National Geographic Critique

National Geographic Critique
Two photographs from the recent National Geographic Expositions, Odysseys and Photographs and the All Roads, are strikingly similar in their composition, though span many years and miles.
Veteran National Geographic photographer, Thomas Abercrombie, spent much of his time documenting and commenting on life in the Middle East.  One of his photographs is a darkly lit covered marketplace.  The light that does enter the space originated from holes in what appears to be a tent like covering. The shafts of light serve not only to cast light and detail on the goods in the market but also divide the frame in two. On the lit, left side people walking and shopping are the immediate focus of the scene. In the darker shadows of the right side, however, a server is much closer to the camera and seems to be offering the lens a sip of his prized tea.
In contrast to the smoke-filled marketplace, with rows of spices vegetables, and servers hawking tea and rugs, a photograph by Rena Effendi, of her home country of Azerbaijan, highlights the starkness and poverty found in a rural mountain village.  A mother and her daughter stand in their empty kitchen.  While the child smiles in bewilderment at the camera, the mother looks away almost embarrassedly at her empty table.  The hunger and grief is evident in the mother’s sunken cheeks and retracted posture.  In perhaps a glimpse towards a bright future, and the mother’s sacrifice for her offspring, the daughter exudes energy with her full, rosy cheeks. While the child is not in such dire straits as her mother, upon closer inspection, much of her rose-colored cheeks appear to be eczema.  A single shaft of light stains the room diagonally from its end place on the face of the little girl up through the exhaust hole / skylight towards the heaven.
Both of the photographs are remarkable for their capture of columns of light.  Abercrombie captures a diluted ray of light through a tent hole lighting up a smoky, crowded, bustling marketplace while Effendi captures a stark, sterile light which highlights both the bright future of youth, and the present fragility of life in the poor mountains of Azerbaijan.  The compositional choice of the photographers to document a shaft of light through a room speaks much to the ethereal qualities of light itself. In one setting a shaft of light can highlight and draw focus towards an energetic and blossoming marketplace, while in another setting a shaft of light literally sheds light on poverty, anguish, and hunger.
The softer marketplace light is forgiving to all parties involved.  It allows the ornate rugs and tapestries to kept their secrets hidden.  It keeps a potentially pushy server in the shadows and hides the grime of the earthen floor.  The hard light in the rural kitchen seems to sear through photograph.  It sterilizes an otherwise empty environment.  It brings a sickly eczema to a potentially healthy-looking little girl.
This light, which brings so many different outcomes, ultimately comes from the same place.  To illuminate the scenes, both Abercrombie and Effendi use natural lighting controlled by man – holes in the ceilings of both interior locations.  The outside-in quality of these photographs brings a beauty and wonder to the pages of National Geographic magazine.  Through the images captured by these photographers’ lenses, far away lands are humanized and brought to the attention of readers.  A busy market is transformed into a mystical shadowy cave and a poor woman’s kitchen is able to reflect her hardship and the hope for her future found in her daughter.  The powerful force of light coming from the sky links both these scenes.  The light illuminates the human condition so that the photographer can document it.


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