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The National Geographic Society, which next year marks the 125th anniversary of its founding, has long supported the human passion to explore. The flag of the Society—fittingly three parallel bands of brown, green and blue representing earth, sea and sky—has been carried from North to South Pole, from oceanic depths to outer space. And, we have the pictures to prove it—photographs and art that speak to that drive to explore and show the wonder of the world. The excellence of the image has been the hallmark of National Geographic, the magazine published by the Society. It is the most immediate and striking medium of communication with our audience, and has been ever since the magazine’s first full-time editor, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, was sent to Martinique in 1902 to cover the eruption of Pelee, with instructions to “…give us details of living interest beautifully illustrated by photographs.”
The 232 offerings in this sale's catalog are chosen from an archive housed at our Washington D.C. headquarters that contains 11.5 million photographs and artworks commissioned or acquired by the Society. Some were published. Many were not. In the early years of the magazine, before a photographic staff was assembled, photographs were often sent in as unsolicited material, or acquired by correspondents in the field. Sometimes prints were purchased directly from a photographer with no thought of illustrating a particular story, but simply to add to the archive. Franklin Fisher, the chief of illustrations, in the 1930s and 1940s, would travel to New York on print-buying expeditions, which is how several images by Margaret Bourke White (lot 41)—including the view of Cleveland, Ohio, taken in 1933 and offered in the sale—ended up in the collection.
Many names—those of photographers like Lewis Hine (lot 21, 37 and 121), Ansel Adams (lot 19), Edward S. Curtis (lot 65), and artists like N.C. Wyeth (lot 11, 50 and 133) and Andrew Wyeth (lot 102 and 103) will be familiar. Others less so. Staff photographers like Maynard Owen Williams and Luis Marden, for example, will be largely unknown outside the world of National Geographic because the magazine traditionally kept the work of its staff for its own use and, with few exceptions, never allowed their remarkable images to make their way to the marketplace.
Williams, chief of the National Geographic Society’s foreign staff, and correspondent for the magazine from 1918 to 1946, was typical of an elite cadre of men who could produce both picture and text. In addition to covering the National Geographic sponsored Citroën-Haardt Trans-Asiatic Expedition that crossed the Himalayas in 1931, he was one of the first journalists invited to enter the newly opened tomb of Tutankhamen (lot 25) in 1921. Marden retraced Columbus’s voyage from Spain to the New World in 1980 using the fleet’s original log as reference; earlier in his career, he discovered the bones of the Bounty off Pitcairn Island. Now, at last, their work, and that of others, will have a chance to be seen and appreciated outside the frame of the yellow border.
Funds from the sale of these illustrations will have a purpose congruent with the mission of National Geographic Society. They will be dedicated to maintaining the archives from whence they came and to nurturing emerging photographers and artists, who will in turn add their creative vision to the Society in years to come.
President, Publishing & Digital Media
National Geographic Society
The National Geographic Collection: The Art of Exploration
6 Dec 2012
New York, Rockefeller Plaza