New Book Captures America the Visual

A sumptuous two-volume edition from Taschen spotlights the United States in photographs from the archives of National Geographic
New Book Captures America the Visual

Travelers at a tourist court on the ridges of the Ozarks, Arkansas, 1946.

In this age of instant videos and dizzyingly fast streaming from across the globe, it may seem surprising—and quaint—to remember that people once learned about the world and its inhabitants from National Geographic. For those who had never seen a serpent or a skyscraper, the magazine opened up avenues of knowledge about distant places, cultures, landscapes and peoples—including in the United States.

“It was a window to the world,” says veteran photo editor Reuel Golden, who pored through decades of archival images to produce National Geographic: The United States of America, a sumptuous two-volume edition from art publisher Taschen. “There wasn’t Google Images, there wasn’t a Travel Channel, and flying was still quite an exotic, expensive business. The magazine was how people found out about other regions and other countries.”

Divided alphabetically by state (including territories), the book captures the essential character of each locale through the lens and aesthetic of National Geographic. Founded in 1888 as the official publication of the National Geographic Society, the journal documented stories about science, history and geography through breathtaking photography. “They had a huge amount of rich and deep material, almost from the beginning of the magazine’s history,” says Golden, who combed through the institution’s Washington, D.C., collection and eventually chose most of the images from the buoyant postwar era in American life.
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, 1982

The United States was feeling optimistic during this period, and a kind of radiance jumps from the pages as we encounter holidaying families in bucolic settings, often alongside late-model autos and other emblems of giddy American consumerism. Many of the photos were staged by the photographers: “National Geographic was about discovering America the Beautiful, in the sense of all that was good and positive about the country,” Golden says. “The pictures betray no cynicism. The flip side of that is people said the magazine was a bit naïve, and hid less attractive parts of the United States.”

The editors had a formula for presenting a state, a quality Golden says his book strove to convey: “They wanted the nature shot, they wanted people at work, they wanted people at leisure; if there was a traditional costume of some kind they wanted that. They portrayed the states in quite simple ways, but at the same time were keen to accentuate their variety.”
Tourists gazing at Chicago’s Michigan Avenue from the top of the Tribune Tower, 1950s.

Similarly, Golden and his team used three criteria to determine the more than 700 images included in the book: The photo had to be beautiful and compelling; it had to reveal something about the state—culturally, economically, visually; and it had to be true to the spirit of National Geographic. “These pictures represent the ethos and aesthetic of the magazine,” says Golden. “Yes, it’s a Taschen book, but ultimately the content is from National Geographic.”

So, alongside landmarks such as the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and the Washington Monument, the book gives equal weight to human endeavor, from cheesemakers in Wisconsin and auto workers in Detroit to jazz performers in New Orleans. The pairing of macro and micro, from vast landscapes to individual human activity, illustrates the story of the country.The tone of National Geographic did change as the decades progressed, Golden says. 

“It was never going to be Time or Life, a magazine about hard news, but it did have to adapt by the early ’70s. As the country was questioning the status quo, there was a little more focus on environmental destruction and decay, and a new generation of photojournalists, trained in capturing both the good and the bad, reflected that in their coverage.”
Jones Village, an unincorporated community in the Mississippi Delta, 1973.

Golden’s curation signals this change, and images of battered cities dim the prevailing luster of innocent mid-century cheer. But the book’s overall mood remains one of hope and energy, and reflects a frontier spirit of American naturalism. 

“In that era, National Geographic was not interested in cities, unless it was New York or D.C.—they only did two stories about Chicago in the magazine’s entire history. The editors and publishers didn’t see cities as glamorous, so there weren’t as many photos of that as I would have liked. In the ’40s and ’50s, it didn’t have the same appeal.”

Notwithstanding its omissions, the magazine enjoyed a reputation for documentary imagery few publications could match. Golden says many photographers he comes across now, in genres as varied as fashion and portraiture, say they were first inspired to enter the field by flipping through National Geographic in their parents’ home. 

“It represents the pinnacle of what being an editorial photographer is about. If you were a staff photographer from the ’50s to the ’70s, flown all around the world with weeks, sometimes months, to get a story, it must have been the greatest job you could have. In the process, National Geographic became the premier sales brochure for America.”

National Geographic: The United States of America is published by Taschen.