The Reading Room

National Geographic

National Geographic, formerly the National Geographic Magazine, is the official journal of the National Geographic Society. It published its first issue in 1888, just nine months after the Society itself was founded, and is immediately identifiable by the characteristic yellow frame that surrounds its front cover. With a worldwide circulation in thirty-two language editions of nearly nine million, more than fifty million people receive the magazine every month.

National Geographic has won too many awards over the years to mention but I will always love it for one reason: its photography. No magazine, website or BBC documentary really captures the colourful glory of nature like the national geographic photojournalism team. It began to feature color photography in the early 20th century, when the technology was still rare. Amongst its many coups was the first colour photograph of the Taj Mahal in March 1921. During the 1930s, one of their writers and photographers, Luis Marden (1913-2003), convinced the magazine to allow its photographers to use small 35 mm cameras loaded with Kodachrome film over bulkier cameras with tripods and glass plates. In 1959, the magazine started publishing small photographs on its covers, later becoming larger photographs. National Geographic photography has quickly shifted to digital photography for both its magazine on paper and its website. But its digitization has just meant more high quality photos and not less.

It’s impossible to write about National Geographic without quickly mentioning its impressive array of interactive maps. I’ve never been a great map-reader but I am definitely a secret fan of the National Geographic maps. Maybe it’s because I know I’m looking at something that has been drawn from first principles and hasn’t been cut and pasted like the rest of our world. Or maybe it’s just because it makes me feel a bit like Indiana Jones. Whatever it is I am not the only fan. On some occasions, the Society’s map archives have been used by the United States government in instances where its own cartographic resources were limited. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House map room was filled with National Geographic maps. A National Geographic map of Europe is featured in the displays of the Winston Churchill museum in London showing Churchill’s markings at the Yalta Conference where the Allied leaders divided post-war Europe. I wonder what Churchill would have made of the June 1985 cover portrait of 13-year-old Afghan girl Sharbat Gula which became one of the magazine’s most recognizable images?

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