San Diego Natural History Museum displays a world of wonder: ‘National Geographic: 50 Greatest Landscapes’

Salt-loving algae gives a red color to the hyper-saline waters of Lake Natron in the Great Rift Valley on the border between Tanzania and Kenya.  The lake has an unusual mineral content that is leached from the surrounding volcanoes.  The temperatures in the salty mud can reach 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit), and depending on rainfall, the alkalinity can reach a pH of 9 to 10.5 (almost as alkaline as straight ammonia).
In this photo featured in “National Geographic: 50 Greatest Landscapes,” salt-loving algae gives a red color to the hyper-saline waters of Lake Natron in the Great Rift Valley on the border between Tanzania and Kenya.
(George Steinmetz/National Geographic)

For more than 100 years, National Geographic’s images have revealed the magic of our planet, opening a colorful world of people and places often beyond the imagination.

“National Geographic: 50 Greatest Landscapes,” on display at the San Diego Natural History Museum, takes us on a journey to some of these magical places through the lens of the organization’s globe-trotting photographers.

“It really just draws you in and makes you want to pack your bags,” said Bradley Tsalyuk, the museum’s exhibit developer. The exhibition, which is on its first North American stop, was inspired by the 2016 book “National Geographic Greatest Landscapes.”

“The landscape photographs are astounding and are sure to be crowd pleasers,” said Judy Gradwohl, the museum’s president and CEO. “We are pleased to host this beautifully curated new National Geographic exhibit that helps us in our mutual goal to connect our visitors to the natural world.” (The exhibition is the first of two from National Geographic; “50 Greatest Wildlife Photographs” will immediately follow this one.)

The photographs, which have all been previously published by National Geographic, are arranged by season. Some are self-evident such as the field of sunflowers in summer or the snowboarder jumping off an Alpine mountain in winter. Other are surprising, like sand dunes in China in autumn or a swarm of tadpoles shot underwater through lily stocks in a Canadian swamp in summer.

“So much is about light and shadow,” Tsalyuk said. But it’s also about texture and color. The spectrum of color, from soft shades resembling a watercolor to eye-popping hues the brightness of neon, is what qualifies these images as the 50 greatest landscapes.

In this photo by George Steinmetz — part of "National Geographic: 50 Greatest Landscapes" — micro-organisms add red and yellow hues to Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring.
In this photo by George Steinmetz — part of “National Geographic: 50 Greatest Landscapes” — micro-organisms add red and yellow hues to Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring.
(George Steinmetz/National Geographic)

The surreal terrain of the Grand Prismatic Spring, a thermal pool in Yellowstone National Park, creates a vibrant abstract of intense blue, green, yellow and orange against a barren brown and gray backdrop. The photograph was taken by award-winning photographer George Steinmetz, a National Geographic contributor since 1986.
Steinmetz wrote the introduction to the book and the exhibition. He found his calling during a solo trip hitchhiking through Africa. He has been traveling the globe ever since, driven by curiosity and the search for the next great photo.

“It’s about waiting for the perfect shot, capturing a moment in time when all the elements come together at the perfect time,” Tsalyuk said.

In his introduction, Steinmetz writes: “Every situation is an opportunity, and the challenge is to figure out how to make the best of it. Great landscape photography is like jazz — yet another form of improv — where intuition and spontaneity intersect.”

Many of the photographs are sweeping vistas and bird’s-eye views taken in far corners of the world. Others are more familiar: Joshua trees in Death Valley, the Merced River in Yosemite during winter, the snaking arms of Lake Powell and an aerial view of New York with the trees of Central Park bisecting the photo.

New York is one of the few manmade environments on display. Some photographs contain people, but they are usually only there to add a sense of scale. “What we like about these is the visual impact,” Tsalyuk said.

Each photograph is mounted on a 43-by-43-inch canvas. The exhibition is in the fourth-floor vestibule, a bright, quiet area that has space to absorb details, such as the spray from a ship near Candlemas Island (part of the South Sandwich Islands) as it nears a blue iceberg with penguins riding on top.

“You really get a feeling of place,” Tsalyuk said. “It’s a call to go out there and explore and travel.”

More than a third of Yellowstone sits within the caldera of an active volcano, shown in this photo featured in "National Geographic: 50 Greatest Landscapes."
More than a third of Yellowstone sits within the caldera of an active volcano, shown in this photo featured in “National Geographic: 50 Greatest Landscapes.”
(Michael Nichols/National Geographic)

“National Geographic: 50 Greatest Landscapes”

When: Through June 23

Where: San Diego Natural History Museum, 1788 El Prado, Balboa Park

Tickets: $11.95 to $19.95

Phone: (619) 232-3821

Online: sdnhm.org

Schimitschek is a freelance writer.