There are large, sweeping points to the exhibition of 99 photos by 11 award-winning photojournalists. It is a celebration of diversity, artistry, muscularity and voice.
But primarily, it simply holds viewers transfixed.
“Women of Vision,” which is kicking off a three-year, multi-city tour, comes as the National Geographic marks its 125th anniversary and includes prominent names such as Lynsey Addario, Jodi Cobb, Stephanie Sinclair and Maggie Steber. It marks the first exhibition of female photographers among National Geographic’s 60 or so regular contributors and focuses on work that has appeared in the magazine since 2000. The photos chronicle social churn and cultural anthropology from the plains, villages, overly civilized and defiantly untamed places of the world.
“I see myself as a conduit for the animals,” says Beverly Joubert, a photographer, filmmaker and conservationist who lived in Botswana for 30 years. In an image that captures the duality of her work, a hunting lioness has jaws clamped into the neck of a newborn buffalo cub. Joubert had watched the cub’s birth a few hours before but had been following the lioness’s efforts over time as she struggled to feed her hungry cubs. The photo stares into the animals’ faces.
“I was focused on their expressions — on that lioness. That grip, which meant the success of her cubs,” she says. But it was also important to have some part of the buffalo cub, “without it being grotesque.”
In another photo, a spotted leopard peers silently and nearly hidden between dense foliage. “I didn’t need her whole body,” Joubert explains. Just the eyes, “to tell this story as creatively and effectively as possible.”
The intimacy of the shots invites connection, even anthropomorphism — speculation about what the animals might be thinking or feeling. But the skill of the photographer captures every detail in context and makes visitors, who feel as if they are watching this life cycle unfold, understand that it is a thing completely wild.
Repeatedly, as images touch you, unsettle you and draw you in, it can be tempting to attribute their power to a sixth sense, a certain feminine sensitivity. But what is more true is that National Geographic images are intimate, and intimacy is a function of time spent with a subject. The photographs attest to what these women discovered during that time, what leapt out or whispered to them or felt most important. It represents a communing that they do with their subjects, even when those subjects don’t speak.
Landscape photographer Diane Cook wants “to celebrate our connection to this place we live in, that a lot of people ignore.” Her photos — the reclamation of a 1930s Manhattan elevated rail line into hybrid green space, a pristine cliffscape, “that refuses to be conquered by humans” — are designed to frame the Earth, she says. They are designed “to take the pulse of the health of this place.” As a society, we throw away things that we ought to reimagine, Cook says.