Geographic's "Greatest Photos" Collected in New Book

Ryan Mitchell
National Geographic News
September 30, 2003

View the Through the Lens Photo Galleries: Gallery 1 and Gallery 2

This month, the National Geographic Society will publish Through the Lens: National Geographic Greatest Photographs, a collection of 250 images that span over 100 years of Geographic photography. The book includes many of the Society's most celebrated photographers, including Sam Abell, William Albert Allard, Annie Griffiths Belt, Jodi Cobb, David Doubilet, Chris Johns and more. Many of the photos have been published previously, while others are available to the public for the first time.

Several events will be held worldwide in support of the book's publication. The National Geographic Channel will feature an hour-long special on October 25 that gives viewers an inside look at the effort required to take world-class photography. Four of the photographers, Sam Abell, Jodi Cobb, Chris Johns, and Annie Griffiths Belt, will go on a book-signing tour in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, Dallas, Denver, Boston, Minneapolis, and Seattle.

Forty of the photos will be exhibited in Explorers' Hall museum, at the Society's Washington, D.C. headquarters. A seven-part lecture series, photo workshops, and international exhibits are also planned.

National Geographic photographers lead much romanticized lives. But their work can be challenging and often dangerous. Several photographers have been in plane crashes, some have been caught in sniper fire, one was attacked by a shark, and many have contracted malaria, dysentery, and meningitis.

The less dangerous but certainly monumental task of selecting 250 images from an archive of over ten million was done by Senior Book Editor Leah Bendavid-Val. National Geographic News asked Bendavid-Val to discuss the process of choosing the photos to be included in the volume.

What criteria did you use to choose the 250 photos from over ten million images in the archives?

Craft matters, but great photographs have emotional power that can't be fully defined or evaluated by any formula. I select photographs that are affecting, that I'm moved by in some way. That's how I begin. Then I consider the balance of the book as a whole—place and time, subject and photographer, must all be represented fairly, in a balanced way. Fortunately we have so many truly wonderful pictures to choose from. There's no "right" selection; there are many possibilities. I wanted Through the Lens to have a strong and consistent tone, and I hope we achieved this.

What information, story, or message should a photo convey?

Different photographs convey very different information: A wildlife photograph may reveal never-before-seen behavior. A photograph of fresh laundry blowing in the breeze of some remote and exotic place may show us that we have everyday things in common with far-flung people—and that image may also simply be beautifully seen. Photographs can be as diverse as life itself.

How do the photos achieve NGS's mission of increasing and diffusing geographic knowledge?

The photographs on cultural subjects capture the mystery, beauty, turmoil, and diversity of life behind the news headlines. At their best these pictures increase our understanding of those headlines, tell us something about why events unfold as they do. The photographs of natural history, wildlife, the sciences, archaeology, exploration…show us where we came from and what the world is made of. All of this is both important and interesting; it contributes to our ability to exist as more intelligent citizens. And many of the photographs are simply and truly entertaining.

How do the photos reflect changes in photographic styles and technological improvements through different time periods?

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