Thursday, October 28, 2010

There is Nothing Simple About National Geographic Beauty

Swimmer at Pool of Victoria Falls, Zambia, by Annie Griffiths
 What do you call a book filled with photographs whose only unifying theme seems to be that they are rather breathtaking? You can almost hear the queasy fatigue in the voices of the editors tasked with coming up with a title. Someone suggests they just call it “Simply Beautiful.” Okay, it’s fine. Now, lunch.
     Perhaps I’m being too hard on the editors at National Geographic Books, which just released National Geographic Simply Beautiful Photographs.The book is a collection of images from the Geographic Image Collection, and it comes with an exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. I haven’t seen that show, but I did attend the opening of the “Simply Beautiful” exhibition at New York’s Steven Kasher Gallery last week.

Trumpeter Swan, Yellowstone National Park, by James P. Blair
 Let me be very clear in saying that these are remarkable pictures by many of my favorite photographers: Sam Abel, Jodi Cobb, David Doubilet, Annie Griffiths, and Beverly Joubert, to name a few.
      As you can see from the samples I’ve included here, the pictures are beautiful…at least they satisfy my general requirements for beauty in a photograph. Are they simple? Only if you ignore the work and expertise that went into making the pictures look easy. Snapshots they aren’t.

Woman Reading a Greeting Card Designed as a Newspaper, Florence, Italy, by Jodi Cobb
When I saw the work at Kasher, though, I couldn’t help but wonder: How much beauty is too much? And is “simple” enough of a theme for hanging a bunch of wonderful pictures together. What do you think?

Elephant Under a Rainbow, Kenya, by Michael Nichols
 Taken individually, on your computer screen for instance, these images have much more resonance. They are not simply beautiful, but astonishing. They need to be focused on, they require stories to be told. Beauty doesn't begin to explain it.

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