They prowl the planet to make pictures for National Geographic, but Maggie Steber’s expedition started in more familiar ground – her imagination.
Her assignment was to illustrate the science of memory. How do you capture something ephemeral, indistinct, invisible?
She chose to train her lens on people for whom memory is a daily issue – those who study it, those who treasure it and those who are losing it, including her own mother, who was retreating into dementia.
Steber’s works are part of an exhibition opening Saturday at Mint Museum Uptown, “Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment,” a collection of 99 powerful images from 11 photographers. Charlotte is the first destination for the exhibit’s two-year national tour following its unveiling at the National Geographic Museum in Washington.
Founded in 1888, National Geographic hired Kathleen Revis as its first full-time female staff photographer in 1953, though freelance pictures from women date to Eliza Scidmore in 1907. (It is believed she may have had uncredited pictures published in Geographic in 1899). Scidmore was best known for her photography in Alaska and Japan, but her most picturesque legacy is the idea of planting cherry blossom trees along the Potomac River in Washington.
By framing the exhibition along gender lines, “Women of Vision” poses a question as old as Adam and Eve: Which sex is superior at certain tasks, such as photography?
“I don’t think you can look at a picture and know whether it’s taken by a man or a woman,” says Steber, whose assignments have taken her to 62 countries and into the science of sleep.
“I do think this is one advantage we have, though – women are generally perceived as less threatening. … People maybe don’t take us as seriously, which can work for you in many situations.”
Amy Toensing, who spent three years documenting the Aborigines in remote regions of Australia and who will speak about the exhibit May 4 at the Mint, says women are underrepresented in the industry, but what really matters is the passion of the individual photographer.
“It’s important for women to tell stories, but it’s important for everyone to tell stories,” says Toensing, who teaches photography to refugee children. “I wish there were more ethnic diversity in our industry. It’s still predominantly a white-male profession.”
Bert Fox, the Charlotte Observer’s director of photography and a former National Geographic photo editor, says limiting the exhibit to female photographers puts it in an interesting box, but in his experience he saw no difference between the sexes.
“You always want to match the assignments to the photographer’s passion,” he says. “That’s what makes it happen.”
Elizabeth Cheng Krist, the senior photo editor at Geographic who sifted thousands of images to choose those in the exhibition, says the show was predated by a book published in 2000 highlighting the work of the magazine’s female photographers. “Women of Vision” covers images published since then, showcasing the current generation of photographers.
“Women tend to be more attracted to issues important to women – child marriage, sexual assault, maternal mortality – and women have more access to those issues,” Krist says.
“Also, when you see young women making their way in the world, it’s important for them to see women shooting in subzero temperatures, working in the midst of epidemics or sneaking into slavery sites to get pictures, so they can see that women can be fearless too, to smash those old stereotypes.”
Getting the shot
Toensing says a typical job for National Geographic is preceded by months of research, planning and meetings with editors. When a trip is well-structured, she says, it allows the photo gods to sprinkle serendipity.
“It all boils down to being present with your subjects and whatever they’re doing, you’re doing. What’s the key thing is being present with people to earn trust.”
One favorite shot came on a weeklong assignment to Ocean Grove, N.J., for the feature ZipUSA, which highlighted communities by their postal codes. Toensing grew up along the scenic New England coast, and it was her first visit to the Jersey Shore.
“It was so ugly and industrial, and people were so in love with it. I said I have to know more about this. I came to understand why people were in love with it, and fell in love with it myself.
“Ocean Grove is a dry town, a religious retreat. I was walking on the beach one day when these older women called out to me and invited me into their tent, ‘Come in and have a glass of wine with us.’ They’d been going to the shore their whole lives. One of them named Joyce said, ‘You know, Beverly, she’s in her 80s, stands on her hands in the surf. We swim every day at 2.’ So I started swimming with them.
“One day I took a little underwater point-and-shoot camera to get Beverly, and that’s when the picture happened. That image represents so much for me. By going swimming with them, I realized all of a sudden that the ocean’s warm and the waves lift you up, and they crash on you, and you realize you’re just a little grain of sand, and you have to surrender to it. And I realized that’s why they liked it, how they would surrender to it.”
There’s other serendipity in the photo. Though Joyce and Beverly have died, the image lives on with the power to trigger new connections.
After Toensing agreed to speak in Charlotte, she got a surprising call from a Mint volunteer – Joyce’s daughter. They plan to meet during Toensing’s visit.
Powers of the lens
For Steber, work at Geographic shaped her life in unexpected ways.
Her first assignment was in Africa, though the magazine never published it. “Because the writer had a nervous breakdown – not my fault – and he never wrote the story.”
Then she was offered a story documenting the Sherpa people of the Himalayas. Steber doesn’t like heights.
“So they gave me something at sea level – Miami. I lived on Ocean Drive for six months.” She fell for Miami’s charms and moved there from New York.
Her portfolio on the memory story includes a picture of a Cuban refugee who swam in the Atlantic to keep connected to her native land. “She swam in an ocean in Miami that also lapped her homeland of Cuba, which she could never return to. I loved the idea she could swim in an ocean of memories.”
Steber moved her mother from Texas to South Florida to take care of her in her final years of dementia. Her mother had always resisted having her picture taken by Steber, but as her memory drained away, those barriers fell.
“I was an only child with an only parent. I got to spend time with her and make these new memories, all of it important for me to have for my own memory.”
Portraits of Steber’s mother became part of the article about memory. Like so many images in Geographic, it was unforgettable.