Snapshots of milestones in history of mankind

From Machu Picchu to King Tut’s grave, the ‘National Geographic’ auction takes us on a rich pictorial history, writes Trevor Coin

WHO can forget those eyes? Two pools of green in a sunburnt face, staring out from the depths of Afghanistan. When Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl” appeared on the cover of National Geographic in June 1985, the image became an instant icon, capturing the magazine’s exploratory spirit and dedication to top-notch photography.

A print of “Afghan Girl” will be among the 200-plus treasures from the National Geographic Society’s archives to go under the gavel at Christie’s today. The auction comes just ahead of the society’s 125th anniversary, with proceeds going toward preserving the archive and supporting emerging photographers and artists.

Additionally, one lot — 114, with its summertime crowds jazzing it up on the post-war Jersey boardwalk — will be dedicated to helping victims of the recent flooding there. “After Hurricane Sandy passed, National Geographic and Christie’s wanted to make that lot more prominent,” says Katherine Brambilla, the associate vice-president for Christie’s Private & Iconic Collections.

The archives for sale are stunning — a veritable cabinet of curiosities. Their marvels span the natural world’s weirdest geography and wildest fauna, the history of mankind, and the mysteries of deep space.

Dinosaurs are here, in colourful gouache, as are lions and penguins in vivid close-up. We’ve got mummies and mammoths, African dancers and grand Islamic mosques, the aurora borealis and the atom bomb.

Fittingly, the photos breathe exoticism and adventure. Some of the greatest expeditions of the 20th century are captured: The Peruvian trek that found Machu Picchu; the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb; the Apollo 11 astronauts landing on the Moon. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay grin from Everest during their historic summit, while Jacques Cousteau snaps a fellow sea diver.

There’s a shot of the submerged Titanic, ghostly in the deep, and a scene of Lucky Lindy touching down at Croydon Field, his monoplane engulfed by adoring crowds.

Many of the offerings come from the darkrooms of legendary artists — Ansel Adams (“Half Dome From Glacier Point”), Alfred Eisenstaedt (“Ballet Rehearsal at the Paris Opera”), Margaret Bourke-White (“Union Station Tower, Cleveland, Ohio”).

Others are the work of shutterbugs who may be obscure to the wider public but whose names ring like legends in the annals of National Geographic history. One such fellow, Maynard Owen Williams, was hired in 1919 as the society’s first field correspondent, and went on to document decades of travels for the magazine. One of the few journalists to be invited to the opening of King Tut’s tomb, he also joined the 1925 MacMillan Arctic Expedition (see lot 163, “Noo-Ka-Ping-Wa and His Harpooned Walrus Trophy”) and the 1931 Citroen-Haardt voyage across Asia, wherein a group of hardy thrill-seekers wended their way from Beirut to Beijing by motorcar, pony, camel, and yak. (Williams later called it “the greatest adventure” of his life.)

Not all the expeditions ended so felicitously. The auction includes several previously unpublished prints from Herbert Ponting, the official photographer for Robert Scott’s ill-fated trek to the South Pole.

Ponting — who developed his film aboard the Terra Nova and who left Antarctica early, thereby escaping a grim fate — painstakingly chronicled the bleak majesty of the continent and the day-to-day lives of Scott’s crew. In one particularly poignant shot, Scott stands overlooking a snowy pressure ridge, gazing off across the landscape from which he would never return.

With so much world history on display, Christie’s wanted the works to be accessible to a broad audience, and set the prices accordingly. The pieces range from an estimated $400 (€300) for a Norman Rockwell-esque photo of a little boy giving a puppy a boost to the water fountain, to $1.2m for The Duel on the Beach, a buccaneer battle painted by NC Wyeth.

In between are gems such as Alexandre Iacovleff’s oil paintings of Citroen’s Africa and Asia expeditions ($150,000-$200,000) and Lewis Hine’s print of Brooklyn newsboys gaping at a passing fire truck ($20,000-$30,000).

Yet in an archive full of far-off wonders, two of the most memorable offerings come from within the US.

In lot 156, William Henry Jackson’s photos for the US Geological and Geographical Survey display the pristine wilderness of the American west. The shots, which were distributed to members of the US Congress, helped persuade president Ulysses S Grant to create Yellowstone as the nation’s first national park.

And lot 65 encapsulates 20 portfolios of Edward S Curtis’s monumental study, The North American Indian. Curtis — a favourite of Teddy Roosevelt’s — won the blessing of JP Morgan to document the nation’s tribes west of the Mississippi. Over the next 30 years, Curtis compiled one of the most comprehensive ethnographic studies of a vanishing way of life. The work may set a buyer back $900,000, but its value to US history is priceless.

* Copyright Newsweek/Daily Beast

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