National Geographic (formerly the National Geographic Magazine, sometimes branded as NAT GEO) is the long-lived official monthly magazine of the National Geographic Society. It is one of the most widely read magazines of all time.
January 1915 cover of The National Geographic Magazine
The first issue of the National Geographic Magazine was published on September 22, 1888, nine months after the Society was founded. It was initially a scholarly journal sent to 165 charter members and currently it reaches the hands of 40 million people each month. Starting with its January 1905 publication of several full-page pictures of Tibet in 1900–01, the magazine changed from being a text-oriented publication closer to a scientific journal to featuring extensive pictorial content, and became well known for this style. The June 1985 cover portrait of the presumed to be 12-year-old Afghan girl Sharbat Gula, shot by photographer Steve McCurry, became one of the magazine’s most recognizable images.
National Geographic Kids, the children’s version of the magazine, was launched in 1975 under the name National Geographic World.
In the late 1990s, the magazine began publishing The Complete National Geographic, a digital collection of every past issue of the magazine. It was then sued over copyright of the magazine as a collective work in Greenberg v. National Geographic and other cases, and temporarily withdrew the availability of the compilation. The magazine would prevail in the dispute, and in July 2009, resumed republishing containing all past issues through December 2008. The collection was later updated to make more recent issues available, and the archive and digital edition of the magazine are available online to the magazine’s subscribers.
In September 2015, the National Geographic Society moved the magazine to a new partnership, National Geographic Partners, in which 21st Century Fox held a 73% controlling interest.
In December 2017, Disney acquired 21st Century Fox, including the latter’s interest in National Geographic Partners. NG Media publishing unit was operationally transferred into Disney Publishing Worldwide.
The magazine had a single “editor” from 1888–1920. From 1920–1967, the chief editorship was held by the president of the National Geographic Society. Since 1967, the magazine has been overseen by its own “editor” and/or “editor-in-chief”. The list of editors-in-chief includes three generations of the Grosvenor family between 1903 and 1980.
John Hyde: (October 1888 – September 1900; Editor-in-Chief: September 1900 – February 1903)
Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor (1875–1966): (Editor-in-Chief: February 1903 – January 1920; Managing Editor: September 1900 – February 1903; Assistant Editor: May 1899 – September 1900)
Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor: (1920–1954) (president of the society and editor-in-chief at the same time)
John Oliver La Gorce (1879–1959): (May 1954 – January 1957) (president of the society at the same time)
Melville Bell Grosvenor (1901–1982): (January 1957 – August 1967) (president of the society at the same time) (thereafter editor-in-chief to 1977)
Frederick Vosburgh (1905–2005): (August 1967 – October 1970)
Gilbert Melville Grosvenor (1931– ): (October 1970 – July 1980) (then became president of the society)
Wilbur E. Garrett: (July 1980 – April 1990)
William Graves: (April 1990 – December 1994)
William L. Allen: (January 1995 – January 2005)
Chris Johns: (January 2005 – April 2014) (first “editor-in-chief” since MBG)
Susan Goldberg: (April 2014 – present)
During the Cold War, the magazine committed itself to presenting a balanced view of the physical and human geography of nations beyond the Iron Curtain. The magazine printed articles on Berlin, de-occupied Austria, the Soviet Union, and Communist China that deliberately downplayed politics to focus on culture. In its coverage of the Space Race, National Geographic focused on the scientific achievement while largely avoiding reference to the race’s connection to nuclear arms buildup. There were also many articles in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s about the individual states and their resources, along with supplement maps of each state. Many of these articles were written by longtime staff such as Frederick Simpich. There were also articles about biology and science topics.
In later years[when?], articles became outspoken on issues such as environmental issues, deforestation, chemical pollution, global warming, and endangered species. Series of articles were included focusing on the history and varied uses of specific products such as a single metal, gem, food crop, or agricultural product, or an archaeological discovery. Occasionally an entire month’s issue would be devoted to a single country, past civilization, a natural resource whose future is endangered, or other theme. In recent decades, the National Geographic Society has unveiled other magazines with different focuses. Whereas in the past, the magazine featured lengthy expositions, recent issues have shorter articles.
Color photograph of the Taj Mahal. Source: The National Geographic Magazine, March 1921
In addition to being well known for articles about scenery, history, and the most distant corners of the world, the magazine has been recognized for its book-like quality and its standard of photography. It was during the tenure of Society President Alexander Graham Bell and editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor (GHG) that the significance of illustration was first emphasized, in spite of criticism from some of the Board of Managers who considered the many illustrations an indicator of an “unscientific” conception of geography. By 1910, photographs had become the magazine’s trademark and Grosvenor was constantly on the search for “dynamical pictures” as Graham Bell called them, particularly those that provided a sense of motion in a still image. In 1915, GHG began building the group of staff photographers and providing them with advanced tools including the latest darkroom.
The magazine began to feature some pages of color photography in the early 1930s, when this technology was still in its early development. During the mid-1930s, Luis Marden (1913–2003), a writer and photographer for National Geographic, convinced the magazine to allow its photographers to use the so-called “miniature” 35 mm Leica cameras loaded with Kodachrome film over bulkier cameras with heavy glass plates that required the use of tripods. In 1959, the magazine started publishing small photographs on its covers, later becoming larger photographs. National Geographic photography quickly shifted to digital photography for both its printed magazine and its website. In subsequent years, the cover, while keeping its yellow border, shed its oak leaf trim and bare table of contents, to allow for a full page photograph taken for one of the month’s articles. Issues of National Geographic are often kept by subscribers for years and re-sold at thrift stores as collectibles. The standard for photography has remained high over the subsequent decades and the magazine is still illustrated with some of the highest-quality photojournalism in the world. In 2006, National Geographic began an international photography competition, with over eighteen countries participating.
In conservative Muslim countries like Iran and Malaysia, photographs featuring topless or scantily clad members of primitive tribal societies are often blacked out; buyers and subscribers often complain that this practice decreases the artistic value of the photographs for which National Geographic is world-renowned.