Iconic—and Utterly Spectacular—National Geographic Photos Up for Auction

Senior photo editor Elizabeth Krist spent over a month digging through National Geographic's vast archives to select the photos for a new Christie's auction of iconic shots.

For a photographer, there is scant validation in the world that tops landing a picture in National Geographic magazine and knowing that millions of readers across the globe will be able to gaze into a world they might never have otherwise seen.


“It fills me with a kind of yearning—and I dont want to say sadness—that there are all these places and scenes that I’m never going to see in person, but I feel so privledged to be able to look through their eyes at all of these really surreal scenes and beautiful places,” says Elizabeth Krist, a senior photo editor at the magazine, who curated Limitless: Iconic Photographs from National Geographic Editor's Choice, an all-star array of fine art prints being auctioned off online at Christies from May 12 to 27.


Krist spent a month and a half digging through nearly a thousand photos—a drop in the bucket of the more than 11 million stored in National Geographic’s underground archive. “I didn’t want to stop," she says. It was especially fun for Krist, who has worked at National Geographic for 20 years, to be free of the constraints that come with chosing photographs to illustrate a narrative in a printed product. “What was such a luxury was you could just look for pure imagery—just have really visceral, graphic, sensuous, beauty," she says. “And sometimes the beauty doesn’t have to be pretty beauty, it can be emotional also."


Photos like this, of a curious juvenile harp seal peering into his camera captured by photographer Brian Skerry, reminded Krist of the imprint National Geographic has left on visual arts. “It really impresses me all over again when I see the whole range of what we cover and the kind of work held in the collection,” she says.

While there was no shared theme among the chosen photographs, Krist later decided the common thread lay behind the camera. “I realized it was the fact that photographers have this really deep and relentless curiousity that drives them to see not just remote areas of [the] world and places and cultures never been seen before, but to see them in a very different way that can make us look again—even if they’re really familiar.” In the jungle of Botswana, the yellow eyes of a leopard peer out from the vegetation, but it can’t hide from photographer Beverly Joubert.

“Every image really had that sense of wanting to see that world or scene through that photographer’s eyes,” Krist says. In Dogon, Mali, villagers perform an elaborately costumed dance during a funeral in a photo taken by Aaron Huey.

David Bowman snapped this shot of a twirling Zipper sending passengers flying through the air at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul.

Other auction collections went back further into the National Geographic archive, but Krist decided to pull from a more contemporary set. “I tried to stay more current,” she says. “I work with photographers that work now, so I like to include [them].” This photo was taken by Amy Toensing during a sun-filled dawn in Mohegan Island, Maine.

A figure is silhoutted beneath mammoth ferns against Claustral Canyon in New South Wales, Australia. The peaceful moment was photographed by Carsten Peter.

Two lighthouses face each other in Lake Superior, Minnesota, as shot by David Bowman. “One thing that’s really unusual with National Geographic is we have people who shoot for us 20 to 30 years,” Krist says. “There really is a family feeling about National Geographic.”

Jodi Cobb captured a Japanese geisha painting her lips siren red in 2003.

Snow blurs the Wild West-esque facade of this town and its cowboy, strutting the streets of Wyoming, in this photo by Richard Olsenius.

Photographer Robb Kendrick got close with 21st-century cowboys for a magazine cover story in 2007. Using an old technique, his photos, like this of a Vaquero cowboy in British Columbia, take on the look of 100 years ago. “He started getting into tintype right around the time everyone else was getting into digital,” remembers Krist. “Almost as if he was reacting to the stampede to the latest technology or cutting-edge toy, he wanted to return to a different way of looking at things, yet it kind of brings different way of looking at the world.”

Sarah Leen captured a family’s pool celebration for the first day at their new home in Clovis, California, in 2000.

An almost-mystical light illuminates a courtship display of a Greater Bird of Paradise in Indonesia. Photographer Tim Laman took to great heights in order to make his shots. “We have some of the best people in the world,” Krist says of National Geographic’s staff.