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Nudes in the National Geographic as Art

Back in college, I majored in Computer Science. In the course of my studies I was required to take an Art Appreciation class. I have zero art abilities be it musical, painting, or otherwise. That being said, I did enjoy that class immensely.

I have decided to use what little I can remember from that class from many years ago and apply it to a few photographs from the pages of National Geographic in a purely aesthetic manner. While these images are usually examined through a social or cultural lens, I will try to view them solely as art. In so doing, I am fully aware that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “one man’s art is another man’s pornography”. With that caveat being said, here is what I have come up with.

I have selected seventeen images spanning over one hundred years to display and discuss. Thirteen of them are portraits, one of which is a profile, while the other four are of the nude form in action (three bathing and one dancing). I first briefly describe the article associated with the photo to give a little context, then show and critique the image. If there is any additional information related to the image I add it at the end of the citation.

September 1912

The article associated with the first three photographs is entitled "Head Hunters of Northern Luzon".  This is the singular article in the issue.  It was written by Dean C. Worcester, Secretary of the Interior of the Philippine Islands.  In it Secretary Worcester tours and photographs the various tribes of this Philippine island.

The photograph on page 867 is entitled "A Kalinga Woman".  Her tattoos are very intricate and completely cover her arms and shoulders.  Her necklaces, earrings, and headdress add to her charm.  She makes good eye contact but seems indifferent to the camera.

The photograph on page 883 is entitled "An Ifugao Girl".  She also has tattoos on her arms, but this time not as intricate.  Her shiny earrings and necklaces are made of copper.  She appears to be puzzled and her crossed arms convey impatience.

The photograph on page 928 is entitled "A Young Woman of 'No Man's Land'".  As with the other women shown, her arms are tattooed.  She is a product of intermarriage between tribes.  She is wearing an ornate headdress along with earrings and necklaces.  She seems a little more at ease than the other two Philippine women shown, but there is no smile.

January 1914

The article associate with this image is entitled “Here and There in North Africa” by Frank Edward Johnson. It is really a collection of five articles spanning the region from the mountains of Tunisia to the desert oases of the Sahara.

The picture I chose is a photogravure appearing on page 41. It is a portrait of a young woman from one of the nomadic tribes that live in south Tunisia. Her poise, jewelry, and tattoos present a beauty that transcends the harsh environment in which the image was taken.

As stated, this image is a Photogravure. This is an art form in and of itself. Photogravure is a photo-mechanical process whereby a copper plate is coated with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue which has been exposed to a film positive, and then etched, resulting in a high-quality intaglio print that can reproduce the detail and continuous tones of a photograph. It registers a wide variety of tones through the transfer of etching ink from an etched copper plate to a special damped paper run through the etching press. The unique tonal range comes from its variable depth of etching, that is, the shadows are etched many times deeper than the highlights.

For more of the art of photogravure look no further than “Les Nus de Drtikol” (1929) by the Czech artist Frantisek Drtihol.

March 1917


There is no associated article for this image.  It is one of “16 Pages in Four Colors”.  It originally appeared as a black-and-white photograph in the same January 1914 article as the photogravure above, “Here and There in North Africa” by Frank Edward Johnson.



The image chosen is from page 263 is a profile of an Arab woman standing, head held high.  It is a black-and-white photograph that has been painstakingly colorized to look (almost) natural.  The woman’s bearing and gaze elevate this image to the status of art.  Her pink garb and gold jewelry only add to her beauty.

As stated above, this photograph has a history, but that history extends beyond the two issues I have referenced.  While its first appearance is on page 11 of the January 1914 issue as a black-and-white photograph, the second occurrence as a colorized image appears in the March 1917 issue which I have just documented.  The colorized version was used by the Society again in 1920 as the back cover of the promotional brochure, “Specimen in Miniature”.

October 1919

The article associated with the next image is titled “A Vanishing People of the South Seas” and was written by John W. Church.  It is about the people on the Marquesas Islands and their dwindling population.  Diseases like smallpox and leprosy coupled with a loss cultural identity is dooming these islands with a population now less than 2,000 individuals.

