National Geographic Photographers see the world in bright colors.
And to prove its point, National Geographic is publishing a book called “Life in Color.”
In it, chapters are arranged not according to geographic locations, but to color schemes, from insects, frogs, mountains, landscapes, to peoples, rice fields and bright cities.
National Geographic long time collaborator, photographer Annie Griffiths, curated the book.
She says the book gave National Geographic a chance to display many unpublished images.
Some go back more than a hundred years.
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Marco Werman: National Geographic is putting out a new book of lush evocative photographs. The chapters aren’t organized by subject or even location; they’re grouped by color. National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths curated the book Life in Color and she selected many images that have never been published before. Some go back more than 100 years. Griffiths says Life in Color explores the vivid colors in National Geographic’s archives.
Annie Griffiths: The blue chapters really are quite fun because there’s everything from this page and face that’s an extraordinary blue to a picture of a wild cat that there’s no blue in the picture except its eyes. And we did the blues of the ocean, but then we also did blue in unexpected places. You know, we do the full range between stunning landscapes, wildlife, cultures.
Werman: Like what? Give us an example there.
Griffiths: Well, I mean there’s one picture I quite love where the whole picture is grey and dark, except for a monk who’s walking away and he’s very small in the frame, but he’s got this flowing orange robe.
Werman: Oh, I love that photograph. I actually singled that out myself. He’s in front of the Tour Montparnasse in Paris.
Griffiths: Mm-hm, so those kind of touches of colors sometimes complete the picture. It wouldn’t be as interesting without.
Werman: What do we learn about other places, other cultures through color?
Griffiths: Well, color is a huge expression of self. And I think that you know, it’s very interesting, I find that Americans and Europeans are pretty boring, you know. We really are. When you start looking at a place like Mexico which just washes colors on all these buildings. And you go to Africa and you look at incredible colors, especially the women choose to wear. Or you go to India, I mean India is so alive with color and I come home and I’m like wow, everybody’s in black, and brown and grey.
Werman: Well, let’s talk about a couple of places that you’ve been to and some of your photographs from those places are featured in this book, and just kind of free associate. Give us a color that you think of when you think of Cape Town, South Africa, for example.
Werman: Wow, really.
Griffiths: Yeah, because Cape Town, it’s one of those jewels of a city and there’s so many white buildings and then the sea beyond.
Werman: It’s funny because your photo features colors, pretty much everything other than white from Cape Town and I, my mind immediately goes to the photos of the beautiful multicolored buildings in Cape Town.
Griffiths: Well, and that’s a very special part of Cape Town where the whole neighborhood is done in these vivid colors and I remember waiting because I wanted to get it without traffic and with interesting light, and finally it happened. There was actually a gorgeous morning where people were just waking up.
Werman: What is the color that you think of when you think Angangueo, Mexico?
Griffiths: Pink and green and blue, you know, that’s what I love about cultures like Mexico where they just splash their buildings with colors. And I think it’s really indicative of the Latin spirit. It’s a warm, outgoing culture.
Werman: You know, Annie, this book also uses quite a few archival pictures going way back to the early part of the 20th century and many of them are gorgeous portraits of women; one from Algeria in 1917, one from Italy in 1903. And then there’s a shot of a woman from Kenya, 1909. She’s wearing this turban and is holding a pet deer or gazelle, and she has this almost defiant gaze. It’s really striking. Describe this a little bit more for us and what you saw in it.
Griffiths: I love this photograph and I think that what we see as a defiant gaze right now is actually indicative that this woman has probably never been photographed before and she is presenting herself without any knowledge of posing or smiling as we do today. So I think it’s very revealing when you see a person simply be. It carries a really interesting weight in the photograph.
Werman: There’s also a young woman from the Philippines wearing traditional dress. She’s bare breasted as well as a Bedouin woman in the book, I mean both of these kind of look like painted postcards. Do you think the mission of National Geographic in the early 1900s was to capture exotic people for the western eyes?
Griffiths: Sure. I think there was a lot of that. The photographers were mostly men.
Werman: And white men, too.
Griffiths: White men.
Griffiths: And they were in pursuit of the exotic and they’d send it back to the white male editors and they were likely to choose a beautiful woman, I would guess, in many instances. There was a real newness about the whole notion of photographing around the world. And I think that when you look at it with a historic perspective, by the time we got into the ’50s and ’60s most people from my generation remember that it was the only magazine on your parents’ coffee table where you could see breasts. But prior to that it sounds like counter-intuitive, but it was sort of an innocence that this was a big deal. And in the case of the woman you mentioned, the Filipino woman, that picture looks to me like it was hand colored. And I think there are a lot of those experimentations that happened because photography was relatively new.
Werman: Life in Color is the title of the book. It’s curated by National Geographic staff photographer Annie Griffiths, whose work is also featured in it. Annie, very good to speak with you, thank you.
Griffiths: Thank you, Marco.
Werman: You can see a slideshow of some of the spectacular photos Annie and I just talked about. One of my personal favorites, a stunning terrace rice field in China that looks as unreal as a painting by Van Gogh. All that is at theworld.org.
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