The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History recently opened a new exhibit in collaboration with National Geographic, displaying the best 50 photos published over the magazine’s 130-year history.
The exhibit is not large, but makes up for what it lacks in size with its content. The museum not only displays the photos. It also provides location and background information, as well commentary from the photographers. Alongside a select number of images, the museum displays the “near frames,” the series of shots leading up to the moment of the best photo.
The museum’s carefully curated collection features work from the magazine’s best photographers and journalists, such as Thomas J. Abercrombie, who is best known for his photography on Middle Eastern countries, and Steve McCurry, who shot the famous portrait of the Afghan girl which graced the cover of the June 1985 edition of the magazine. The museum takes care to cover a wide variety of subjects. Featuring wild-life and scenery, historic locations, cultural customs, and portraits, the exhibit has it all.
While all the photos are compelling, the gallery showcases three standout pieces in particular that photographers and museum-goers alike will not want to miss: Thomas J. Abercrombie’s photo of Mecca, Steve McCurry’s photo of the Kuwaiti oil fires, and Robert Clark’s photo of The Tollund Man.
Thomas J. Abercrombie’s photo of Mecca, taken in 1965 while Abercrombie was in Saudi Arabia, captures the celebration and chaos of a quarter of a million Muslims gathering at the Kaaba.
Abercrombie took the photo from an aerial perspective, giving viewers the full view of how many people were gathered in the mosque that night. However, it is not the sheer number of worshippers that is compelling about the photo. Rather, it is the contrast of the yellow light surrounding the Kaaba with the blue cast over the people, who appear as small white dots in the photograph. The image feels ethereal because of its coloring, making it a unique addition to the exhibit’s lineup of photos.
In contrast to Abercrombie’s piece, Steve McCurry’s photo of the Kuwaiti oil fires feels surreal for an entirely different reason. In the photo’s commentary, McCurry states that taking the shot was like capturing “an end-of-the-world scenario from a Hollywood production.”
In 1991, Iraqi military forces set fire to hundreds of oil wells during the Persian Gulf War. McCurry, who was there during the conflict, captured the defining photo of three camels walking across a barren landscape in search of food and water while lava-colored flames and thick black smoke fill the background behind them.
The sky is completely obscured in the photo, where a line of red flames is the only horizon, and billows of black smoke are the replacement for clouds. The predominantly red-and-black color scheme coupled with McCurry’s expert framing show how a devastating environmental decision can produce beauty worth capturing.
While Abercrombie and McCurry’s photos focus on capturing larger landscapes, Robert Clark’s photo of the Tollund Man gets up close with one of the most well-preserved corpses ever found. The photo, which was featured in National Geographic’s issue entitled “Tales from the Bog,” captures the side profile of the body against a dirt floor.
Viewers can visibly see the man’s stubble, forehead lines, and cap, giving the Tollund Man a lifelike quality in incredible detail. To achieve the level of visibility necessary to highlight the remarkable preservation of the corpse, Clark strategically plays with the lighting. According to Clark’s commentary on the photo, he avoids “trying to make something like [the Tollund Man] — or any archaeological subject — look ghoulish… [he] treats these as portraits, and [he] lights each as [he] would want to be lit [himself].”
The National Geographic exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is on display through September 3rd, and it’s not an exhibit that you want to miss. The stunning collection of photos gives viewers a look into the magazine’s rich history, but also captures moments in time throughout the world’s recent history, showing the diversity of experiences found around the globe.