In 1889, National Geographic magazine published its first photograph, a halftone photo engraving of a topographic map of North America, reprinted from Butler's Complete Geography, an early geography textbook.
The photograph accompanied "Topographic Models," an article by Cosmos Mindeleff explaining methods of representing relief on maps.
The magazine's editors shot the map in an on-site studio utilizing halftone, an early photographic technology. Introduced by Frederick Ives in the late 1870s, the halftone process reproduced an image by photographing it through a screen to break the image down into a set of dots. National Geographic's editors loved publishing halftones, which were cheaper than line engravings and allowed for relatively easy mass reproduction of photos in the magazine.
Although Butler's map of North America appears benign to modern eyes, it was loaded with meaning for its turn-of-the-century audience when it was published. The inclusion of Alaska and Panama, both highlighted and appearing in the fringes of the frame, hint at U.S. expansion through the recent purchase of Alaska, attempts to navigate a Northwest Passage, and the construction of the Panama Canal. And because it was depicted from above, as if seen from a satellite, the photograph imbued readers with a sense of omniscience over their world not unlike the spirit of Manifest Destiny that spurred the National Geographic Society—and the country—to push past geographic boundaries.
The publication of the first photograph of a natural scene in the March 1890 issue of National Geographic marked another early milestone for the Society. Slightly more stimulating than its predecessor, the photograph depicted a dull stretch of treeless land on Herald Island, Alaska, taken by J.Q. Lovell of the U.S. Navy.
A Change in Direction
The publication of this and other early photographs in the late 19th century marked a turning point for the magazine. The photos scandalized the scientific community to which National Geographic catered, as well as many of its own editors who feared their esteemed journal would become a picture book. But under the leadership of Alexander Graham Bell, the Geographic's staff held firm, steering the publication away from its scientific and technical foundation toward a more popular future driven by storytelling and, as Bell said, "pictures, and plenty of them."
Bell's enthusiasm for photography drove subscriptions. The first years of the 20th century saw membership jump from 3,000 to 20,000. The editors continued to feed readers' frenzy for photos, first with images of Lhasa, Tibet, then with 138 pictures of the Philippines taken by future President William Howard Taft, followed by a July 1906 issue filled with wildlife photography by George Shiras.
By the time membership climbed to 424,000 in 1915, it was clear where the magazine's future lay. In a promotional pamphlet, associate editor John Oliver La Gorce declared, "… National Geographic magazine has found a new universal language which requires no deep study … the language of the photograph!"