photograph. The first issue was published in 1888, but the first picture essay wouldn’t appear until 1905, when editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor took a risk and filled 11 pages with photographs of Tibet. Two board members resigned, appalled that the magazine was becoming “a picture book,” but reaction to the new medium was enthusiastic—and membership increased sixfold.

A scientist walks on the cooled floor of Mount Nyiragongo, a volcano in the Virunga Mountains. Scientists embarked on an expedition to descend into the crater to study an 1800°F lava lake that stretches more than 700 feet across. In 2021, an eruption sent a river of lava to the outskirts of nearby Goma, a metropolis of 1.5 million people.
Photograph by Carsten Peter

Grosvenor never looked back. In 1906, he dedicated an entire issue to wildlife photography taken at night, thanks to the technological advances of photographer George Shiras III, a pioneer of flash photography. And innovation emerged along­side photography as an equally critical force in our history.

In the 1940s, Harold “Doc” Edgerton’s invention of the stroboscope electronic flash made it possible to see motion on film, and later, he collaborated with National Geographic Explorer Jacques Cousteau to develop new techniques in underwater photography—one of many firsts attributed to our photographers and engineers.

Innovation is still critical to how we tell stories today. Anand Varma combines biology and technology to make the invisible visible in his California lab. On the other side of the planet, we move from the microscopic to the epic, as Renan Ozturk utilizes cutting-edge drone technology on the north side of Mount Everest to create an image of the peak that few of us could ever see on our own. And Reuben Wu helps us see Stonehenge—a historic site that first graced our pages in 1922 and has been photographed millions of times—in new ways.

Scientists use a fine mist created by ultrasonic foggers to visualize the airflow around the wing of an Anna’s hummingbird in flight. At the end of each half-stroke, its wings flip more than 90 degrees and reverse course. Hummingbirds are the only birds that can truly fly backward.
Photograph by Anand Varma

Edgerton was quoted as saying, “Don’t make me out to be an artist. I am an engineer. I am after the facts. Only the facts.” And that’s just it. To this day, our visual storytellers embrace technology in service of the story.

But it’s not just how stories are presented that has evolved. Our aperture on who is a photographer has opened, with visual storytellers from diverse lived experiences sharing the stories that matter most to their communities. It isn’t said enough: Diversity fuels creativity.

Just as storytelling at National Geographic has changed radically since its publication launched in 1888, it will change radically again in the next 135 years. Although science fiction only foreshadows where technology will take us and how information will be shared, I firmly believe we must seize all that technology has to offer to propel our visual storytelling forward. Our future audiences will thank us.

But I hope one thing will remain constant for National Geographic editors of the future—the thing, perhaps, that drove Grosvenor to publish that first picture story in 1905 and pushed us more than a century later to take viewers kayaking with scientists in Antarctica through virtual reality: Aim for a story worth telling with innovative approaches and unmatched storytellers.

Whitney Latorre is Nat Geo's director of visual and immersive experiences. 

Portions of this work have previously appeared in 100 Best Photos: Iconic Images From This Century by Elizabeth Krist. Copyright © 2022 National Geographic Partners, LLC.

To learn more, check out 100 Best Photos. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.


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