Walking among the 50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic is the closest most people can get to traveling around the world. These photographers are venturing into places others haven’t been before, or have only been in a fantastical sense, glorified specifically for being unattained. They’re the first on their frontier. They’re like the paparazzi of things that actually matter.
Like Thomas Abercrombie, with his unprecedented image of Mecca in full tilt, an angle by which the world hadn’t witnessed it, a mission he underwent without his wife for the sake of her safety. On first glance, the rings surrounding the Kaaba, the stone building at the center of the Grand Mosque, look like neatly cut grass. On deeper inspection, every plant, glowing beneath blue light, is a worshipper at the end of a pilgrimage. From outside the picture it could be a garden. But from the other side of the frame, it had to be deafening, even at Abercrombie’s elevation.
Emory Kristoff’s 1991 shot of the prow of the Titanic was like the Star Wars of his photographic career. Using an unprecedented 10,000 watts of light and the most advanced technology available to avoid being crushed beneath the weight of the Atlantic Ocean, Kristoff caught his subject, its mammoth hull lurching from the darkness like a steel ghost two-and-a-half miles beneath usable oxygen, rusted over so thickly it could be covered in amber yogurt. Something about walking up to the photo feels like driving into Las Vegas at night: how Kristoff must’ve been plummeting through darkness until, finally, he reaches his destination, awesomely lit up and piercing the nothingness.
At the back of the gallery — beyond the Arctic polar bears, the Saharan sand storms, the Kuwaiti oil-field burnings — is National Geographic’s own Mona Lisa: Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl” stares into the camera, her gaze striking against the film like a ball peen hammer. It’s one of the most celebrated pictures in photojournalism — which is strange. McCurry has framed his pictures better in the past, with more interesting subjects. But it’s this one that stands out, a one-off chance photograph of a schoolgirl in an Afghan refugee camp. It’s one of the few photos you can’t learn from, because of any descriptions McCurry offered about getting the picture, most can be summed up as, “This was really lucky.”
50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; Imagine Exhibitions Gallery at The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 414-1000, $13-$16