National Geographic’s 50 Greatest Photographs at the Venetian

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Much as I love Las Vegas, one thing it lacks is world-class museums and art galleries. There is no Louvre or Metropolitan Museum of Art here. Instead, a handful of gallery spaces at resorts like the Bellagio and the Venetian feature limited engagement exhibits to attempt to fill in that high art gap in Las Vegas. For those of us who don’t live in a New York City or London or Paris–places with amazing collections of art and a constant stream of world-class exhibits–it’s a treat to know that we can enjoy one even on a trip to Sin City.

Entrance to Exhibit

photo by Tom Donaghue Photography, Imagine Exhibitions, Inc.

Last year, the Venetian featured a DaVinci exhibit that allowed visitors to get a peek into the mind of one of the greatest inventors in history, and this year, it is featuring the “50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic.” Being an amateur photographer and a fan of global travel, I knew I had to see the National Geographic Exhibit. After all, I kind of owe my interest in travel to National Geographic. When I was growing up, it was one of a handful of magazine subscriptions my grandparents received in the mail (along with TV Guide and Readers Digest). I remember flipping through its pages and being fascinated by the photos of camels in deserts and tribesmen in rainforests and people living very different lives than I did in little ol’ rural Vermont.

Imagine having to come up with the 50 “greatest” photographs in National Geographic‘s 125-year history. What a monumental task. How do you choose just 50? And how do you come up with the criteria for what makes a photograph “great”?

I spent more than an hour wandering through the exhibit and came to the conclusion that, while there were a handful of photos I might not have chosen for the exhibit if I’d been curating it, for the most part, the photos were excellent examples of great photojournalism. Many photographers have technical skill. But these photos demonstrated the importance of being in the right place, at the right time–and having an eye for situations full of meaning. Not very many of us are willing to travel anywhere and put ourselves into potentially dangerous situations to capture history-making pictures.

50 Greatest Photos of National Geographic

photo by Tom Donaghue Photography and Imagine Exhibitions, Inc.

Among the photos you’ll see in this exhibit are:

  • Burning oil fields in Kuwait by Steve McCurry.
  • A photo by Will Steger of the first trans-Antarctica expedition by dogsled in 1989.
  • Brent Stirton’s heartbreaking photo of rangers carrying the massive corpse of a mountain gorilla out of the forest in the Congo.
  • Thomas Abercrombie’s gorgeous, blue-tinted photo of Mecca, taken from on high, looking down on the packed square.
  • Jim Brandenburg’s photo of a grey wolf leaping from one ice floe to another in the North Pole, the water so still, you can see his jumping reflection in it.
  • Paul Nicklen’s photos of polar bears swimming under water.
  • Brian Skerry’s image of a shark caught in a gill net, fins outstretched like a crucifixion.
  • James Nachtwey’s Sulawesi Women, a striking visual of a young girl in colorful robe standing in front of a row of women muffled head to toe in black robes and veils.

But you can already view these photos on the Internet. What makes this exhibit worth visiting is learning the stories behind the photos. So, for instance, you’ll see then-and-now photos of Sharbat Gula, the subject of Steve McCurry’s iconic 1984 photo “Afghan Girl” (the “Afghan Mona Lisa”) and learn a little bit about her life since the photo was taken. Photographers describe the context in which their famous photos were taken and how they felt about them.

Afghan Girl

Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl”, photo courtesy of National Geographic, Inc.

One photo in particular really grabbed me by the jugular: Gerd Ludwig’s photo of a group of children in Moscow. The first thing I noticed about these children, all standing in a posed line, was that they were only wearing their underwear. I was a little uncomfortable with this. Why would a National Geographic photographer pose children wearing nothing but underwear? And why is this one of the “50 Greatest Photos”? I wondered.

And then I saw it, gasped, and my eyes teared up. All of the children were missing their left arms below the elbow. It turns out they were part of a cluster of children who had been born with deformities due to industrial pollution in Russia, a story Ludwig was working on for the magazine. With the permission of their mothers, Ludwig had them strip to their underwear and stand in a line. As Ludwig noted, “Most people don’t notice the deformities at first.” He made sure people noticed.

Great art should always make you feel something. I certainly came away from this exhibit feeling many things about the photos I saw—grief, anger, awe–so in that regard, it’s a successful exhibit. If you have a chance to see it before it ends its run in January, I recommend it. If you stop to watch the documentaries and read the stories behind the photos—which is really the whole point—it should take you more than an hour.

What You Need To Know:

Where: Off the Venetian Lobby
Dates: Now through January 13, 2014.
When: Sun-Thurs 9:30am-7pm, Fri-Sat 9:30am-9pm.
Cost: $18. As usual, locals, seniors, children, and members of the military get discounts.
No photography is allowed, of course. Photos are on sale in the retail shop.

Disclaimer: My stay the Palazzo was hosted by the hotel, and my ticket to this exhibit was comped. My opinions, as always, though, are 100% my own.

Photo credit: All photos used in this article courtesy of The Venetian.

15 thoughts on “National Geographic’s 50 Greatest Photographs at the Venetian

  1. Dave

    Thanks for the review of this exhibit! It’s definitely on the list the next time I’m on the Strip.

  2. Elane Dickenson

    Thanks for the information about this exhibit. I am taking a solo trip to Las Vegas next month, and hadn’t heard about it. I want to see it, for sure. (I take photos for a weekly newspaper!)

  3. Hardware

    i’m sure i’d enjoy it, but i don’t get to the strip much. i have spent far more on far less, but i’m not spending $18 to look at 50 pictures, even if there are stories behind them. i guess i need to figure out how to get my vacations comped, or joint the military.

    1. Gray Cargill Post author

      Or move to Las Vegas for the locals discount! 😉 I actually thought this exhibit was priced right; the Davinci exhibit last year was too expensive at $27. $18….Hell, I could run through a $20 bill in 10 minutes in a video poker machine. I’d much rather use it to enjoy an art gallery for a couple of hours.

  4. The epic duo

    Wow that’s a great post. I do think that most people don’t get art or dont appreciate it enough especially if its just pulled off of the Internet but makes a big difference being in front of a painting and actually feeling the emotions the painting gives off. Thanks for sharing! Vegas is oh so tempting me lol

  5. Wendy

    Just got back from Vegas and went to the exhibit. Being a National Geographic reader since childhood, it’s a great way to spend a quiet hour looking at our world through a photographer’s lens. Upon leaving it made me think about what we are doing to our planet especially the photo of a bird’s stomach full of plastic that has been disgarded in the ocean. The descriptions of how the pictures came about is interesting and show how the photographer becomes part of a community, a familly or a landscape for a period of time. Take it in you will appreciate the exhibit. Coupons for $3.00 off were found in the Monarail coupon book and the 24/7 book found in taxi cabs.

    1. Gray Cargill Post author

      Yes, Wendy. It seems to be a great photographer, you almost have to become “embedded” in that world for a little while, to become part of it, to understand it. Thanks for the tips on where to find discounts!

    2. Hun

      Also check the Tix4Tonight booths. I know they had discount tickets (around 50 percent or so) for the Da Vinci exhibit.

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