Two women lie on a beach in 1930s California, their purses, shoes, and a paper-bag lunch within reach as they tan. Was this scene stumbled upon, or were models positioned to create the moment? National Geographic Image Collection archivist Bill Bonner suggests the latter practice was not as uncommon as one might think.
Bonner ponders and posits such theories from an unremarkable office behind a nondescript door at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. Unremarkable, of course, but for the treasure trove of photographs spanning the past century that can be found within.
Poring over these more than eight million vintage photographs has led Bonner to develop a deep appreciation for the window they open into the lives of people long since gone. “Through pictures,” Bonner says, “I’ve been all around the world.”
Bonner has been undertaking his picto-voyages every day for the last 30 years. A typical exploration begins with an internal research request, but the real magic often occurs while on the hunt for something else. Pictures that catch his eye are set aside and rescued from obscurity, either forwarded to the editors of FOUND or added to the National Geographic Society’s repository of digitized images.
Closest to his heart are the unpublished black-and-white photographs, those inaccessible to researchers outside the walls of the archive. He likens digging into these to leafing through an old family album—only this particular album is the largest on the planet. He visits the ghosts of people long departed whose stories evoke a range of emotions, from nostalgia to curiosity.
The beach photograph is a prime example. Taken by National Geographic photographer Clifton Adams (on the Society’s staff from 1920 to 1934), it was discovered in a folder of unpublished prints from a 1934 assignment in southern California. Sadly, it was while in California that year that Adams passed away from a brain tumor at the age of 44.
As Bonner understands, a packet of negatives, including the frame above, was found in his personal effects. It was tucked away with the rest of the shoot and went unseen until Bonner came across it in the collection a couple of years ago.
What makes this a standout for Bonner is that it suggests both “the informality of a snapshot and the formality of a carefully composed image.”
So, which was it?
Entries in Adams’s personal notebook offer tantalizing mentions of scenes on Long Beach, and an essay of his photographs from the November 1934 issue of the magazine shows families at nearby Laguna Beach, but there are no concrete links to this particular frame.
So we’re left to wonder—and to continue the journey through photographs.