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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
BILL: And so this is sort of nice to come back to.
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.