Female munitions workers in England
In 1917, Grosvenor's photographers introduced readers to little-known supports of the war effort: the female munition works in England

The Father of Photojournalism

In 1899 Amherst professor Edwin Grosvenor received a letter that would change the way millions of people see the world. The letter was a job offer of sorts from Alexander Graham Bell, president of the National Geographic Society, who asked if either of the professor’s twin sons would like to be managing editor of the society’s magazine.

With no editorial experience, one of those twins, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, class of 1897, became the only paid employee of National Geographic, according to a profile in the Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly. Before mailing his first issue, he addressed it by hand himself.

Gilbert Grosvenor
Grosvenor at work in 1914

In 1905 the young editor (by now Bell’s son-in-law) filled 11 magazine pages with photos of Lhasa, Tibet. “Expecting to be fired, he is instead congratulated,” reads a timeline on nationalgeographic.com. But in 1906, when he published “pioneering flash photographs of animals at night,” the timeline says, two board members “resign in disgust, claiming magazine is turning into a ‘picture book.’”

Female munitions works in France
Female munitions workers in France

With Grosvenor at the helm, National Geographic was the first magazine to publish natural-color underwater and aerial photos. He put a premium on technical excellence and is now credited as the father of photojournalism. As The New York Times wrote in his obituary, Grosvenor created “a magic carpet that carried its readers vicariously to the wondrous and adventurous places on the earth.”

"Wake Up, America!" from National Geographic
National Geographic published captivating visuals of the "Wake Up, America!" parade held in New York City on April 19, 1917, two weeks after the U.S. declared war on Germany

Or, in the words of the Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly, “One of the newer picture magazines recently boasted that it had discovered a new world, but before some of its editors were born Gilbert Grosvenor understood and accepted as a cardinal editorial principle the importance of pictures.”

It’s unclear what became of the two board members who resigned. Perhaps they moved on to the Amherst quarterly, whose November 1940 issue—the one that profiles Grosvenor—includes only five images in 92 pages.