The image selected is a portrait of a native woman in a sitting pose.  It is a full-page photograph taken by L. Gauthier and is on page 276 at the beginning of the article of the magazine (the article starts on page 275).  The composition of the image raises it from documentation to that of art.  The sharply focused subject contrasts with the soft, out-of-focus background.  Her native attire also contrasts with the modern necklace she wears.  Her downward glance exuded sadness.

Also posing for another article in the same (October 1919) issue is this African beauty:

December 1921

The issue is entirely about the islands in the Pacific, and their disposition after the World War.

The cropped images chosen were of two native girls, one from Nauru and the other from Saipan.  They were chosen not only for their beauty, but for them addressing the camera directly.

January 1924

The January 1924 issue has an article on Darfur. Among the several photographs showing women in native attire, i.e. topless, one photo in particular stands out as more artistic.

The womans pose, her upright stature, her strong expression, all elevate this photo to art, in my opinion.

March 1928

There is no article associated with this photograph.  Instead, it is the eleventh of "SIXTEEN PAGES OF ILLUSTRATIONS IN FULL COLOR".  They comprise of twenty photographs or "Autochromes" by Franklyn Price Knott.  Twelve of those photos are full-page in size.  Five photos contain topless women with two of those being full-page.

As the caption states, this is a "Reserved and Dignified Daughter of the East".  Her unsmiling face reflects an inner strength but also a wariness of the camera and/or photographer.  Her head wrap and earrings accentuates her youthful appearance.  The photo appears on page 340 of the issue.  The location is the Island of Bali, as are all the photographs in this set of twenty.

November 1937

The article associated with this image is entitled “Pearl Fishing in the Red Sea” by Henri De Monfreid.  It is about the author’s adventures after he “tired of trading in leathers and coffees in northeast Africa and feeling the urge of the sea…”.

The image I selected is a portrait photograph taken by the author.  It appears on page 614 and is of a Sudanese slave girl owned by a wealthy Arab.  Her poise, however, belies her lot in life and projects a pride and strength that has not been crushed by twentieth century slavery.  The head and arm bands, and especially the necklace enhance her beauty.

March 1939

Unlike the last photograph from Bali eleven years ago, this one has an article associated with it.  The article is entitled "Bali and Points East".  It was written by Maynard Owen Williams, who is also credited with the photography.

Like the girl in the previous portrait from Bali (March 1928), this one is wearing earrings and a turban.  In addition she is sporting a necklace (which she is also selling).  Even more noticeable, she is sporting a smile.

November 1944

This World War II vintage article entitled “Coffee Is King in El Salvador” by Luis Marden and David Duncan is aptly titled. It mainly discusses the cultivation, harvesting, drying, and transportation of the beverage I consume regularly. While most of the photos in this article relate to the topic, a few are more general, i.e. of the scenery and people of El Salvador.

The photo I have chosen to display is a Kodachrome by Luis Marden and appears on page 595 (plate XI). It is of a young woman combing her hair while bathing in a stream. Unlike most nude photos in the magazine, she is smiling, and that smile is captivating.

It must be noted here that this photo was reused as the cover photo by the National Press Club for their January 29, 1966 parody of our magazine as NGS President Windsor Booth becomes the Press Club’s President.

May 1967

The associated article in this issue is entitled “Micronesia – The Americanization of Eden” by David S. Boyer. It discusses the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands and discusses the varying degrees of modernization happening throughout the region.

The photo I selected from this issue appears on page 703. It is of a high school girl from the Island of Yap performing a stick dance keeping alive her heritage. The hibiscus blossoms and jewelry add to her beauty.

I do have to note that the cover image from this issue is of a girl from the same high school troupe as the girl I wound up choosing. It was a toss up especially with the cover girl’s smile. This is the only cover I know of that has nudity (notice the lower right corner above the word Society). I eventually opted not to use the cover image because the title and list of contents detracted from the aesthetic quality of the photo.

