National Geographic

George Steinmetz Desert Air

Desert Air

These Instagram snaps don’t do George Steinmetz‘s work justice, but at least give a flavor of his stunning aerial photos, now on display at National Geographic’s headquarters. They’re well worth a visit.

The collection is particularly strong on Africa and the Middle East, and Steinmetz’s vantage point from a motorized paraglider can be both sweeping and intimate. These were my favorites: A small camel caravan making its way across the Mauritanian desert, following a centuries-old trade route (above) and a flock of flamingos shot against a deep blue lake in Iran. I really had to look closely at the latter–it’s so perfectly composed it looks unreal, almost like a wallpaper pattern.

Desert Air runs through January 27, 2013, and Steinmetz speaks about his photos at National Geographic on Nov. 27. I’m looking forward to hearing his stories.

Japan, High Tea

I’m guessing National Geographic’s current “Samurai: The Warrior Transformed” exhibit is drawing lots of families with young boys. After all, the show includes a healthy sampling of samurai swords and full sets of armor — beautiful in their own right, but not the highlight for me.

Instead, I was drawn to the gallery of early 20th century photos of Japan, taken by Eliza Scidmore, the first woman on National Geographic’s Board and the person responsible for bringing thousands of cherry trees to Washington. Scidmore, a Victorian-era writer, traveler and geographer, spent much of her adult life in and out of Japan and other countries in Asia, often visiting her diplomat brother.

The hand-tinted photos on display, including this one of geishas performing a tea ceremony, were taken for a 1914 article in National Geographic titled “Young Japan.”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Japan’s gift of cherry trees to Washington, so it’s a good time to honor Scidmore, a woman whose life arc mirrors mine in more ways than one. I would have loved to invite her to a dinner party.

Cherry Blossoms 2012: Samurai and Hokusai

Though this year’s cherry blossoms are officially predicted to peak the week of March 24, a number of trees have already popped in my neighborhood. It’s been a warm winter.

Aside from lifting the city’s mood, the blossoms bring a constellation of Japanese art exhibits to DC. A few I intend to check out this month:

> Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji (Freer/Sackler)

> Samurai: The Warrior Transformed (National Geographic Museum)

> Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird and Flower Prints (National Gallery of Art)

Consider these a Tidal Basin alternative. They’ll be a lot less crowded.

Women at Risk

A couple months ago, I attended a preview of “No Woman, No Cry,” a documentary on maternal health by supermodel-filmmaker Christy Turlington Burns. The film tells the harrowing story of a young Tanzanian woman living in a remote village who begins a difficult labor. She walks miles to her local health post but needs access to a more sophisticated facility to ensure safe delivery.

Because the woman can’t afford the cost of transport, Burns and her film crew end up delivering her to the nearest hospital, where she has a healthy baby. A happy outcome, but the film leaves you with the lingering question, “What if…?”

I was thinking about Burns’ film and the 20 million women who suffer life-threating complications related to childbirth each year when I happened upon this photograph at Beyond the Story: National Geographic Unpublished, a new exhibit at National Geographic’s Washington headquarters.

A similar story unfolds here: photographer Lynsey Addario comes upon a pregnant Afghan teen and her mother by the side of the road. The girl’s water has just broken, but their car has broken down, and the husband has gone to find help. Addario and her interpreter give the two a ride to the hospital.

“My interpreter, who is a doctor, and I were on a mission to photograph maternal health and mortality issues, only to find the entire story waiting for us along a dusty Afghan road,” notes Addario.

I work in development and see troubling statistics all the time, but it’s still shocking to me that the lifetime risk of dying in pregnancy or childbirth in Africa is 1 in 22. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 5, which aims to reduce the maternal mortality ratio by three-quarters worldwide, is considered the MDG least likely to be met by 2015.

That says something about political will and the absence of women in policymaking roles.

Over the next five years, it would be great to see more maternal health-related work by documentarians to keep the pressure on.

DC Museums: Top Five for 2010

Time for a look back at what inspired me in DC’s museums this year. These are the exhibits that lingered in my mind weeks after I saw them.

1. Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor: This one’s a holdover from last year, but bears repeating because those faces are unforgettable. I first saw the warriors when I lived in Taiwan three years ago, then saw them twice again during their run at National Geographic headquarters this year. They speak from another time, and they have no equal. A trip to Xi’an, China, is on my life list.

The warriors ended their U.S. tour in March. Catch up with them down under, at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, through March 13, 2011.

2. From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection: Each time I stopped by the National Gallery of Art this year, I took a few moments to admire Modigliani’s Nude on a Blue Cushion–one of many stellar portraits of women in this wide-ranging exhibit. See it through July 30, 2011.

3. Gods of Angkor: Bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia: A small exhibit, but one that stoked my love of Asia, thirst for travel and interest in history. Honestly, I could look at Buddha statues for hours. Angkor Wat? Up there with Xi’an on my must-see list. Catch this one before it closes Jan. 3, 2011, at the Freer-Sackler.

4. Guillermo Kuitca: Everything–Paintings and Works on Paper, 1980-2008: This one surprised me. I’d never heard of Kuitca before but found his approach to art original, inventive and charming. His exploding opera house seating charts are nightmarish and beautiful all at once. See them through Jan. 16, 2011 at the Hirshhorn.

5. Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration: A peek into the mind of a master, this exhibit ended a 16-year-run at the Corcoran this summer. It gave me new appreciation for Close’s genius and, through portraits of his friends and family members, a fuller picture of the man. For more Close, check out Fanny/Fingerpainting at the National Gallery of Art. It’s one of my favorites.

National Geographic’s Monkey King

Another thing I love about living in DC: consistently interesting photo exhibits at National Geographic headquarters.

This was my favorite shot of their latest show, Simply Beautiful, a “best of” selection showcasing photos with distinctive elements–unusual moments, striking light or composition.

Why did this pic of the Mayan ruins at Copan, Honduras grab me? First, I’m traveling to Guatemala in a couple months and am especially looking forward to visiting the ruins at Tikal, which I imagine look much like this.

Second, that’s one bad-ass monkey.

Simply Beautiful runs through February 6, 2011.

‘Sacred Waters': A Travel Photo Primer

A few months ago, I read a helpful column on travel photography that advised, “Ask yourself what story you are trying to tell.” In other words, play photojournalist, not tourist.

I thought of that as I took in “Sacred Waters”, a vibrant new photo exhibit of people celebrating, worshiping and otherwise interacting with water, now on at National Geographic headquarters in downtown DC. Photographer John Stanmeyer, whose work is also featured in this month’s Nat Geo print edition, tells the story of how cultures identify with water, showing us a river baptism in Kentucky, ritual bathing in the Ganges, and Lunar New Year celebrations in Laos, complete with super-soakers.

The photos really hit home. Not only did Stanmeyer snap water scenes in several countries I’ve traveled to–Haiti, Turkey and Indonesia–he reminded me that water makes for great narrative because it touches on everything from religious rituals to daily chores.

This water-themed photo I shot last fall shows two men washing before prayers at Istanbul’s New Mosque. It calls up a vivid memory: Observing noontime prayer at the mosque, which has an open courtyard filled with pigeons, was one of the highlights of my trip.

I’m no Stanmeyer, but at least he’s given me a benchmark to shoot for.

Sacred Waters runs through July 25, 2010.

DC’s Museums: Year in Review

Amid the feel-good vibe of Inauguration Weekend 2009 — yes, it seems like a long time ago — I stopped by the National Gallery of Art and spent an hour studying Robert Frank’s 1950s photographic series, “The Americans.” The gallery’s timing couldn’t have been better. As our first black President swept into town, here was a silent reminder, in the plaintive eyes of a man seated in the back of a New Orleans trolley car, of how far we’d come.

“The Americans” kicked off a stellar year for DC’s museums, which consistently offered visually rich, thought-provoking and, in the case of the Terracotta Warriors, once-in-a-lifetime exhibits.

Here, the five that stayed with me:

1. Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, National Gallery of Art. A stunning photographic portrait of 1950’s America, this show forced me to look at my own country from the perspective of a foreigner, interpreting race, class, politics and the American landscape in a whole new light. If you move fast, you can still catch it at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, through January 3, 2010. Highly recommended.

2. Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor, National Geographic. I can’t gush enough about them. Unless you’re planning a trip to China, you need to see them while they’re here. The exhibit runs through March 31, 2010.

3. Gardens and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur, Freer-Sackler Gallery. This show was pure, fantastical fun, depicting the royal courts of Rajasthan through lush watercolors in greens, magentas and blues. Ashrams set in verdant hills, palaces alive with dancing girls, elephants frolicking in the monsoon rains: It made me want to be a Maharajah.

4. The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: Selected Works, National Gallery of Art. A tour through this collection is equivalent to a one-semester course on post-war American painting. My favorites? The black-on-black Rothko and Jasper Johns’ all-white U.S. map. Cool. On view through May 2, 2010.

5. Timbuktu to Tibet: Rugs and Textiles of the Hajji Babas, Textile Museum. Who knew there was a 75-year-old society of rug collectors called the Hajji Baba Club? I wanted to take their soumaks, kilims and bokharas home, but I’ll admit the Tibetan tiger rugs stole the show.

Terracotta Warriors: Charmed Again

There’s something about the Terracotta Warriors. I first saw them two years ago when I lived in Taiwan, and was surprised to find each figure individually sculpted, each suit of armor and hairstyle distinct from the next. They weren’t at all the monolithic group I’d expected from photos of the excavation pits near Xi’an, China. I couldn’t read any of the exhibit text at the time (it was in Chinese, of course) but no matter: I was smitten.

I got a second chance to see the warriors last night, at DC’s National Geographic headquarters, and they were just as mesmerizing. The exhibit includes a number of artifacts discovered at the excavation site– bronze cranes, jade pendants, decorated bricks–and details the warriors’ unexpected discovery by a group of unwitting Chinese farmers in 1974. It’s a great backstory, but the show’s kick-in-the-gut moment comes at the very end, in a low-lit room where you’ll see ten of the warriors, standing, kneeling, poised for battle.

Yes, they were meant to be fearsome, to protect a Chinese emperor from the demons of the afterlife. But their faces are just too likeable: a sloping cheekbone, a curled mustache, a pair of curious eyes that reach across millennia. Really. It’s enough to make you book the next flight to Xi’an.

Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor runs through March 31, 2010.

Photo by smmorgan photos via Flickr (Creative Commons).