American Iconographic

American Iconographic: National Geographic, Global Culture, and the Visual Imagination

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 264
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    American Iconographic
    Book Description:

    In an era before affordable travel, National Geographic not only served as the first glimpse of countless other worlds for its readers, but it helped them confront sweeping historical change. There was a time when its cover, with the unmistakable yellow frame, seemed to be on every coffee table, in every waiting room. InAmerican Iconographic,Stephanie L. Hawkins tracesNational Geographic's rise to cultural prominence, from its first publication of nude photographs in 1896 to the 1950s, when the magazine's trademark visual and textual motifs found their way into cartoon caricature, popular novels, and film trading on the "romance" of the magazine's distinctive visual fare.

    National Geographictransformed local color into global culture through its production and circulation of readily identifiable cultural icons. The adventurer-photographer, the exotic woman of color, and the intrepid explorer were part of the magazine's "institutional aesthetic," a visual and textual repertoire that drew upon popular nineteenth-century literary and cultural traditions. This aesthetic encouraged readers to identify themselves as members not only in an elite society but, paradoxically, as both Americans and global citizens. More than a window on the world, National Geographic presented a window on American cultural attitudes and drew forth a variety of complex responses to social and historical changes brought about by immigration, the Great Depression, and world war.

    Drawing on the National Geographic Society's archive of readers' letters and its founders' correspondence, Hawkins reveals how the magazine's participation in the "culture industry" was not so straightforward as scholars have assumed. Letters from the magazine's earliest readers offer an important intervention in this narrative of passive spectatorship, revealing how readers resisted and revisedNational Geographic's authority. Its photographs and articles celebrated American self-reliance and imperialist expansion abroad, but its readers were highly aware of these representational strategies, and alert to inconsistencies between the magazine's editorial vision and its photographs and text. Hawkins also illustrates how the magazine actually encouraged readers to question Western values and identify with those beyond the nation's borders. Chapters devoted to the magazine's practice of photographing its photographers on assignment and to its genre of husband-wife adventurers reveal a more enlightenedNational Geographicinvested in a cosmopolitan vision of a global human family.

    A fascinating narrative of how a cultural institution can influence and embody public attitudes, this book is the definitive account of an iconic magazine's unique place in the American imagination.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2975-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Prologue THE REDISCOVERY OF SHARBAT GULA: National Geographic in the Twenty-first Century
    (pp. 1-7)

    In the years since its 1888 founding as a scientific journal,National Geographichas become not just a cultural icon but a generator of icons. None, most likely, is more internationally recognized thanNational Geographic’s June 1985 cover photograph titled “Afghan Girl” depicting a nameless twelve-year-old with piercing green eyes, witness to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Seventeen years later, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the rediscovery of Sharbat Gula as a married woman caring for her children in the forbidding hills of Tora Bora only intensified the earlier image’s sympathetic appeal. Like “Migrant Mother,” Dorothea...

  6. 1 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC The Icon and Its Readers
    (pp. 8-27)

    In November 1896,National Geographicpublished its first nude photograph, a portrait titled “Zulu Bride and Bridegroom.” This was the first of many images to wed the magazine’s reputation to the far-flung and racially erotic. More than a century later,Harvard Lampoonparodied the iconic magazine in its 2008 April Fool’s edition. A comic send-up ofNational Geographic’s 120-year history, theLampoon’s cover features tabloid celebrity Paris Hilton posing with a phony elephant and ape in front of a backdrop of an African savannah. Inside, a mock apology from the editor acknowledges that “thousands and thousands of bare boobs have...

  7. 2 TRAINING THE “I” TO SEE Progressive Education, Visual Literacy, and National Geographic Membership
    (pp. 28-61)

    Long before Edward Steichen’s famous 1955 exhibit, Family of Man, debuted at the Museum of Modern Art,National Geographicpromoted global images of the family. The photograph “Zulu Bride and Bridegroom” (fig. 3) inNational Geographic’s November 1896 issue not only inaugurated the iconic nude images historically associated with the magazine, but also established a visual grammar for its educational mission.¹ In this case, marriage and family supplied one of its most enduring motifs—that of “universal” human endeavor—and helped to domesticate the more estranging aspects of cultural and racial difference. Unlike ethnographic head shots of the nineteenth century...

  8. 3 SAVAGE VISIONS Ethnography, Photography, and Local-Color Fiction in National Geographic
    (pp. 62-101)

    Give us the romance of geography—the lands and the peoples, in little or unknown places,” cried a reader in 1921.¹ Tellingly, “romance” here embraces not only the unusual and exotic but the more modern concept of “culture” as pluralistic variety. Before the term “culture” entered the public lexicon as a term denoting human variety—rather than a hierarchy of taste or “civilized” behavior—National Geographicphotographs turned an anthropological gaze on regional, ethnic, and racial differences.² Yet this gaze was trained not only on far-flung people and places, but also on the United States’ own regional, cultural, and racial...

  9. 4 FRACTURING THE GLOBAL FAMILY ROMANCE National Geographic, World War I, and Fascism
    (pp. 102-134)

    In the run-up to U.S. involvement in the First World War and the deployment of American troops in October 1917,National Geographic’s deepening internationalism often took the form—ultimately an iconic form—of photographs of families. Increasingly, ameliorative images of an extended global human family displaced biological language that in previous decades had linked cultural and racial difference to genetic contagion. Articles such as “Our Foreign-Born Citizens” (February 1917), along with the photo-essays “Little Citizens of the World” (February 1917) and “Madonnas of Many Lands” (June 1917), are a few examples of the many images of immigrant families, women with...

  10. 5 JUNGLE HOUSEKEEPING Globalization, Domesticity, and Performing the “Primitive” in National Geographic
    (pp. 135-171)

    Well into the twentieth century, the primitive jungle, the naked savage, and the lone explorer were potent icons of escapist adventure. In this regard, “Cairo to Cape Town, Overland,” subtitled “An Adventurous Journey of 135 Days, Made by an American Man and His Wife, through the Length of the African Continent” (February 1925) by Felix Shay is vintageNational Geographic, but with a twist. While Shay’s narrative incorporated Western imperialism’s most sensational icons—from throbbing tom-toms and nude black bodies dancing around a “lurid central fire” to a wild-game safari—his wife, Porter, took center stage as an intrepid sharpshooter....

  11. 6 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC’S ROMANCE IN RUINS From the Catastrophic Sublime to Camp
    (pp. 172-210)

    National Geographic’s evolution from scientific journal to popular icon was in large measure a result of the romantic stereotypes it perpetuated. But iconic status had its downside. If in 1896 the magazine’s photographs of the exotic and little-known parts of the world madeNational Geographica novelty, by the late 1920s the magazine’s conventions seemed predictable, clichéd. From exotic images of the Far East to local-color regionalism,National Geographic’s formula had grown downright tiresome for some American readers. With “articles on Chickens, very familiar States, wild flowers, and etc., it certainly is losing its interest,” wrote a reader. “Why not...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 211-230)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-244)
  14. Index
    (pp. 245-252)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 253-253)