Re-Reading National Geographic


by Tamar Rothenberg

American Iconographic: National Geographic, Global Culture, and the Visual Imagination,
by Stephanie L. Hawkins,
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 264 pp.

What is iconic about National Geographic? From the ethnographic “types” displayed as such in the first half of the twentieth century, to the bare-breasted women “in their native dress,” to the self-referential photographs of National Geographic photographers in the field, to the 1985 cover photo of Sharbat Gula–the young Afghan refugee girl in the red scarf–Stephanie L. Hawkins examines several of the magazine’s identifiable tropes and genres over the last hundred years or so. Framing Hawkins’s discussion is the premise that magazine helped its readers negotiate their understanding of globalization. For example, “[t]he crucial components of National Geographic’s iconicity–its photographs of racial and cultural difference–promoted cosmopolitan sympathies in addition to national pride” (pp. 59-60). Moreover, the readers’ negotiations of the magazine’s portrayals of people and places were active and complex; reader reception ranged considerably, including displeasure and disagreement as well as acceptance and enjoyment. Hawkins uses unpublished letters from the National Geographic Society archives and published parodies and spoofs of the magazine to bolster her argument, although much of the book entails her own reading of the magazine’s articles and photographs. While her prologue focuses on the late twentieth-century example of Sharbat Gula, Hawkins states in the first chapter that her book covers the period from 1888 to 1954, which it does, primarily the twentieth century.

In her introduction, Hawkins posits that recent critics of National Geographic tend to paint a dark and rather monolithic picture of cultural imposition on the millions of hapless dupes who absorbed its message, when rather, the magazine’s readers themselves often took issue with portrayals and themes in the magazine. In chapter 1, she holds out the evidence she will use to prove her point–lots of letters to the editor, archived and unpublished. She uses selections from these letters throughout the book, and it is fascinating to see some of the different responses National Geographic readers had to stories and photographs in the magazine. Yet there are serious elements of too much and not enough in Hawkins’s argument and in her use of letters. She argues than her “emphasis on how readers transform images and texts is one key point of distinction between this book and previous studies of National Geographic, many of which take for granted that readers wholeheartedly endorsed the magazine’s imperialist worldview” (p. 9). As someone who wrote about the complexity of the production of that worldview (Presenting America’s World, 2007), and as a careful reader of the other studies, I find that claim misleading. Indeed, Susan Schulten (The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950, 2001) used readers’ letters herself to discuss differing perspectives on the magazine, including the magazine’s highly contested portrayal of World War One and its national combatants. Hawkins also examines readers’ letters regarding National Geographic’s war coverage, but while she cites Schulten’s overall analysis, she does not mention Schulten’s archival work. Meanwhile, Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins (Reading National Geographic, 1993) conducted elaborate reader studies–albeit after 1954–in their investigation of how the magazine’s contents were interpreted.

Unsubstantiated statements, while infrequent, undermine her overall argument. I was intrigued to read that “Letters from readers indicate that National Geographic’s readership included many immigrants and people of color” (pp. 50-51). But while she cites a few of these letters throughout the book, she does not mention how many “many” actually was or provide further demographic evidence. Noting the increase in membership from about 1,000 in 1898 to a little over 2,800 in 1904, she declares that, “[w]hat is clear … is that photography, and the specific National Geographic ‘policy’ of photographing nudes, in particular, increased membership” (p. 72). Yet she provides no evidence other than correlation, and while it would be hard to disagree that the increased number of photographs drew more people in, the “nudes OK” policy was not advertised, and photographs of nudes actually comprised a small, if memorable, proportion. Moreover, as Hawkins notes a few pages later, regarding the 1909 publication of Baron Von Gloeden’s stylized photographs of lightly attired young Sicilian men, “It is difficult to speculate on the effect of such photographs on the magazine’s readership since National Geographic does not possess archived letters prior to 1912” (p. 80).

