TOPICS > Arts

Hidden Lens: Inside National Geographic’s Photo Vault

January 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown visits National Geographic's vault of more than 11.5 million images spanning more than a century of photography and illustration.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: bringing a world of images to light.

Jeffrey Brown has our report.

BILL BONNER, National Geographic: This is Tunisia in the early 20th century. And, I mean, some of these pictures, it’s just eye-popping, I mean, just beautiful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bill Bonner has had a treasure trove largely to himself for 27 years here in the bowels of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. Bonner, the society’s archivist, oversees a collection of some 11.5 million images.

BILL BONNER: So, it shows the Sphinx without the excavation around.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s everything from an expedition at the North Pole in the late 1800s to hunters in Zanzibar several decades later, coal miners in England in 1938, to Mount Rushmore under construction in 1947.

BILL BONNER: I just can’t wait for people to see some of these things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bonner’s underground world is made up of aisle after aisle of envelopes and boxes containing images that, for the most part, went unpublished. Call them the outtakes from thousands of assignments and expeditions, vintage black-and-whites and transparencies, as well as the first commercially successful color photographs produced on glass and known as autochromes.

There are also some 12,000 pieces of original art commissioned by the society, including this N.C. Wyeth painting titled “Sea Monsters” estimated now to be worth several million dollars.

Millions of more recent transparencies are kept in cold storage, including 35,000 slides in this freezer, where specially trained personnel can retrieve them in low-light conditions.

For most of National Geographic’s 120 years, images were filed by hand. These photos show workers in 1933. And Bonner continues the tradition, though holdings are now indexed on computer and everything is being digitized.

Geographic staffers ringing a doorbell for access to the highly secure vault have always borrowed from the collection for their publications, but it’s been kept hidden from the public eye. Now Geographic has started to change that by publishing a 500-page book, “National Geographic Image Collection,” which spans 12 decades of world events and photographic evolution.

Maura Mulvihill, a 30-year veteran of National Geographic who oversaw the project, says picking a few hundred photos from such a huge archive required a detailed framework.

MAURA MULVIHILL, National Geographic: We’re known for documenting people and culture around the world. We’re known for documenting science and climate change. We’re known for documenting natural history. And we’re really known for exploration. So, we kind of put mentally, made four buckets.

And, then, within each of those, we wanted to tell a really important story, which is, every one of these stories, we were able tell differently because of the technology we had at our disposal at the time. So, for example, if you look at the national history section, you can see that we had to start with black-and-white photographs. Those photographs look so still. And most of the animals are dead in the early part of the book, because we couldn’t capture motion very well. And it was always — it was in black and white.

And then we moved into color photography, glass plates. You couldn’t capture motion at all, but you could get the color. Then .35-millimeter came, and, suddenly, you could capture all this motion. So, each chapter in the book, we arranged chronologically.

JEFFREY BROWN: Chris Johns, who first worked for the magazine as a contract photographer and became its editor in 2005, says that, while insiders knew what they were sitting on, and readers enjoyed the photos that were selected for the magazine, no one stopped to think about releasing some of the other images from the archive.

CHRIS JOHNS, National Geographic: One of the things, when you have been an institution, sending people all over the world for more than 120 years, that can happen is, you can take some things for granted that, in fact, you shouldn’t take for granted. Well, let’s slow down for a minute. Let’s really look back in that rich history.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s added pleasure for Johns in seeing seven of his own photographs in the new book. He described the thrill of taking one of them.

CHRIS JOHNS: But, occasionally, I will run into a situation that I know is so rich, and I have got my camera in hand. And, of course, you get to a point in your life when you realize you have only got so many clicks left in your life. And you really go after a picture hard.

An example of that would be a photograph I took of a lion in the Kalahari Desert. And it was quite by accident. I bumped into him earlier in the day. The light was terrible. Later in the day, I found him in the midst of a dust storm, black skies, wind raging. I was losing the light.

But, finally, I got one frame out of probably about 250, one frame that worked. And I didn’t know if I had the picture at all. But I was going to do everything I possibly could, within reason without being eaten, to try to get that photograph.

JEFFREY BROWN: More of the previously unseen photos are now on exhibit at the society’s headquarters, both inside and out, ringing the building and lit up at night.

For his part, archivist Bill Bonner will continue to tend to the vintage collection one artifact of history at a time.