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In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits
Robb Kendrick, 2003.

WASHINGTON, DC.-Portraits are, literally and figuratively, reflections of ourselves, and the memorable ones have a simple, yet profound universal appeal—as evocative to a teenage girl in Brooklyn, N.Y., as to an elderly Bushman in South Africa. Powerful portraits can reflect the continuity of human experience over time or emphasize the physical and cultural differences that distinguish human beings from one another.

“In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits,” an exhibition consisting of 56 striking color and black-and-white photographs, will premiere at the Brimstone Historical Museum in Sulhpur, La., on Nov. 5 and remain on view through Jan. 1, 2006. The exhibition will continue on a national tour through 2008. Created by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and National Geographic, the exhibition is organized for travel by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).

This exhibition showcases photographs from the book “In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits,” which was published in October 2004 as a sequel to the New York Times bestseller “Through the Lens: National Geographic Greatest Portraits.” “In Focus” parallels National Geographic’s interest in ethnographic studies and reveals the magazine’s efforts to divert attention away from the hardships of domestic life during the Great Depression and World War II. From fascinating archival images of tribal leaders, fishermen and American workers, to riveting modern pictures of refugees, city dwellers and urban laborers, “In Focus” takes visitors around the globe and through the heights and depths of human emotion.

The exhibition highlights the work of some of National Geographic’s most celebrated photographers. National Geographic photographers have taken more pictures of people than of any other subject, indicating “a photographer’s desire to connect with people—to capture something consequential about another person,” wrote National Geographic magazine associate editor Chris Johns in his forward. “To capture the spirit and essence of other human beings is a challenge beyond measure, but when it happens and the photograph comes together, the creation brings joy.”

The striking image of a rancher’s 15-year-old daughter from Elko, Nev., was made by Robb Kendrick in September 2003, using the historic tintype, or ferrotype, process. Invented in the 1800s, this lengthy photographic process requires that the subject commit time and energy, which makes for a deeper relationship between photographer and subject. In the process, the image becomes a collaboration between the two and has an intense intimacy in which the viewer is drawn.

Such remarkable images reveal deep-rooted connections to the environment, to national identities, to gender roles and to cultural preferences. They reveal the historical context of the moment while shedding light on larger world views that have been modeled and re-cast throughout the centuries. An unforgettable portrait does all these things, but, most importantly, it echoes the spirit of the sitter.

One of the world’s largest non-profit scientific and educational organizations, the National Geographic Society was founded in 1888 “for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.” Fulfilling this mission, the society educates and inspires millions every day through its magazines, books, television programs, videos, maps and atlases, research grants, the National Geographic Bee, teacher workshops and innovative classroom materials. The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 50 years. SITES connects Americans to their shared cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play.

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