100 Years of the USA, Seen Through the National Geographic

Pin It
Virginia, 1939Photography by Paul L. Pryor, courtesy of Taschen

Taschen's charming new release reminds us of the transience of politics; a photographic demonstration that this too shall pass

At moments when civilisation finds itself poised on the precipice of a daunting new era, it's all too easy to forget the monumental events both political and socio-cultural that the world as we know it has already withstood. And in times like these, publications such as Taschen’s weighty new release, grandly entitled National Geographic. The United States of America, serve as an unequivocally grounding reminder that not only is history perhaps the greatest educational resource of them all, but also that everything is transient.

The book forms a follow-up to Taschen’s mammoth three-volume publication Around the World in 125 Years, but here it takes the USA state by state instead, allowing a century of American history to play out something like a microcosm of the world. When seen through the eyes of National Geographic’s unrivaled photojournalists even minor events assume a poignant gravitas – and the collection cleverly pairs the momentous with the commonplace, going some way in the process to restoring faith in the capacity of the United States to withstand times of hardship and to come out fighting on the other side.

Take Jim Richardson’s 1988 photographs of a boarded up shopfront in Atlanta, for example. “Messages of positivity grace the streetscape in Sweet Auburn, Georgia, birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. and traditional centre of Atlanta’s black community,” explains the caption accompanying the image. The boards are graffitied with statements like “learn to teach yourself,” and “respect our history, be black, be proud”.

During less charged scenes, holidaymakers ride nonchalantly down the boardwalk in Atlantic City, captured for posterity by B. Anthony Stewart; sculptors clamber ant-like up the rocky face of Mount Rushmore in a shot by Charles D’Emery in the 1930s; a young sailor gets his first tattoo in a Paul L. Pryor shot from 1939, where the caption reads “Getting some ink in Norfolk, Virginia, back when sailors were tattoo parlors’ best, and virtually only, customers”. The collection spans black and white and Kodachrome film, to create a strangely chronological map of the past 100 years, a journey through time mirrored in its form. The resounding message from the United States of America to the rest of the world, by way of this beauty of a book? This too shall pass.

National Geographic. The United States of America is out now, published by Taschen.