• October 25, 2013

Too Much Is Not Enough

National Geographic magazine will present “The Power of Photography: National Geographic 125 Years” at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles from October 26, 2013, through April 27, 2014. National Geographic’s director of photography, Sarah Leen, and Bill Marr, the magazine’s creative director—they’re married—curated and designed the exhibit. On display are more than 500 images they’ve chosen, presented on large television screens underlaid by a “wallpaper” using a giant grid of photographic prints spanning the height of the walls throughout the space.

Photograph by Bill Marr
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ADRIAN COAKLEY: What is the Annenberg exhibit all about?
BILL MARR: Too much is not enough.
SARAH LEEN: Too much is not enough! I think we should start with Thanksgiving. Bill has relatives out in Indiana, and we’ve spent the past few years going out there—we drive from Washington to Indianapolis. It’s about a ten-hour drive, a major road trip. Last year around that time Annenberg was pinging us about needing to talk about the plan, the idea for the exhibit. We already had the theme: the power of photography.
BILL: Yeah, how photography can change the world.
SARAH: We knew it would include the whole 125-year arc of National Geographic. We planned to use some of our iconic images as well as the work that’s in the October issue—our 125th anniversary edition—and more current stories. But when you start thinking about trying to edit 125 years into a print show, which is limited in size—I think Annenberg said they could do about 150 or 160 images.
BILL: If they’re small images.
SARAH: So when you try to think of distilling that, it’s just depressing. You’re going to end up with a lot of the usual favorites, because you can’t leave them out and still really represent National Geographic. So we’re driving along to Indiana, and it’s a great time to think and talk about everything. Though who actually came up with the idea is under great debate.
BILL: No. No, you did.
SARAH: No. I did? Okay. I did. I came up with it?

1920s. Campo Tencio, Switzerland. Mountaineers traverse a ridge in the Swiss Alps. The sport of mountaineering began in earnest in the Alps after Alfred Willis climbed the Wetterhorn in 1854.
Photograph by Jean Gaberell
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2012. Havana, Cuba. Hunting down groceries in poorly stocked markets, like this butcher shop in central Havana, is a daily challenge. Cubans receive ration books that secure staples like rice, beans, and oil at low prices. But it’s not enough to live on.
Photograph by Paolo Pellegrin
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SARAH: So we’re driving along, and I’m thinking about how to edit this. I don’t exactly know how the idea came into my head, but I started thinking like, well, what if you didn’t do prints. What if you did screens, as opposed to prints? Then the sky is the limit, right? It’s like moving from a printed magazine to a digital magazine. It’s the same transformation so many places are undergoing. Then it was like this huge weight lifted, because I thought, “Oh, wow! We could just go crazy.”
BILL: Too much is not enough.
SARAH: And more is more. Those became our themes, that more is more and too much is not enough. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, we started brainstorming this and thinking about grids of screens. Then we went to the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Hirshhorn. And in a section of that exhibit, he had images going up the walls in a grid—and grids across the floor. I loved being surrounded by the pictures that way. And we both said, “Let’s do that, too.” Just have it really immersive and get across this feeling that you just can’t see it all.
BILL: What we have is basically stations built around topics. There are five sections: Reveal/America, Explore/The World and All That’s in It, Witness/The Truth of the Moment, Connect/The Eyes to the Soul, Protect/Our Fragile Planet. So there are sets of screens, blocks of six screens in most cases. It’s more of a gallery presentation.

2010. Kenya. Orphaned at a young age, Shukuru wears a custom-made raincoat at the Nairobi Elephant Nursery, which raises elephants whose parents have been killed.
Photograph by Michael Nichols
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2009. Eastern Cape, South Africa. Xhosa teens, initiated into manhood in a circumcision ritual, stay in seclusion outside their village, wrapped in ceremonial blankets and painted with white clay for purification.
Photograph by James Nachtwey
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ADRIAN: And how big are the screens?
BILL: There are four banks of 55-inch—six 55-inch screens, so three across, two down.
ADRIAN: What were some of the challenges of creating this exhibit?
BILL: One of the more challenging things was to figure out how long the images should be up there. We had timed them at 50 seconds per screen.
SARAH: Per group.
BILL: So there are three pictures up there. You have 50 seconds to look at the photographs and read the captions, and it will cycle.
SARAH: We want it to be more of a gallery kind of an experience, a slower pace. We don’t want people to park. We want them to just go and be there for a while and then—
BILL: And to go through—
SARAH: —see that one turning—
BILL: —experience it again.
BILL: It’s slowly moving, but it’s dynamic.

