U.S. Army soldiers make an amphibious landing on the banks of Germany’s Rhine River. Navy sailors take a break from combat for a dip in the Pacific Ocean. A young marine cleans sand out of his shoe. These World War II–era images are part of a small collection of photographs currently on display in the basement of National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Sorry, not open to the public, but we’re bringing you a selection here on Proof, along with the original captions.)
Tucked away among the 11.5 million photographic items housed in the National Geographic archive, the images were among those recently pulled from storage by NG Creative’s Julia Andrews and Debbie Li and archivist Bill Bonner in homage to the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, marked earlier this year.
Bringing them out of the archive provides an insight into the lives and mentalities of the past. “They tell a story we don’t want to forget,” says Li.
The National Geographic Society archive once had an entire collection of photographs specifically dedicated to World War II, but in the early 1960s, the archive ran out of physical space to house prints, and the collection was culled. What remained was stashed in files not related to the war, and Bonner periodically came across them while doing research on other topics.
According to Bonner, National Geographic magazine published “a lot of stories about soldiers—a life for the soldier, that kind of thing … and less [about] the frontline battles.”
“You would never think that National Geographic was even interested, but we were,” says Andrews. “Editors were paying attention to this. They wanted it in the [archive] collection but never published it.”
Many of the photos on display are wire photos—distributed by news agencies and not commissioned by National Geographic magazine. They’re displayed with the original caption information that was taped on the back of the print. These captions add a rich layer to the show, giving the viewer insight into the mentalities of the time. The captions are clinically written and matter-of-fact, with a “neutrality you wouldn’t have now,” says Andrews.
Thanks to Bonner, Li, and Andrews, these incredible photographs not seen in decades can ensure that some moments won’t be forgotten.