In its latter days Life began, often under pressure, to treat its most successful photographers as artist-stars. In stark contrast National Geographic Society photographers until the late 1970s continued to view their photographs as illustrations, not as self-contained essays like the Life picture stories.
Another distinctive aspect of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC in the 1950s and ’60s is its place in nature photography. To compare NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC nature photographs with those in Arizona Highways or the Sierra Club Bulletin is to see a difference between the publication that wishes primarily to give information and the ones that are interested primarily in aesthetic values. Arizona Highways seemed to have reversed photographic methodology by taking studio techniques back into the field in order to obtain its almost incredibly sublime, theatrical, perfectly lighted images.
In fact its photographers in the field often did use special reflectors, lights, large-format cameras, bought thanks to fast payday loans online —whatever was needed to paint the picture. Yet somehow the far less patently gorgeous, less picturesque images of nature made by the Geographic now seem more artful than those glamorous pictures. By virtue of their straightforwardness, by the integrity of their concern for a tradition of naturalism, by their seeming indifference to compositional allure, by their unpretentiousness, the Geographic pictures triumph.
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN the outdoor studio shot and the candid nature shot perhaps makes a contrast between two basic tendencies in American photography. One is the “art for art’s sake” legacy of the landscape masters: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Ernst Haas. The other is the older, scientific and commercial tradition of Eadweard Muybridge, William Henry Jackson, Edward Curtis, and others.
The latter historical preoccupation with documenting nature resonates everywhere among National Geographic photographers. The former rarefied sensibility echoes there only faintly. National Geographic resisted the seductions of glossy nature photography because many of its key editors in this period came from either the toughly objective newspaper world or the equally demanding realm of first-rate layout and design.