The Photographic Legacy of the National Parks
Over the last century, the National Park Service’s millions of acres of canyons, forests, mountains, deserts, rivers, and lakes have inspired philosophers, writers, naturalists, and artists to create tributes. The painter Thomas Moran, whose work The Three Tetons hangs in the White House, produced many canvases devoted to the parks’ majestic allure. (Mount Moran, in Grand Teton National Park, is named for him.) The author John Muir, cofounder of the Sierra Club, wrote extensively on his relationship to wilderness, in particular the Yosemite Valley. (Muir Woods National Monument is named for him.)
But it is perhaps through photography that the parks have been best memorialized. Since the 19th century, amateur and professional photographers have contributed greatly to the parks’ legacy, and the forthcoming book Picturing America’s National Parks (Aperture/George Eastman Museum, $50) is proof of this. This striking and comprehensive collection of images reinforces Wallace Stegner’s proclamation that the national parks were America’s “best idea.” From vintage postcards to contemporary art photography, the book features an eclectic array of perspectives and styles in both black-and-white and color.
There are several works by Ansel Adams—not surprisingly, since his name has become synonymous with the parks. His breathtaking views of mountain peaks and clouds are simultaneously analytical and spiritual. More recent photographers like Martin Parr and Roger Minick employ a looser, more jocular style by photographing people and their relationship to their surroundings. Others, like Abelardo Morell and David Benjamin Sherry, offer artistic portrayals that make the parks seem familiar yet foreign at the same time. The book’s visual range is as broad and diverse as the parks themselves—a good indication that the park system will remain a compelling subject for years to come.
Frank Jay Haynes, Old Faithful Geyser, ca. 1900
For decades, Frank Jay Haynes made his living photographing views of Yellowstone made popular by geological expeditions. Eventually he purchased his own Pullman rail car, which he outfitted with a photo studio and dubbed the Haynes Palace Studio Car, using it to create images like this one.
Ansel Adams, Noon Clouds, Glacier Park, Montana, 1942
Though he is most famous for his images of Yosemite, Ansel Adams embarked upon a project in 1941, supported by a series of Guggenheim Fellowships, to photograph all the parks.
Martin Parr, The Grand Canyon, Arizona, 1994
The British Magnum photographer Martin Parr has spent more than two decades documenting tourist behavior at some of the world's most famous sites, capturing images like this culturally loaded depiction of sightseers at the rim of the Grand Canyon.
Roger Minick, Woman with Scarf at Inspiration Point, Yosemite National Park, 1980
While teaching an Ansel Adams workshop at Yosemite in 1976, Roger Minick was inspired to begin his Sightseers series. In images like this one, he captures both the sense of awe that visitors feel at these natural wonders, and the infrastructure that has been established to faciliate those experiences.
Stephen Shore, Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, 1979
This image, taken from Stephen Shore's 2009 book on Yosemite, Merced River, captures a family vignette of the sort that replays throughout the parks thousands of times each day.
Rebecca Norris Webb, Badlands, 2010
In her series My Dakota, Rebecca Norris Webb sought to capture the wide open spaces of the West from the perspective of someone who grew up there with images like this one of Badlands National Park, taken from the front seat of her car.
Hal Rumel, Red Canyon, near Entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, ca. 1940
As automobiles made the national parks increasingly accessible to Americans, the parks themselves discovered the art of self-promotion, discovering a number of mechanisms for trumpeting their beauty and splendor, including postcards.
John Pfahl, 2 Balanced Rock Drive, Springdale, Utah, 1980
In his series Picture Windows, John Pfahl turned rooms into cameras, framing iconic destinations like Zion National Park in ways that call attention to man-made structures built for taking in the view.
David Benjamin Sherry, Sunrise on Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley, California, 2013
Here, David Benjamin Sherry deliberately evokes Edward Weston's iconic images of the same locale, but infuses his photograph with a monochronatic wash of color, a choice designed to evoke his experience of seeing the place from the perspective of a gay man.
Abelardo Morell, Tent-Camera Image on Ground View of Old Faithful Geyser, 2011
The Cuban photogapher Abelardo Morell used the pre-photographic technology of the camera obscura to capture this image of the crowd around Old Faithful, which combines an image with the texture of dirt, rocks, and grass on the ground where the picture was taken.