Out and About: On the face of it

Afghan Girl

If you grew up looking at National Geographic you probably have a favorite image, or at least one that took hold of your childish imagination and wouldn’t let go. For Louise Krasniewicz it was a picture of an African woman with dozens of rings around her neck. “The thing that impressed me,” says Krasniewicz, a senior research scientist at Penn Museum, “was that if they took the rings off, their necks would collapse and they would die.”

Now an anthropologist, as well as a professional photographer, Krasniewicz is fascinated by the enduring power of National Geographic’s photographs. She did an in-depth study of the images in 1988, when the magazine celebrated its 100th anniversary, and on a recent walkthrough of Penn Museum’s exhibit, “National Geographic Greatest Portraits,” Krasniewicz talked about what makes these images so influential and why, to an anthropologist, they remain so limited.

The style

“National Geographic has a style of photography that has taken over the representation of other cultures and set the standards for what these photos must look like. They’re very focused in on one subject. They tend to be images of a moment frozen, literally frozen, rather than having a sequence of images showing an action. The portraits in the show for the most part are very staged and composed and very sumptuous. Art photographers look at these and say they’re very contrived, very set up. They’ve made it look like a natural way of taking photos whereas in fact they are really arranged. You can’t say National Geographic was right or wrong for doing that, but you need to understand the influence it’s had on all of us.”

Depiction of women

“The classic National Geographic photo of the non-Western woman had quite a few different features. One was nudity, which wasn’t being shown in any other magazine at the time. National Geographic was well known for that, but never Western women. There was already that distinction. Non-Western women were also often shown carrying something on their head, often the most outrageous load you could imagine. The Western women, in contrast but also as part of the same aesthetic, are shown with produce … embracing nature, flowers, fruit, things from the natural world. Here you see a woman wearing a dress and it’s made of grapefruit peels! And women are always happy in nature. You never see any struggle with the natural world. Then you get to this picture from the ’50s and you have two women caressing a ham!”

Afghan girl

“As an anthropologist I want to know a lot more than can be shown in just an image. The more recent part of this story is that today apparently [the subject of Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl,” shown above] objects to this photograph. I believe National Geographic has done a documentary about her and what’s happened to her since the photo. Now she says she would cover her face. Though we look at this girl and think we know something about her, the ‘backstory’ could be much more fascinating. We’re drawn to the image and as anthropologists we want to take it further. Why does she have green eyes? What is she wearing? What is that background?

I wouldn’t say National Geographic is not accurate, but anthropologists live in cultures for years and try to find out how all the parts are connected to each other as opposed to a photographer who goes for a much shorter period of time. They try to encapsulate in a limited number of images the entire culture and it’s something the photograph has always tried to do and you can never be entirely successful because you can’t capture a culture in a picture.”

“In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits” remains on view at Penn Museum through April 15. For more information, go to www.museum.upenn.edu.

Originally published on March 16, 2006