2008. Chicago, Illinois.  Chicago at night burns bright under blankets of clouds. Much of the glow escapes from streetlamps, including clear, Victorian-style lamps good for creating atmosphere but poor for harnessing today's extra-bright bulbs.
Photograph by Jim Richardson
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2011. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Teenagers disregard the threat of a summer storm in the town of Wounded Knee. On December 29, 1890, at least 146 Indians were killed by the U.S. Army near here. For the Sioux and other Native Americans, Wounded Knee remains a potent symbol—geographically and politically—of historic injustice.
Photograph by Aaron Huey
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ADRIAN: Tell me about the two of you collaborating on this exhibit.
SARAH: Well, we divvied up jobs, really. I mean, we had separate roles and tasks. I was the one who was trolling the books and the archives and SPI [National Geographic Image Collection’s database]. I was requesting images and pulling them out and starting to create a monster catalog and breaking them down into a lot of themes. Then I broke them out by photographer and then organized the mass of images. And then Bill made templates. He created a thing with the screens, and then I could start to just drop things in boxes and make the edit.
BILL: Because you’re editing toward the parent, to the groupings. These three pictures at a time, the next three pictures.
SARAH: So these three pictures are together. They have to work together or make some kind of a statement together, whether they’re three individual photographers or there are three of the same—but from the same photographer. Little portfolios. So it will say “David Doubilet,” and there will be four pictures in a grid and very minimal caption, and then it will say something about him and his career. And then those four will change and become like three and then with more, but it always says “David Doubilet” for three or four turns of the screen. And then it will go, “Brent Stirton,” and then it will have him for a few exchanges. So we wanted to highlight particular photographers’ bodies of work and then have singles in between. I worked on a lot of that. Then I’d call in Bill for a consult, ask him, “What do you think about this or that?” Then I pretty much passed it to Bill, and he designed all the wallpaper, all the type, all the captioning, did all the videos, pulled all the videos in, and organized all the videos, and designed all the wallpaper.

1908. Zanzibar. Her face adorned with stylish painted circles, a woman holds a pet dik-dik, a type of small antelope.
Photograph by Underwood and Underwood
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ADRIAN: There are over 500 images in the show. How do you decide what to leave in and what to leave out?
SARAH: All I can think about is all the things I left out, because I feel like I left out so much wonderful work. It was all about the themes. It was about particular people’s bodies of work, so you’re editing toward their career, some of their highlights, as well as the picture that makes you think, “Oh, I haven’t seen that one, but it works really great with these other ones.” I tried putting those things together, trying to balance things that are less well known with things that are familiar, but also putting them in different contexts. It was really playing around and moving things and thinking about the various themes. I just really like these pictures, now can I find a home for them?

2010. Bangladesh. Villagers pitch in to relocate buildings on Sirajbag, a silt island in the Jamuna River where flooding is common. Dismantled at noon, this mosque was rebuilt in time for evening prayers.
Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen
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2005. La Paz, Mexico. In a cascade of death, guitarfish, rays, and other bycatch are tossed from a shrimp boat. In recent years improvements in equipment and techniques have reduced the waste.
Photograph by Brian Skerry
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ADRIAN: It seems that it’s made to sort of revisit and keep coming back to. Is that part of the design that you were hoping for?
SARAH: I hope if you walk through this and stop at these various locations—you will have your own unique experience of the exhibit. Because at your moment in front of the screens will be those pictures, and then your moment in front of the next batch of screens will be these other pictures. And then if you walk back through, it will be in a different spot, and you will experience it differently. So each person will come away with something actually very personal. Unless there’s somebody who goes with you, side by side, you’ll be the only person who sees that exhibit in just that way. It will be that way for me, too, when I go through and walk it. I will have a particular experience as I go through that will be different if I walk through ten minutes later or the person comes ten minutes behind me. So it will be very, very interesting to get feedback from people.

