Maura Mulvihill, Vice President and Director of the National Geographic Society’s Image Collection, talks about the 11.5-million-image archive with Leah Bendavid-Val, editor of the Society's book on the collection.
This excerpt from National Geographic Image Collection is 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. ►
LBV: Before asking you about the Image Collection I'd like to talk about you: You've been here a long time. Where did you come from? What was your field?
MM: When I was a student I couldn't have imagined or prepared myself for a life in the Image Collection. I went to school for philosophy and rhetoric. I then decided I'd get a minor in art history. But my father was horrified. He wanted me to do something more commercial, so I decided in my last year I'd go to London to study broadcasting. I got my first job in New York City doing audience research for Group W Broadcasting's TV advertising sales. But I had actually never liked television, and within three months I realized this was a really big mistake. I had met a law student in London, he became my husband, and he told me there were lots of jobs in Washington for art history and policy people. I saw an ad announcing that the Image Bank photo agency was hiring for a new Washington, D.C., office. They hired me and trained me in New York, and I came down to Washington and opened their D.C. branch. I started going door-to-door selling pictures. Of all the places I went, National Geographic was the nicest. The campus was beautiful. And there were such great pictures all over the walls. When I was in their offices once I asked an editor why they didn't license their pictures to other publishers. It seemed so strange that they were licensing pictures from me, but not licensing their own pictures to other publishers. I was told that that would be like selling the family jewels.
LBV: How did you actually get a job at National Geographic?
MM: The first time I walked into the building I was amazed at how big and beautiful the NGS Headquarters was. At the front desk they asked me if I had an appointment, and I didn't, but I saw the guard's book open. I looked down and the first name I saw was John Agnone with the words picture editor, so I said I had an appointment with John Agnone. They called upstairs to get him, and I thought, "Oh my God." He came down, but being very polite he apologized to me for forgetting our appointment. He said, "I'm so sorry, I just didn't remember you were coming; come on upstairs and I'll introduce you to people." I fell in love with National Geographic and ended up licensing Image Bank pictures to John for World magazine and for books.
LBV: What amazing nerve you had! OK, so how did you land a full-time job here?
MM: Well, I worked mainly on commission for Image Bank, so it was very appealing to work somewhere where I would get not only a salary but medical and dental benefits. One day somebody in the Illustrations Library, which was what the Image Collection was called at the time, quit. I happened to be in the building and got offered the job, by Fern Dame, the illustrations librarian. I was working before she realized I had never filled out an official application!
LBV: When did you start working at the Image Collection and how did the Collection start?
MM: I joined in September 1979. The Collection began when it was decided to have a centralized place to store and keep track of all the photographs and art that had been collected by the Grosvenor family and various editors over the years. Until then the images were housed in various offices and warehouses. The precious Autochromes were at one stage filed in a warehouse open to the elements much of the time. Luckily they seem to have sustained little damage. The entire Image Collection now numbers about 12 million pictures.
LBV: Do you have a lot of outtakes [unpublished photographs] from National Geographic assignments that nobody has seen in the archive?
MM: There are over 10 million outtakes from our staff photographers. (We did not own the rights to unpublished images from freelance photographers, so their outtakes were returned to them.) We might have 30,000 images from a single coverage. And assignments could go on for eight months, a year, two years.
LBV: How has the fact that photographers are shooting digital changed your life?
MM: It's cheap and reusable storage for digital, so we don't really know how many pictures are being submitted annually. Quantity doesn't matter as much any more. We don't have to store physical images; we don't have to return anything; we don't have to physically handle anything.
LBV: Image Sales was created so that the Society could license and charge for images. So now you are an agency as well as a collection, how would you compare the National Geographic Image Collection and Image Sales to other major collections, like Magnum?
MM: I think Magnum will always focus on politics and current social affairs. National Geographic feels like a kinder lens. We cover world events too, but we have always documented the things people do in day-to-day life all over the world, the normal life that goes on outside of the giant events. Our photographs show what people did on ordinary days in Africa or Polynesia or the Midwest. These images have a unique social and cultural value. We have also documented the environment, natural history, science and the natural world. That's our strength and our special niche.
LBV: What about the Collection side? What seems unique to me is that we seem to be a combination commercial agency and a fine photography collection. There's a history of photography in the archive here, and a lot of the matter is treasured for its worth historically.
MM: Yes, and despite the fact that the iconic historical images may not be our best sellers, I think our reputation and those iconic images are our best marketing tools.
LBV: Does the collection as a whole have a mission?
MM: We are one of the few repositories that document the entire 20th century and the beginnings of the 21st century. We didn't focus only on war or newsworthy events like disease outbreaks or political events, but rather on social documentation of the whole world and all of its inhabitants.
LBV: What is your vision for the future?
MM: We want more people to know our remarkable collection of photographs, and make use of them, keeping these images circulating and accessible to people through exhibits, books and advertisements. This book, which showcases how we've been using images for 120 years to inspire people to care about this planet, is a great start.