The old joke is that Playboy is read "for the articles." But nobody claims to actually read National Geographic. Sure, celebrity authors have filled Geographic's pages, from John Updike to Garrison Keillor. But for most subscribers, the words hardly matter. The point is the pictures.
Geographic photographers are a rare breed. Since 1888, the magazine has boasted the finest photojournalism ever printed, and its freelancers have risked life and limb to secure the perfect shot. The pictures are so beautiful, so masterfully crafted, that they can seem superhuman. We forget that real people snapped these images with real cameras.
The World at Our Door, now showing at the Silver Eye Center, celebrates the Society's adventurous spirit. As Geographic contributors go, Melissa Farlow and Randy Olson have typical vitae: Farlow has traveled the world and helped win a collaborative Pulitzer in 1976. Olson has also journeyed everywhere and won major awards, including Magazine Photographer of the Year, in 2003.
More unusual is that Olson and Farlow have been married for 23 years; they share a business; and they live in Pittsburgh. In any given week, Farlow and Olson might be slogging through jungle or trudging up glaciers. The World at Our Door is a cross-section of their finest work: photos of suburban China; African gold-mines; bird-hunters of India; and wild mustangs in the American West. If Indiana Jones toted a top-model SLR, he might live like Farlow and Olson.
Given the detail and precision of their work, only large-scale prints could do these pictures justice. The exhibit's 50 photographs boast perfect color and balance. In "Battling Stallions," two horses rear up on their hind legs and smack each other with hoofs. The setting sun casts these pugilists in shimmering copper, and the shot is so crisp and warm that the mustangs might as well be waltzing. It's hard to imagine Farlow standing in the prairie at dusk, waiting for the herd to do something interesting, but this is what the job calls for. In World, we see these perfect moments again and again, and marvel.
The miracle of Geographic photography is its surprises, and this is what Olson and Farlow do best. Farlow has a picture of three nuns playing volleyball in a Peruvian alley; they laugh with a most un-nunlike giddiness. Olson's "In Yamin Restaurant" shows two crocodiles slithering across the marble floor of an upscale eatery. The crocs relax next to a woman in high heels, who doesn't seem to notice them.
These moments are the crowning achievement of Olson and Farlow's portfolio -- their randomness delights us, because we couldn't even imagine such moments existing. If Geographic offers nothing else, it's the reassurance that our planet is still full of revelations.
Photojournalists aren't a famous bunch, and it's nice to give Olson and Farlow their 15 minutes. The exhibit includes several images from Olson's "The Real Price of Gold" project, capturing everything from conditions in brutal, ecologically devastating Third World mines to gold facials in Las Vegas. We also learn that in 2003, Olson snuck into Sudan to investigate the country's ongoing civil war; he met with Sudanese rebels and took a portrait of them standing in rank, holding Kalashnikovs in the gathering dark. Since most of us will never meet this dynamic duo in person, the exhibit is as close as we'll get to a dinner party full of harrowing stories.
But the most personal touch is a glass case in the middle of the gallery. Here we see foreign currency, a press pass, open journals, funny snapshots and old passports bleeding stamps. And we're left to wonder, given their globe-trotting careers, what Farlow and Olson do on vacation.
The World at Our Door continues through Jan. 2. Silver Eye Center for Photography, 1015 E. Carson St., South Side. 412-431-1810 or www.silvereye.org.