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Images that elevate the ordinary

National Geographic pares down 10 million photographs

While I was in Washington, D.C., many years ago, curiosity took me to the National Geographic Society to inquire about employment possibilities. Mine was not an obsessive curiosity - not the kind that insists on waiting two days on an African plain to catch a shot of wildebeests and zebras slogging through the heat. It was a curiosity, though, that aspired to explore the globe from a venue more active than a cozy chair. Apparently, I was not the only job seeker.

"Through the Lens: National Geographic Greatest Photographs" reminds me of that curiosity. Six sections - Europe; Asia; Africa & the Middle East; the Americas; Oceans & Isles; and the Universe - demonstrate the breadth of the Society's 113 years of exploration.

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Readers can compare the way visitors in 1916 responded to Australia's landscape with how pyrotechnic Sidney welcomed the new millennium. We can marvel at life teeming below the ocean while astronauts stroll through outer space.

It must have been tough selecting images for this collection - there are 10.5 million from which to choose!

Not only does National Geographic preserve a pictorial snapshot of the earth and its cultures over time, the images tell the story of photography's evolution. The archive spans the history of the medium, from rare glass Autochromes and film negatives to transparencies and digital photographs.

That one image can evoke the sound of thundering hooves against the hot earth while another captures laundry flapping in the breeze is a testament to the collection's breadth and sensitivity. These memorable pictures elevate ordinary moments and bring unimaginable adventure down to earth.

Susan Sweetnam is the photo archivist for the Monitor.