It was at a stoplight in what was then called Bombay, two decades ago. Photographer Steve McCurry was in the back seat of a rented car. Raining. Traffic. Thirteen million people. Misery.
A mother with a toddler boy on her hip appeared at his window, a rose-colored sari wrapped around her chest, lightly draped over her head. The child — black hair, checked shirt — peered into the rain-dappled window, the eyes brown, wide, intense. The woman held up her left hand, thumb slightly across the lines in her palm, a mute gesture that sought the kindness of strangers.
McCurry, a legend of his generation, on assignment for National Geographic, raised his Leica and fired twice. The traffic light changed, and the driver pulled away.
“The whole thing lasted maybe three seconds, and I’m not even sure they could see me,” says the New-York-based McCurry. “It’s one of these serendipitous, unplanned accidents of life. . . . Sometimes these are the greatest pictures, and you need to be prepared and ready.”
The stunning image — Those eyes! That sari! Those lines in the palm of her hand! — is played out across two full pages in “National Geographic: Around the World in 125 Years,” a limited-edition release from the D.C.-based exploration society, formed in 1888 and now marking its century-and-a-quarter anniversary, and Taschen, the international publishing house.
This is not your average coffee-table compendium, and not just because the list price is $499 (though less expensive at some outlets). The book is a three-volume, 43-pound colossus of magisterial photography of the natural world over the past five generations or so. The 900 images are spread across 1,500 pages, covering everything from Easter Island to Ethiopia. It goes for a little more than $10 per pound — less than you would pay for fresh shrimp — and frequently takes your breath away.
The stone-walled Simonas Petras Monastery on Mount Athos, perched on the Grecian cliffs in the dusk, the Aegean Sea hundreds of feet below. Tanzania’s Lake Natron, clouds mirrored in the waters. Giant tortoises hunched in the caldera of the Alcedo Volcano in the Galapagos Islands.
The volumes come in a shipping box, each in a heavy slip case that doubles as a display stand, and are numbered, with a print run of 125,000.
“We were overwhelmed in a good way,” says Reuel Golden, the photo editor at Taschen who helped pore over 11 million images to select the pictures for the book. “Most of this was pre-mass-travel, pre-Internet, pre-television to a certain extent. Readers really trusted National Geographic to show them what the world looked like.”
Before the Internet rendered the world as small as a Web site, the pages of National Geographic (in your uncle’s closet — slick, heavy, in a yellow-bordered stack) held the only ideas of Papua New Guinea or Kenya or Indonesia that you might ever see. Thumbing through the pages on a rainy afternoon, you came across the classic Nat Geo image — a faraway land, beautiful denizens of another place, fading light, panoramic framing, incredible focus, hills in the distance. You said, out loud, “Wow. Man.”
McCurry took what is inarguably the most famous Nat Geo image ever — the 1985 cover photograph of Sharbat Gula, a.k.a. “the Afghan Girl,” a shawl draped over her head, green eyes blazing, in a refugee camp in Pakistan.
The India woman-and-child image, fraught with overtones of poverty, is more subtle. Still, it conveys a graphic difference between rich and poor, between the slums and hired taxis, the heartbreak of trying to do better for a child against impossible odds.
“I knew I took a picture that was a powerful portrait,” McCurry says of that image now, “but things are flowing around you and everybody’s talking and there’s dust and noise and you’re not in a perfect situation. You just hope that you’re in focus and the moment was right, but you don’t really know until you get back and look at the film — which, in this case, was like two months later.”
There are images like that over and over again in this collection, be it set in South America or Northern Europe — that powerful moment of human or animal life frozen in place. It might be a Nuba woman’s back in Sudan in 1965, her skin purposefully scarred into intricate patterns; ships dropping anchor in Nuku Hiva, an island in French Polynesia, in the early 1920s; or the Italian actress Benedetta Buccellato in Sicily in the 1990s. It broke your heart is what it did, the beauty of this planet.
“It was an education,” Golden says of the magazine in its prime, the 1930s through the 1950s. “It allowed people to armchair-travel to a certain extent. It wasn’t led by a political agenda. I think that is part of its appeal.”
True, but the approach also means there are almost no images of global war, pestilence and terrorism, which makes the history of the world encompassed here look a little rosier than it was. You might also notice that, at least in the United States, the images lean toward the soft-focus and touristy. Most of the 37 images in the “United States South,” for example, are from Texas and Florida (not exactly the heart of the region). For the rest, you get a guy in a cowboy hat holding a possum, a girl in pigtails, a man in overalls being baptized in a river, people watching film of a football game at a drive-in — no real hint of the cruelty of the Jim Crow days, of the turbulent civil rights era.
Still, Nat Geo wasn’t trying to be Time or Life, Golden says. The idea wasn’t to capture events happening in the world this particular week and regurgitate them. “There was a mission of the discovery of the world, of education,” he says.
Yes. Like that black-and-white image, shot by G.E. Matson in what was then called Transjordan in 1934, the stone temples of Petra, glimpsed from deep in a canyon, curved stone walls shooting high above on either side. In the distance, in a shaft of light, the tiny figure of a man. Behind him, looming, a massive temple cut into the rock.
Wow. This planet.