Thirty-four years before the birth of this magazine, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard sourly prophesied a banal fate for the newly popularized art of photography. “With the daguerreotype,” he observed, “everyone will be able to have their portrait taken—formerly it was only the prominent—and at the same time everything is being done to make us all look exactly the same, so we shall only need one portrait.”
The National Geographic Society did not set out to test Kierkegaard’s thesis, at least not right away. Its mission was exploration, and the gray pages of its official journal did not exactly constitute a visual orgy. Years would go by before National Geographic’s explorers would begin using the camera as a tool to bring back what is now its chief source of fame: photographic stories that can alter perceptions and, at their best, change lives.
By wresting a precious particle of the world from time and space and holding it absolutely still, a great photograph can explode the totality of our world, such that we never see it quite the same again. After all, as Kierkegaard also wrote, “the truth is a snare: you cannot have it, without being caught.”