In the e-era now, print magazines are going the way of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Take a moment, then, to give thanks for the remaining good ones, the primary example being National Geographic.
This year, the one now coming to a close, has been “The Year of the Bird,” as declared by National Geographic (as well as the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and BirdLife International). The celebration was occasioned by 2018 being the centennial of the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a seminal environmental law. (Fun fact: only three species in the lower 48 states are not protected by that statute – the House Sparrow, Rock Pigeon, and Common Starling.)
For its part of the celebration, National Geographic has included some kind of bird topic in each of this year’s monthly issues, with its typical excellent, often stunning, photography, and an accompanying article written by the novelist Jonathan Franzen or other birder-luminary.
In fact, though, the magazine has always had a strong emphasis on avifauna, as Jonathan Bailie (Chief Scientist of the National Geographic Society, and an ardent birder himself), says in his forward to The Splendor of Birds: Art and Photographs from National Geographic. The book, handsome and hefty, is meant to “commemorate and amplify” the Year of the Bird initiative –but it’s a self-celebration of sorts, too. It concerns the Society almost as much as it does the ornithology.
Much of the book, most of it, consists of full-page photos with identifying captions and some interspersed prose. It is organized chronologically, in four chapters, beginning in 1888, when the National Geographic Society was formed. Its magazine began publication then, too, with the first photographs appearing (over the protests of some board members, who didn’t want their journal being turned into “a picture book”) in 1906.
The early photographs are charming and marvelous: they remind the reader of how thrilling black-and-white photography of birds must have been then – and still can be, like this picture of a Wood Thrush, taken in 1916:
As the years passed, technological advances in photography, and research advances in bird biology, influenced the magazine’s photography (and vice versa). These effects are shown in periodic “Then & Now” spreads about such things as bird migration, hummingbirds, and field guide art. As to the latter topic, the text details how National Geographic’s team of artists strives for accuracy and consistency (in color balancing) in its renowned field guides. (As Donna pointed out in her review of the latest (seventh) edition of the NatGeo field guide, they usually, but not always, succeed).
There has always been a thing, a distinctive way of photographic illustration, called the “Geographic eye,” and it is well evident in this gorgeous book. It takes into its lens context and surroundings and makes them as important as the central bird (or other animal) subject. It’s what the book calls “street photography of the wild side,” as opposed to mere bird eye candy. Like this, a Northern Harrier in 1940:
or this, of Common Loons in Minnesota:
And, really, what’s wrong with bird eye candy? A: nothing. You might even say that, to bird lovers, any photo of a bird is eye candy. In any event, there’s a good amount of that in this book, as well. Here are two Spectacled Eiders, seemingly — anthropomorphism alert — delighted with themselves, and with each other, and with the world. As happy as, well, larks.
Do you want to spend $75 for a coffee table book, even one as lush and lavish as The Splendor of Birds? The short answer is that you don’t have to — check the web, where’s it’s often discounted. There is, though, something distinctive and special about National Geographic photography that makes this volume a treasure.
The Splendor of Birds: Art and Photographs from National Geographic
510 pp., $75