1979. Nevada. Neon signs blaze till last call at the Cloud 9.
Photograph by William Albert Allard
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge. Photograph by William Albert Allard
1998. Nevada. An employee dusts the stuffed wildlife displays at Cabela’s, a 75,000-square-foot retailer that sells bass jigs, rifle scopes, and nearly every other necessity for outdoor enthusiasts.
Photograph by Joel Sartore
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ADRIAN: What do you hope viewers will take away from the exhibit?
BILL: I really do want them to feel like they haven’t seen it all and they want more, and that—I mean, we have this iconic brand. I think when you look at these photographs, there are archival images in there, but we’ve really tried to keep it to the contemporary side. It’s a very current edit, very powerful edit.
SARAH: And I would hope that they are as impressed and amazed as I am with how much National Geographic has accomplished, how much we’ve done, and how rich an experience it’s been that we’ve been creating for our readers and members of the Society. We have really been bringing it back for 125 years, which—and you look at this work—even at 500 pictures, it’s the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more.
BILL: I do hope the way we set it up, having that video up there, “The Power of Photography,” which shows photographers talking about what they do and why they do it—I was hoping that something people take home is not just what’s in the pictures, but also the photographers. These are people that actually have a voice, and they are doing something for a reason, because they’re passionate about what they do. And I think it’s a real key—not only to our October issue, which celebrated photography, but I think to the way we tried to set up this whole exhibit. It does come back to the photographer in each place.
SARAH: There’s a very nice area in the back of the exhibit, and on one of the big 75-inch screens, there will be 23 interviews with photographers that will run in a loop. Without their commitment and dedication, you know, we wouldn’t have these wonderful pictures to work with.

1983. Rajasthan, India. A group of Indian women huddle together, singing and praying for the end of a fierce dust storm.
Photograph by Steve McCurry
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ADRIAN: Anything else you’d like to add?
BILL: Well, Annenberg is taking a big risk doing this thing. I mean, it’s a huge investment, 40 screens, and these aren’t cheap screens. What’s great is to have a partner like that. Anybody else would have said, “Of course not.”But their first reaction was, “Gosh, how do we do that?”
SARAH: “That sounds interesting.”
BILL: “What do we do with the screens when we’re done? We’ll just buy them.” They were great.
SARAH: They were amazing. They’ve really put a lot of faith in the idea, and trust, and they’ve been with us every step of the way trying to make it work and work beautifully. And, I mean, they’re rebuilding walls, and they’re rewiring the entire place to make this work, and they have been amazing. I don’t know who else would do something like this.
ADRIAN: I’ve got one more question. What’s your next collaboration?
SARAH: I don’t know.
BILL: We used to work a lot together back when we were both freelancing.
SARAH: Yeah.
BILL: And so this is sort of nice to come back to.

The Power of Photography: 125 Years of National Geographic on display at the Annenberg Space for Photography
Photograph by Bill Marr
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This interview was edited by National Geographic magazine Senior Editor Margaret Zackowitz.

Watch a video of National Geographic photographers talking about the power of photography.

There are 17 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Natthapong Aeamsawat
    December 2, 2013

    There are many magnificent and meaningful pictures and I love them all.

  2. Marta St. John-Anders
    November 4, 2013

    I just love the idea of this exhibit. My sister and I are doing our family genealogy and we have scanned in dozens of old family photos. We love being able to look at them on the computer. Some of them are so small – 2×3″ – but they are full of exquisite details we can appreciate on the computer screen. I think this will be the same way, plus being surrounded by the images will intensify the experience. I hope there is music playing that is as carefully chosen as the collection.

  3. Tom
    November 3, 2013

    Please try to make this exhibition go on tour! I’d love to see it in the UK.

  4. Florence Provenza
    November 3, 2013

    Some things are made to be seen by everyone. I think my Grandson ,Steven Lee Adams, paints the way you take photos. They will be seen over and over by many! Thank you for your work

  5. prakash vadlamani
    November 2, 2013

    At one point i lost myself.

  6. Sarah
    October 31, 2013

    I wish Australia had something similar!! This is excellent! c:

  7. Naseer
    October 31, 2013

    it was really outstanding pictures hopping u more try best

  8. nhan
    October 30, 2013

    You’re a great photographer. Every image has a particular beautyful. I wish I could visit this exhibit to enjoy them. Thank you for making great images.

  9. aderemi oladipo
    October 28, 2013

    These are gorgeous images.

  10. aderemi oladipo
    October 28, 2013

    These are gorgeous images. The sort of umages

  11. neeraj
    October 27, 2013

    i love the magjine national geographic………the photography is awasom

  12. Forrest Barfield
    October 26, 2013

    Great photos, but I’m really getting tired of seeing the green-eyed woman!

  13. BalaGuberan
    October 26, 2013

    really fantastic collections

  14. Rowshan Ara
    October 26, 2013

    excellent picture

  15. Sonia Ellem
    October 26, 2013

    An extremely challenging job to narrow all NG’s wonderful images to around 500. What a FaB. exhibition it will be, wish I could be there. Best of luck!

  16. David Powell
    October 25, 2013

    I wish I lived in LA to go and see this. A fantastic set of images.

  17. Tanya Popove
    October 25, 2013

    The screens are an excellent idea.

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