The Nat Geo archive frames women’s lives in photos

Tens of millions of images collected since 1888 reflect the practices and prejudices of a changing world.

TOP ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT: ERIKA LARSEN (2014, MONTANA); DIANA MARKOSIAN (2014, MEXICO); L. GAUTHIER (1919, MARQUESAS ISLANDS); CIRIL JAZBEC (2016, KENYA); ERIKA LARSEN (2016, ALASKA); ROBIN HAMMOND (2016, ENGLAND). BOTTOM: ZACKARY CANEPARI (2018, MICHIGAN); WILLIAM ALBERT ALLARD (1994, SICILY); THOMAS J. ABERCROMBIE (1968, AFGHANISTAN); ROBERT B. GOODMAN (1960, ENGLAND); UNKNOWN (PRE-1910, EGYPT); B. ANTHONY STEWART (PRE-1942, CALIFORNIA)

The images in an archive form an invaluable record of the eras in which they were made. Looking through early files to find photographs for these pages—and for our new book, Women: The National Geographic Image Collection—we were struck by how narrowly women were once defined. The pictures are often beautiful, sometimes funny or sad or even shocking—but they are reflective of the prejudices and practices of the times.

The archive holds more than 60 million images amassed since National Geographic’s founding in 1888: published and unpublished photos, slides, negatives, glass plates, and more. It’s almost certainly one of the world’s most comprehensive visual records of women in diverse societies and cultures.

In the early 20th century the magazine’s images—shaped by the technical limitations of photography then and a very Western colonialist point of view—often portrayed women as exotic beauties, posed in their local costumes or bare-breasted. That reflects who was behind the lens in those days: mostly white men. As camera technology evolved, our images of women became more active, but still focused heavily on traditional archetypes: wives, sisters, mothers. It wasn’t until World War II that women turned up in more roles: boosting the war effort by working in industry, hospitals, the military. Postwar, the magazine reverted to more domesticated views; women smiled their way through a few more decades until the 1970s and the rise of photography that captured an unvarnished view of life.

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