Hawkins does unearth some good archival gems, particularly letters taking the magazine to task for repeating photos across issues or reprinting photos used elsewhere. But many of the interpretations of articles are Hawkins’s alone. For example, take Hawkins’s examination of National Geographic stories in terms of “local color.” “Local color” fiction was a popular form in American literature from the late 1800s into the early twentieth century, and Hawkins makes a good case for the parallels between its romanticization of place-based difference and tendency to portray people as types rather than complex individuals, and National Geographic’s written and photographic portrayals of place and people. National Geographic’s iconic nudes can be considered part of what Hawkins terms the “local exotic,” which “combined local color fiction’s emphasis on the picturesque charm of the ‘local,’ or regional, with the exotic and culturally diverse” (p. 65). Hawkins discusses some of the problematic elements of the “local color” genre, both in fiction and in the pages of National Geographic, but also seeks to rescue it as a means of cross-cultural education in ways that are themselves problematic. While recognizing that several articles about Liberia published between 1907 and 1922 were “undeniably racist,” Hawkins argues that “we can see this other dynamic at work–one in which biological racial differences between Liberians, Africans, and Americans are less important than a shared Euro-American cultural heritage” (p. 74). Whether or not “we” can indeed see this other dynamic or agree that it trumps portrayals such as that of an older man in Liberia speaking “apologetically, with the old time Negro deference” (p. 75), what did the articles’ original readers think? Hawkins provides no contemporary responses to the Liberian articles, and the three letters she does cite in the chapter are not used to effectively bolster her arguments. “Give us the romance of geography–the lands and the peoples, in little or unknown places,” said one reader in 1921 (p. 62), setting the appropriate tone for the chapter but troubling Hawkins’ criticism that the magazine did not necessarily give readers the world they wanted to see. Given the 1925 article “The Romance of Science in Polynesia,” another reader called it “arresting” (p. 72). And a third reader, in 1919, thought there were too many nudes in the magazine (p. 73). “We” are left to imagine the many possible interpretations the multitude of varied readers may have had.

Another National Geographic genre that Hawkins explores is “jungle housekeeping,” in which a European or North American–usually a woman–tackled cooking, cleaning, and keeping order in exotic rural locations in ways that “both reflected and reconfigured popular notions regarding race, gender and the exotic” (p. 152), and “invited readers to reflect critically on Western privilege and power” (p. 155). (The term “jungle housekeeping” comes from a 1941 National Geographic article by Marion Stirling.) Here again, the handful of reader responses is greatly overshadowed by Hawkins’s own readings, and in her drive to argue for the varied interpretations of and reactions to National Geographic articles and photographs, Hawkins sometimes ends up overwriting one perspective with another. Arguing for a non-imperialist, cultural-relativist interpretation of a Venezuelan mother proudly recounting her daughter’s ease in giving birth, Hawkins reads the dialogue as a local woman’s critique of Western woman’s domestic lives. Indeed it is, but one could also argue that without further analysis, it also contributes to the older trope of non-Western people being closer to nature and further from civilization, whatever valuation may be placed upon that condition. (For an insightful discussion of National Geographic’s portrayals of women’s domesticity in the postwar years, see Lutz and Collins.)

The magazine parodies come in the final chapter, on the iconic stature of the magazine itself, against which its own diminishment and contestation of its worldview has taken place. Hawkins argues that parodies of the magazine, including readers’ letters to the magazine as early as the 1920s, and cartoons in publications such as the New Yorker, “bring to the surface public dissent regarding the magazine’s imperial romance” (p. 174). And in a fine analysis, Hawkins discusses these parodies in terms of camp, caricatures that highlight and disturb the performative aspect of explorer and native, primitive and modern. She examines James Hilton’s 1933 Shangri-La novel Lost Horizon as a parody of National Geographic, its main character modeled on National Geographic explorer-contributor Joseph Rock, and in doing so digs up admirable evidence of editorial enhancement of the male hero-explorer image between Rock’s draft and the published article. It involves a tiger, no less.

While American Iconographic is uneven in its use of evidence and occasionally questionable in terms of the arguments themselves, it raises important questions about the “fundamental instability of the iconic image” (p. 3), includes over two dozen relevant photographs and cartoons, and introduces some new perspectives to the literature. Some of the letters Hawkins found do indeed lend important insight into the diversity of National Geographic’s readers and their reception of the magazine. As legendary magazines fade away from the popular culture knowledge base (my students are more familiar with the National Geographic television channel than with the magazine or the National Geographic Society) it becomes useful to have a source that presents the life that such a publication created for itself and its audience. The magazine was designed to educate its audience about places and people, says Hawkins, and like active students, its readers not only took away from it what they wanted, they also argued with it when they disagreed, and made fun of its reoccurring quirks.

Piece originally published at H-Net Reviews |

About the Author:

Tamar Rothenburg is Associate Professor in the Department of History, Bronx Community College.