January 1979

The article "Man in the Amazon: Stone Age Present Meets Stone Age Past" documents ancient archeological finds together with the life of present day tribes.  These people are being forced to adapt to encroaching modern world or die.

The photo on page 80 shows a young Amazon maiden fording a stream.  The caption is cleverly titled: "Innocents in the rushing stream of progress".  It was taken by W. Jesco von Puttkamer, who is also the author of the article.  The woman pays little notice to the cameraman.  Instead she appears to be concentrating on her footing.  She is wearing necklaces and bracelets, and little else.

August 1982

This article “Journey Through Time” by Francois Leydet is the second of two articles on Papua New Guinea. The article highlights the primitive and the modern aspects of life in this fledgling nation.

The photograph I took from this issue is a portrait that appears on pages 170 and 171. It is of a young girl, Fidelis Pukue. She attends a Roman Catholic mission school and is posing with her broom from after-school chores. Her posture and her stare exude pride and strength.

October 1986

In the article “New Pacific Nations” by Carolyn Bennett Patterson we return to Micronesia as the islands of the former Trust Territory become new nations. These five new nations, plus a sixth that was formerly British, each have their own culture plus varying degrees of adoption to the Western lifestyle.

The photograph chosen was taken by David Hiser and appears on page 461. It is another portrait and again is from the Yap state, this time from the island of Mogmog where western dress is discouraged. It is of a young school girl and, besides her obvious beauty, the juxtaposition of the primitive displayed in her dress (she’s wearing a grass skirt) and the modern shown by her school books (including a number two pencil) elevates this photo artistically.

February 1991

The article related to this image is entitled "The Eloquent Surma of Ethiopia".  It was written by Carol Beckwith.  The article discusses the nomadic Surma tribes of Southwestern Ethiopia and, among other things, their habit of ritualistic body painting.

The image I have chosen is a portrait of a girl from the Surma tribe.  It was photographed by Angela Fisher and appears on page 82.  Besides the body paint used to attract members of the opposite sex, there are several other techniques used to enhance her appearance.  Her earplugs, and jewelry are obvious but also the scarification on her arms are apparent.  What really makes her beautiful, though, is her smile. 

December 2015

My final article is entitled “Mary – The Most Powerful Woman in the World” by Maureen Orth. It documents the sighting of the “Queen of Peace” throughout history and around the world.

This final photo was taken by Diana Markosian and appears on pages 48 and 49. It is of a mother bathing in the sacred Saut d’Eau falls in Haiti while being hugged by her young daughter. This is the location in 1849 that Ezili Danto, the Black Madonna first appeared. In Haiti, Ezili Danto has a dual role as a Christian figure and a Voodoo goddess. The image of a mother with child at this location makes this more that just a photograph.

October 2018

The article associated with this photograph is the issue's cover story, "Threatened by the Outside World".  It was written by Scott Wallace and Chris Fagan.  It describes the endangered existence of the Awa tribe in the Brazilian Amazon.

This image of an Awa "Madonna and Child" is trimmed from a group picture on pages 52-54.  She is wearing necklaces of varying lengths.  The photograph is credited to Charles Hamilton James.

Tom Wilson

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Replies to This Discussion


Beautiful discussion of the hidden beauty found in many Nat Geo photos......


Note: I just added a seventh citation/image to this article from the February 1991 issue of National Geographic.

Note: I just added an eighth citation with image to this article from the November 1937 issue of National Geographic.

Note: I just added a ninth citation with image to this article from the March 1917 issue of National Geographic.

Note: I just added a tenth citation with image to this article from the October 1919 issue of National Geographic.

Note: I just added an eleventh citation with image to this article from the March 1928 issue of National Geographic.

Note: I just added citations for the September 1912 issue (3 portraits), March 1939, and October 2018 issues.

Not: I just added a citation with image for the January 1979 National Geographic Magazine.



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