David LaChapelle – 2009 – The Rape of Africa
It’s been just over a week since the annual National Geographic Photo Seminar ended, where I found myself at a podium addressing a room full of my childhood heroes; photographers whose backs I flew on as a little girl, watching as they discovered our world through the camera lens.
At the podium, I spoke about photographing my first feature story for the magazine “The Science of the Teenage Brain”, wherein I was embedded in a high school in Austin Texas, only seven years after graduating myself. When I asked my subject, Dandilion Olsen, whose image was the opening spread of the piece, how she felt about having her image published so broadly in the magazine, she replied, “I thought WOW! This photo is great and in ten years my face will be used in an arts ‘n crafts class somewhere.”
Her sentiment was echoed later, when, fellow speaker, and famed photographer, David LaChapelle presented his epic tableau, Rape of Africa. He revealed the sketches and collages, which led up to the making of this image, unmasking his alluring inner process. Much to the surprise of the audience, his image was not only inspired by Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, but by Randy Olson’s January 2009 NGM cover story, The Real Price of Gold, which addressed the environmental and human costs of gold mining in Africa. It was so powerful to see influence laid so bare, to witness a kernel of a human thought traced from one artist to another, from one artifact to the next. To me, this was the peak moment of the seminar; when fragments collide and give birth to a new text.
The yellow border yields a power, which extends far beyond physical geography. It reins in the mythological, transporting its readers back to their wide-eyed childhoods, to their parent’s bookshelves and basements made up of solid yellow blocks, while simultaneously influencing some of our generation’s greatest visionaries and iconographers. Who hasn’t made a collage like David Lachapelle?
I spent the greater part of my childhood lost in the alternate dream-life National Geographic allotted me. 1954, 1975,1993, 1995, the years went whizzing by as briskly as the countries and species. One moment, I’d be breathing underwater, in a gush of penguin bubbles, and in the next, soaring above the Sahara, my little feet dangling from George Steinmetz’s lens hood. I, too, remember playing arts and crafts with the pages of the Geographic. On my 4th birthday, I sat with my mother for hours cutting through the magazines, leaving behind sparse landscapes, with empty outlines where the wild animals and humans previously grazed and roamed on the pages. Secretly my mother would would tip-toe outside, and free each paper lion, hyena and bear to our suburban Vancouver wilderness. When my kindergarten playmates came over we would hold each others hands, running through the tall backyard grass, scavenging for our little friends.
The practice of collaging far predates the first images to appear in National Geographic magazine. (In 1905, Gilbert H Grosvenor filled eleven pages of the magazine with photos of Lhasa, Tibet, and then in 1906, he published pioneering flash photographs of animals at night, which spurred two National Geographic Society board members to resign in disgust, claiming the magazine had turned into a “picture book.”) However, collage rose as an art form in the 20th century. Literary critic Gregory Ulmer goes so far as to argue that collage is “the single most revolutionary formal innovation in artistic representation to occur in our century [the 20th].” Others agree. Just as it is hard to imagine the magazine without photographs, so too is it difficult to imagine the world of collage/assemblage without National Geographic. I would like to devote the remainder of this blogpost to the National Geographic collage artists, who reassemble the laboriously-made fragments of the magazine into new compositions; who, at times, give deep insight into the realities we photojournalists strive so obsessively to represent, while, at other times unabashedly pervert it. For some collage artists, the goal is to abstract any semblance of this world, while others put all their work into distilling a personal story, weaving the public with the private as in the case of Dutch artist, Luuk Wilmering’s, A Personal Geography. While some of the other collage artists presented below use other source materials in addition to the magazine, Wilmering exclusively uses photographs from National Geographic, because, according to text on his website, “this periodical has made the aesthetic representation of reality its trademark”.
To all those who dissect the worlds we memorialize. An ode to cutting and pasting.
Brian A. Kavanaugh
Paul “Presser” Towner