Nearly every photojournalist dreams of working for National Geographic. The magazine sets the gold standard for excellence in photography with its photo assignments to exotic locations, generous allotments of time to spend working in said locales, and lavish multipage spreads of the pictorial results. National Geographic employs the best photographers in the world, gives them major support for long-term assignments, and pays them well. The work they produce under the publication's paternalistic aegis is, in a word, glorious.
However, the price of admission to this prestigious photographers' club is steep: Most assignments require many months away from home, working under great pressure in the most remote corners of the planet, in what are generally grueling conditions. Until recently, the vast majority of photographers contributing to Geographic's 112-year run have been male--or, as author Cathy Newman dryly notes, "the history of women at the [National Geographic] Society has traditionally been one of exception rather than the rule."
Still, over the years, there have been a few ladies in the men's room. Eliza Scidmore, the first woman to be published in the magazine's venerable pages, provided delicately tinted Japanese portraits in 1914, and the participation of female photographers has since grown to make 14 out of 70 current contributing photographers. (National Geographic's boys club days are not gone completely, however; when this book was in its planning stage, one anonymous male staff photographer commented, "Women photographers? It'll be a short book."
But the proof is in the pages. The 144 stunning images by more than 40 female photographers show that the ladies are punching their weight, thank you very much. Portfolio sections showcase the work of Geographic's major female contributors, including Jodi Cobb's luminous portraits of women all over the world; Karen Kasmaski's riveting photos that eloquently illustrate such ungainly topics such as "Aging"; and Maria Stenzel's sere images of Antarctica. Newman scatters work by other contributing photographers throughout the book, serving up the classic black-and-white compositions of Margaret Bourke-White and Maggie Steber's jangly, vibrant images of Miami.
The marvelous photography is accompanied by engaging and insightful text. One especially fascinating section explores just how globetrotting female photojournalists balance demanding careers with marriage and motherhood, while another examines the different perceptions and assumptions female, rather than male, photographers bring to the job. In the words of photographer Lynn Johnson, "As a woman, it is not enough to have form and color and light. I want to stand in the middle of a room where people are laughing, crying, and dancing. I want immersion instead of arm's-length distance."
The images in this book do immerse us in the world, as seen through the eyes of the photographers who held the camera then and tell us their stories now. It's an intoxicating mix.