These Photos From the First Decade of Smithsonian Magazine Show Where Art and Science Meet

How do you select one image to represent half a century of photography and art? You don’t

grain storage facility
A grain storage facility in Wisconsin, from “The Hand of Man on America,” a photo essay by David Plowden, 1971. David Plowden / David Plowden Photographs and Papers. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

"It would present art, since true art is never dated, in the richest possible reproduction.” That’s how Edward K. Thompson, the founding editor of Smithsonian, once described the magazine staff’s approach to pictures. So when the current art and photography editors buried themselves in the archives in preparation for this anniversary issue, it came as no surprise that we found lots of wonderful art. What did surprise us, however, was just how artistic, how modern and how forward-looking the images in the first 50 years truly are.

Out of tens of thousands of images published in these pages over the last half-century, we selected a few hundred, hoping to find one that would sum up the magazine’s unique visual history. An absurdly difficult task, to be sure. Would it be an image from nature? Speckled-orange and green-striped brittle sea stars on a coral reef from 1981 would do the trick. It’s got beauty, surprise, rarity. Or what about an X-rayed calla lily from 1986, as stunning as a Georgia O’Keeffe drawing? It embraces technology and nature, a couple of our favorite subjects. Then there are the red, blue and black seemingly Cubist drawings, published in 1974, that the illustrator and cartoonist Saul Steinberg had scribbled on Smithsonian Institution letterhead while serving as an artist in residence. Or how about George Booth’s 1991 cover cartoon of howling dogs? Wouldn’t that underscore the magazine’s tradition of commissioning prominent illustrators and photographers to create original new work?

No, an impossible task.

So we decided instead on five pictures, all from the magazine’s first decade, each touching on a theme. They certainly call attention to Thompson’s dictum that real art doesn’t have an expiration date. Beyond that, we think they express another important idea. There is art in science, there is art in the everyday—“the world offers itself to your imagination,” the poet Mary Oliver famously wrote—if only you look, really look.

aerial view of missile launch site in Cuba
Missiles on their launch sites in Cuba, from “Views From Air Show Our Earth’s Dramatic Beauty,” based on an exhibition of aerial photography at the National Air and Space Museum, 1979. National Air and Space Museum
stained glass window
A window in Übach-Palenberg, Germany, from “Windows, Walls: Structural Dialogue Between Equals,” 1978. Ed Carpenter
Electrically charged microdroplets
Electrically charged microdroplets burst from the surface of a drop of ice (dark area), a process that occurs in a thunderhead prior to lightning forming, from “The Mini-Events of the Weather,” 1971. Roger J. Cheng
 ammonite fossil
The outline of an ammonite fossil, from the story “Nature’s Beauty Gets Its Own Show,” 1977. © Robert Lautman Photography, National Building Museum

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This article is a selection from the April issue of Smithsonian magazine

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