"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Songs of the Pioneers song from TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon's old-fashioned newspaper column, cross-breeding watercolor, metaphors and journalism, for readers in more than 150 countries.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Geographic photographic autographic

That flag was the first color photograph to appear on the front page of the National Geographic, July 1959. That's a far cry from today's full front page color photos, but it shows the photographic influence the magazine had on the world of photojournalism.

I used to teach photography to university students, and I always told them not to buy photography books, just subscribe to the Geographic. It is a constant living textbook on excellence in photography.

In the 50 years since that photo, the magazine has evolved, including its use of photography. Eventually, there were full color photos spread all across the front pages, and the traditional oak leaves gradually disappeared, as did the word "Magazine."

Here's one from my collection. "Old Yeller" as insiders called it, still has the yellow border, but that and the same typography for the name is it.

The Geographic has always pioneered photography, and the ultimate dream job, it seems to me, would be to be a photographer on assignment for that magazine. In our teaching we constantly used Geographic programs and slide shows from their photographers to expose our students (pun intended) to great photography.

That love affair with photography started early with black and white. Then came a monumental step...color photography.

The first color photos in a magazine, ever, came in the summer of 1937 when developing (another pun) technology in both printing and film, made Kodak's Kodachrome film available for the magazine's photographers.

Geographic photographer W. Robert Moore took color photos in Austria, and the world was abuzz. Ironically, Kodak killed Kodachrome in 2009--thanks to digital technology, but one of the last rolls was taken by Geographic photographer Steve McCurry.  He's the one who took the haunting photo of the Afghan refugee that appeared on an 1985 cover. Great magazine, great film, great photographers, great journalism. Anyone telling the story of this magazine and film always quotes Paul Simon's "Kodachrome."


Digital changes the world, for sure, for good and not so good. Photos have always been "tampered" with through history in very country, by every government, perhaps by every photographer. The beauty of The Geographic was that we always thought it was as close to the real thing as possible. Photography means "light writing." But digital changed all the possibilities, and today you can't tell what's "real"  and what's been "photoshopped." Such an ugly verb.

The Geographic succumbed once, and never will again, after the international outcry when it "adjusted" the position of a the pyramids behind some camels to fit a vertical format in February, 1982.

It was as though God, Yahweh, Allah,  had sinned.

But digital has been good for the Geographic and her readers as well. The Magazine and Society have evolved into a news service, television shows, books, and more. And now you can buy them on the stands in the book store.

Yes, I sinned and quit subscribing. But I've found I can "appropriate" those I want at UCO, because they arrived  in the student newspaper (shhh).

And all those old issues I have out in my garage, I thought I'd cash in and sell them on ebay. They don't bring much. I thought about giving them to the Oklahoma City library sale, where they bring about $1 a year at the fairgrounds every year. But I'd have to bundle them and tote them down there. And that wouldn't be much of a tax write off. But I can't throw them away. They're part of me, as long as I don't have to lift them again and move them.

Yes, I still prefer to sit down with one and skim through them, marveling at the photography, especially as the Geographic has increasingly broadened the definitions of Geography into social and cultural issues.

I'm also thankful for the digital age that allows me to "Google" stuff for this scree on the magazine I love, so my facts are right. I still prefer the smell of fresh ink on paper when I open the pages. I'm a journalist, and ink is in my blood and soul.

But I don't have to store them any more, if I can get rid  of the ones in the garage. Why? Ten years ago, I bought a collection of them that my Dad would have drooled over. And it was cheap. On CDs, from the beginnings through the 90s.
My collection of the Geographic, plus its maps.

I just wish the poets Simon and Garfunkel had a song about "The Geographic." The Geographic is more than a magazine.  It lives. I emailed it my first post about it, and heard back, from a person, in less than a week. It was personal...not a form letter, and it will be shared with the magazine staff.

This article is longer than most in the magazine where I applied  once long ago, but didn't have enough education. But my "lack of education hasn't hurt me."  My education has been and is always enriched by "Old Yeller."

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