Mar 14 2012: Twenty-Eight Colour Images Of England From National Geographic Magazine (1948)

As seen in the pages of America’s National Geographic Magazine three years on from the end of the Second World War, Britain was not the bankrupt victor in a struggle against Fascism, nor a place in a state of decisive transformation as it began the long process of establishing its Welfare State, relinquishing its Empire and Nationalising its key industries. Instead, it was presented as a quaintly Feudal backwater where ex-Colonials retired to Cotswold cottages, dogs delivered evening papers and children didn’t know what baseball was. As a kind of genteel propaganda for the newly powerful United States, National Geographic viewed pretty much every nation it visited through the same Kodachrome lens, celebrating picturesque local customs, fawning over heirarchies, highlighting trade and showing everyone, everywhere, happy with the role they’d been allocated by their societies. It doesn’t take much to realise that these photographs are coloured by a political purpose as propagandistic in its own way as any gallery of 1950s Socialist Realism: the formal similarities between these images and those of Stalin’s court painters – men like Victor Oreshnikov and Alexander Semionov – whose idealised visions of city streets and rural villages alike are echoed here in ways that share an origin in the use of image making to promote a sense of the natural rightness of the societies being portrayed. That the subject here is England (albeit an exotic, chocolate box version of its post-war self) heightens our awareness of a more general trait in National Geographic towards the Disneyfication of the world outside America itself, rendering everywhere backward and quaint, unthreatening, just as long as as Communism could be kept at bay: the planet redrawn as a playground for America’s new-found wealth and global power. Over the next few days we’ll look at galleries of other places featured in 1948 issues of the same magazine as it carried this vision of the post-war world to a mainstream America whose self-image many – here and elsewhere – were already irrevocably entranced by.

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