National Geographic Illustrations Editor Adrian Coakley talks about a selection of images from the Society's Image Collection book, and tells us why they're among his favorites.
Images from National Geographic Image Collection are provided courtesy of the National Geographic Society. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the National Geographic website.
Click on the thumbnails in the upper right corner of this page to view a slideshow of images from the book. ►
When the National Geographic Society decided to publish a book including 450 photographs from its 11.5-million-image archive, the task of working with archivists, editors, writers, and designers to select and present the images fell to photo editor Adrian Coakley. We asked him to tell us about a few of his favorite images from the book, and to explain why he finds them outstanding.
Sam Abell: Off the Newfoundland coast
Off the Newfoundland coast. Photograph by Sam Abell, Canada, 1974. From National Geographic Image Collection, pages 295 (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).
Adrian Coakley: This is perhaps my favorite image in the book. I first saw this image about seven years ago in another book Sam had done, and when I was told I was being assigned as the photo editor for the Image Collection book, it was the first image that sprang immediately to mind. Great images have a way of doing that. They stick with you over the years, and Sam’s image of the father and son fishing off the coast of Newfoundland has certainly done that with me.
The image is classic in its composition and style. The photo is of a father and son who are at sea, working their trade as fishermen. Sam is in one boat with the father and the son is off in the distance in another boat.
If you were to use the rule of thirds and divide the image in nine parts by placing two equally spaced horizontal and two equally spaced vertical lines, you’d see that the father, who is the dominant subject in the image, stands right at the intersection of the horizontal and vertical lines on the right side of the frame. That point where the horizontal and vertical lines intersect is the sweet spot in photography and when used well, as in this photograph, it can create a real sense of drama.
In addition, the father stands tall and heroic in the foreground, high above the sea’s horizon line. He’s looking towards the camera with the net in his hand, and is partially silhouetted by the early morning light. All of these factors add to the drama of the image and come together to make it such a great photograph.
Portrait of an explorer: Robert E. Peary
Portrait of an explorer: Robert E. Peary. Photograph by Peary Arctic Expedition, Canada, 1909. From National Geographic Image Collection, page 43 (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).
Adrian Coakley: This head-and-shoulders shot is a photo of the explorer Robert Peary, who is credited with being the first person to reach the North Pole. He is wearing what I guess are Inuit, or Eskimo, furs.
What I find so striking about the image is the intensity of Peary’s eyes as he stares at the camera, and the weathered look of his face. Looking at the photo, you get the sense that you’re looking at a hard man, an intense individual, and indeed he must have been just that to do what he did. The intensity of his eyes and the way he is staring at the camera almost make you uncomfortable. That’s not always an easy thing for a photograph to convey, but this one does it wonderfully.
Years ago in college, I took a creative writing class, and the professor told us that when writing we should try to create a sense of tension and conflict in every sentence, because that’s what holds the reader. I think the same thing can and often does apply to great photographs. A strong photograph such as the Peary image holds you because it confronts you. The intensity of his eyes staring at the lens challenges the viewer and makes you look at it just a bit longer than perhaps you would if he were looking to the side or down in some other direction.
Gerd Ludwig: Dining à la Moscow
Dining à la Moscow. Photograph by Gerd Ludwig, Russia, 2008. From National Geographic Image Collection, page 326-7 (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).
Adrian Coakley: I love this image by Gerd Ludwig. It appeared in the National Geographic magazine article on “Moscow at Night” in 2008, and the photo does a fantastic job of highlighting the dramatic transformation in Moscow and how much it’s changed since the more austere days of the Soviet Union.
The photo shows one of the more prestigious restaurants in Moscow, and if it weren’t for the restaurant’s patrons with their cell phones and modern clothing, you might think you were looking at a scene from an eighteenth-century Rococo painting. Rich, luxurious, curvy, and opulent are all words you could use to describe this photograph of modern Moscow, and yet it’s hard to imagine that less than twenty years ago a similar image would have been easy to take.
U.S. Navy: The second atomic bomb tested in Operation Crossroads
The second atomic bomb tested in Operation Crossroads. Photograph by U.S. Navy, Bikini Atoll, 1946. From National Geographic Image Collection, page 372-3 (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).
