August of 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which confirmed a woman’s right to vote. In celebrating such a landmark centennial, the National Geographic Museum presents its latest exhibition, Women: A Century of Change. It’s a photographic journey through time and across continents that powerfully displays womanhood. Spanning nine decades and depicting women all over the world, the photos are pulled from National Geographic’s stunning image collection.
In conjunction with the showcase, National Geographic has published a photo book with even more photos from its collection, and dedicated its latest magazine issue to women—the publication’s first in which all the contributing writers, photographers, and artists are women.
In the issue, editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg writes, “The first scene in the history of National Geographic doesn’t have a single woman in it. It occurred on January 13, 1888, when 33 men of science and letters gathered in a wood-paneled club in Washington, D.C., and voted the National Geographic Society into existence. Our archive contains no photographs of the event, as none were made—which seems ironic, since if National Geographic is known for anything, it’s for creating an indelible visual record of life on Earth.”
Goldberg is the magazine’s first woman editor-in-chief.
Now, she says, the image collection is more than 64 million physical and digital assets strong. And within those assets is a partial history of the world’s women, enough images to create this staggering exhibition where diversity and individuality abound. The photos feature women from every background imaginable, and that inclusivity makes for a rich viewing experience.
The display is broken up into several sections—Joy, Beauty, Love, Wisdom, Strength, Hope—and the photos in each section reflect the word in different ways. A separate section, Portraits of Power, features intimate, striking portraits of the women of today and tomorrow, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, writer Roxane Gay, primatologist Jane Goodall, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and the one and only Oprah Winfrey. The Oprah portrait is a particular favorite, as it shows her trademark big, warm smile. You can practically hear her laugh through the photo.
Very intentionally, Women: A Century of Change is everything all at once. Its subjects can be fanciful and fairytale-like, and realistic and raw. They are tender and they are rugged. They are warmly vulnerable and coolly graceful. Through its gorgeous photography, the exhibition expresses that there is no one vision of women, and there is no one way to be a woman.
As its name suggests it will, the exhibition showcases the changes in how women were photographed and thus regarded during specific time periods. Eliza R. Scidmore’s 1918 photo of three Japanese women celebrating the annual arrival of cherry blossoms, with their smiling faces framed by the pink flowers, shows women as blushing and bright. It’s an astounding, hand-colored image—one that reveals a vision of women as soft and ethereal, like the very flowers they celebrate.
Nearby, a 2014 Robin Hammond photo shows a young woman on a smoke break in Nigeria. She’s wearing a bright red dress and poppy lipstick and looking directly at the camera, cigarette in her right hand. This is a vision of women as steely and strong.
Like everything on Earth, women have evolved, and so has the art of photography featuring women as subjects.
Find all types of resolve and determination in this exhibition: Ami Vitale’s 2012 photo captures women shaving their heads in protest on the steps of the West Virginia State Capitol. They shave their hair off as a symbol for mountaintop removal coal mining. And a 2009 Lynn Johnson shot features women carrying large water cans on their backs through the Kenyan desert plains.
But there are also delights of the highest order: David Alan Harvey’s 2009 photo of Brazilian Carnival dancers, which prominently showcases a particularly joyous performer, is a swirl of green. And one of the best photos in the entire display is J. Baylor Roberts’ picture of two performers putting on lipstick underwater in 1944 near Tallahassee, Florida.
The strength of the exhibition is the strength of National Geographic’s photography and storytelling. With decades of such varied and plentiful photography, curators had a wealth of images to choose from in this enormous undertaking. As the exhibition’s literature states, “Women: A Century of Change illuminates, celebrates and reflects on where the world’s women have been, where they are now and where they are going.” And that sentiment rings true in every image.
From Brazil to Zambia, from Texas to Japan, and from 1918 to 2019, these photographers have fixed their cameras on women, and what they’ve found is art worthy of display on museum walls.
At the National Geographic Museum to spring 2020. 1145 17th St. NW. $10–$15. nationalgeographic.org.