February 20th, 2020
A History of Photography in America’s National Parks
From Ansel Adams to Rebecca Norris Webb, we trace the symbiotic relationship that the parks and photography have developed over 150 years.
When the United States Congress first voted to protect California’s Yosemite Valley in 1864, most people living in the country had never set foot in the American West, let alone experienced the sublimity of Half Dome and El Capitan first hand. Instead, photographs were crucial to conservation efforts, with Carleton Watkins’s mammoth-plate images of Yosemite Valley sealing the decision to grant the land to the State of California and later establish it as a national park.
By the time Ansel Adams was at his height of exploring and photographing the Yosemite Valley in the 1930s and ’40s, more and more tourists were flocking to the parks. The urgency to carefully preserve park ecosystems became a primary focus for land and wildlife conservation groups like the Sierra Club. Adams’s iconic photographs, along with his work for the Sierra Club, established the parks as globally recognized icons and fostered a sense of national pride for their conservation.
Over the course of their history, the national parks have faced numerous threats, both political and environmental. Along the way, over six generations of photographers, including Adams, have been drawn to the parks, bearing witness to their changing landscapes, examining the implications of public land use, and capturing their grandeur.
When Aperture and George Eastman Museum first published Picturing America’s National Parks in 2016, we sought to tell the story of how photography has shaped the parks over their hundred-year history. The book brings together some of the finest landscape photography from America’s most magnificent and sacred environments, examining how photographs have defined the way we see both the parks and America itself.
Since then, threats to America’s national parks have increased, from the reduction of public land protections to prioritizing mining and other industries. In a climate of heightened environmental and political tension, the work explored in Picturing America’s National Parks is relevant now more than ever. Now, on the occasion of Ansel Adams’s birthday, we look back on photographers whose work helped to shape the history of the parks and ensure their survival.
Ansel Adams’s lifelong passion for the national parks began in 1916 when, at the age of fourteen, he convinced his parents to take him on vacation to the Yosemite Valley. Equipped with a No. 1 Brownie camera that his parents had given him, Adams took his first images of Yosemite that year. Soon after, he became involved with the Sierra Club, leading tours and participating in trips to the Yosemite High Country. He was eventually elected to the board of directors and lobbied for additional areas to be set aside as national parks and monuments. His images of the parks have come to represent the grandeur of the American landscape, conjuring a sense of pride for American viewers in both the land itself and the preservation of these spaces through the National Park Service. Adams’s photographs have also had broad international appeal, establishing the national parks as globally recognizable icons.
In 2004, Marion Belanger served as artist in residence at Everglades National Park in Florida, an area with a complicated history. Considered potential farmland by early settlers, it was drained for development in the early 1900s, impacting the delicate ecosystem of plants and animals that live along the waterways; advocates lobbied for the area to be made into a national park, which it became in 1947. Belanger’s body of work draws on this unsettled history, documenting sites within the park, as well as those just beyond its borders. Ultimately, her work calls into question the ways that we divide land, making invisible borders that establish what is “important” to preserve and subdividing the fragile ecosystems that have survived for thousands of years.
Mitch Epstein began his series American Power in 2003. Like the photographs of Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, Epstein’s work confronts the viewer with issues of land preservation, now incorporating elements of our twenty-first-century debates on climate change. The photographs comment on America’s energy-driven lifestyle and reliance on fossil fuels. The series includes an image of Exit Glacier at Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska, the only landmark in the park accessible by car; Epstein’s photograph freezes the glacier in time, an effort to preserve the changing landscape—which, despite its status as a protected national park, is not immune to climate change—prompting us to pause and consider our own impact on the world.
While teaching an Ansel Adams workshop at Yosemite National Park in 1976, Roger Minick was inspired to begin a series on sightseers. He was particularly interested in how people experienced the parks, the infrastructure that guided their visits, and the sense of awe that struck them at each vista, as if they were on a religious pilgrimage. While Minick’s work serves as a time capsule of 1980s American culture, it also pokes fun at our obsession with these spaces and the ways the parks are both contained and consumed.
Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs
Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs approach nature as a place of creation, both through natural acts and what we impose on the landscape. The views in their images are disrupted by a commodity culture that is constantly seeking more from the environment. Pommes Frites (2005) depicts an attentive audience of french fries enjoying the view at the edge of the Grand Canyon. These fried potato strips are no different than the thousands of visitors who stand at the rim and perform the typical reaction of awe. With humor and play, Onorato and Krebs portray a culture where the divided highway and fast food are as iconic as the grand vista of any national park.
While most people experience the national parks during day trips or vacation excursions, a select few own homes or businesses that overlook the preserved landscapes. In his series Picture Windows, John Pfahl sought out these destinations, framing his photographs behind glass. His images depict beautiful landscapes as if already framed pictures on a wall, highlighting the fact that these spaces have risen to the status of art and represent symbols of national identity. Yet they also draw attention to the man-made aspects that disrupt the views. With the same careful balance of preservation and access that the park system navigates, Pfahl’s images demonstrate how we can simultaneously enjoy nature and alter it with our presence.
David Benjamin Sherry
David Benjamin Sherry’s photograph Sunrise on Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley, California (2013) seems all too familiar. It brings to mind Edward Weston’s photographs of Death Valley, and Minor White’s ability to abstract landscapes into pure form and emotion. This feeling of déjà vu is purposeful on Sherry’s part, as he reimages classic black-and-white views with a wash of monochromatic color. By rephotographing vistas that have become emblems of American national identity and applying a dizzying hue, Sherry sends our sense of reality into a tailspin. For him, this experience parallels that of coming out as a gay man, as he establishes his own queer gaze in a world full of expectations, conventions, and standards that do not always align with his own.
Rebecca Norris Webb
In her series My Dakota, Rebecca Norris Webb explores her home state of South Dakota, including Badlands National Park and the surrounding area. Attempting to capture what the open space of the West felt like to someone who grew up there, Norris Webb was dealt an unexpected blow when her brother passed away. As she wandered, her photographic journey paralleled her emotional one. Norris Webb’s meandering paths of travel and grief resulted in photographs that serve as meditations on life, death, home, and family.
Michael Matthew Woodlee
Michael Matthew Woodlee’s images reveal a side of Yosemite that is exceedingly ordinary, as if it is just another common campground. National parks require caretakers, which is in reality a twofold job. While employees and volunteers are responsible for providing services for guests, they are also charged with preserving the spaces for generations to come. The everyday lives of these workers include tasks such as cleaning buildings, fixing trails, taking tolls at the front gate, and staffing gift shops and restaurants. Yet these workers have the unique experience of inhabiting the places that others visit only on vacation. In Woodley’s photos, one might even forget that a sweeping natural vista is perhaps just outside the frame, prompting the viewer to wonder if the workers experience the same phenomenon, inattentive to the beauty that surrounds them as they go about their day-to-day tasks to preserve it.
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