Adrian Coakley: The image of the second atomic bomb tested in the Micronesian Islands of Bikini Atoll is both frightening and beautiful in its power and destruction. If you were to imagine the image without the blast from the atomic bomb, it would still have been a nice photograph. It looks like a beautiful day in an idyllic location. But the blast that stretches from one edge of the panoramic frame to the other is so massive and large that you can’t help but stare in awe. The abandoned ships that the U.S. Navy placed out near the blast also give it an interesting sense of scale.
N.A. Cobb: Face of a fly and two views of a fly
Face of a fly and two views of a fly. Photograph by N.A. Cobb, 1910. From National Geographic Image Collection, pages 126-7 (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).
Adrian Coakley: These three images of a fly’s head and body fascinate me. Bill Bonner, the archivist for the Image Collection, pulled these for me to look at while researching images for the book. I looked at them for days afterwards. The amount of detail in the face and the body of the insects is incredible.
In addition, the sepia tone on the black-and-white print in some way makes it easier to look at what most people—myself included—would consider a somewhat disgusting insect. Flies aren’t something we generally get to see at this close a range.
To me the images are actually quite beautiful. The face of the fly looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. It’s a common house fly, yet it looks entirely alien at this close a range.
Norbert Rosing: Musk oxen fleeing across the tundra
Musk oxen fleeing across the tundra. Photograph by Norbert Rosing, Canada, 2002. From National Geographic Image Collection, pages 206-7 (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).
Adrian Coakley: This image of musk oxen running across the frame in a straight line has a painterly quality to it that I think is quite beautiful. There is hardly a distinction between the snowy ground and the gray/white sky. The only thing that breaks the two is the beautiful herd of oxen stampeding across the horizon line. It’s lovely in its quietness.
Gerd Ludwig: An Orthodox priest on a meditative stroll
An Orthodox priest on a meditative stroll. Photograph by Gerd Ludwig, Russia, 2009. From National Geographic Image Collection, pages 346-7 (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).
Adrian Coakley: This is another snowy image that I like for its quietness. It’s contemplative and serene, and when you compare it to the aforementioned image of Gerd’s, taken in the restaurant in Moscow, it’s hard to imagine the two images were shot by the same photographer. Among the things I admire about Gerd’s work are his versatility and range.
Franklin Price Knott: Portrait of a nude woman draped with red silk
Portrait of a nude woman draped with red silk. Photograph by Franklin Price Knott. From National Geographic Image Collection, page 497 (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).
Adrian Coakley: I would be remiss if I didn’t include an image from the Autochrome Collection. Autochromes were the first viable form of color photography, and because National Geographic magazine was one of the first publications to frequently use color photography, the Society owns one of the largest Autochrome collections in the world.
Exposure times for Autochromes were very slow; therefore, they were used almost exclusively for portraiture and landscapes.
One of my favorite Autochrome images is from the photographer Franklin Price Knott. It’s an image of a woman standing in profile, dressed in a sheer red gown and looking up to the sky. It’s an elegant portrait and it has the unique, almost painterly, palette that I love so much in Autochromes. The reds are luminous, her skin is almost ghostly, and her blond hair is bright golden yellow. It’s lovely.
Joel Sartore: Captive wolf
Captive wolf. Photograph by Joel Sartore, Minnesota, 1997. From National Geographic Image Collection, pages 186-7 (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).
Adrian Coakley: This image of a wolf feeding on a deer carcass was taken with a small "carcass cam" inside the deer that was triggered remotely. It’s something of a gruesome image, but quite remarkable and intense, due to the proximity of the camera to the wolf’s head. There is fog on the lens, which could be due to the heat from the deer or the wolf’s breath; either way, you can’t get much closer than Joel did in this image.
Robb Kendrick: A modern tintype of an old-fashioned cowboy
A modern tintype of an old-fashioned cowboy. Photograph by Robb Kendrick, Utah, 2007. From National Geographic Image Collection, page 329 (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).
Adrian Coakley: This is a beautiful photograph of a modern-day cowboy, made with a tintype photographic process that was invented in the 1850s. It’s interesting that in today’s digital age, in which the majority of photographers have already abandoned film for digital, Robb chose to go in the opposite direction by using a process that is just about as old as photography itself.
What I love about the image is that we get to rediscover a photographic process that is lost to most people and see that the results are quite beautiful, and stunning, and well worth not forgetting.