There were two prominent types of landscape photographs in the 1860s: Civil War battlefields strewn with the dead, and sweeping vistas of the West. Photographer Carleton Watkins used 12 mules to haul 2,000 pounds of camera equipment to Yosemite Valley to document it, and the effort paid off, with a war-weary President Abraham Lincoln passing the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864. The preservation of Yosemite Valley paved the way for the National Park Service (NPS), established with the National Park Service Organic Act signed by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916.
To coincide with this centennial, the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, is showcasing National Park images from its collections along with contemporary landscape photography in Photography and America’s National Parks. As a companion to the exhibition, Aperture Foundation published a book of the same name, chronologically tracing the influence on and inspiration from National Parks.
“Without photography, our understanding of these inherently visual spaces would be limited to descriptive words and artists’ renderings,” writes curator Jamie M. Allen. “From its inception, photography has often been understood as truth, or pure documentation of the world. Through images of the national parks, photography can concurrently be understood as a filter that encourages our passion for these spaces and perpetuates their iconic status.”
Even in the 19th century, photographs were more propaganda than truth, conveying an idealistic vision of these “untouched” lands. Eadweard Muybridge, for instance, added perfectly whispy clouds to his wet-collodion images. And notably, these landscapes were usually completely void of people, suggesting another West to be won and protected. If a person does appear, they are a tiny specter dwarfed by the grandeur of nature, and they are certainly not indigenous. There are plenty of ladies in full skirts strolling with parasols among the burbling springs of Yellowstone or the mountains of Yosemite, but no images of the tribes that had inhabited many of these regions for centuries.
“With so few able to directly access the great landscapes of the West, photographic reports were crucial to conservation efforts, providing visual evidence of the majestic nature of these spaces,” Allen states. Before the 1869 completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, it was in some ways easier for people on the East Coast to travel to Europe than the Western United States. When cars in the 1930s became more widespread, and travelers came armed with Kodak cameras, those visuals were only reinforced. From 1950 to 1990, Kodak had huge 18-by-60-foot backlit Colorama transparencies installed in Grand Central Terminal that encouraged this documented travel experience, such as a 1959 image by Ansel Adams of Death Valley with a family playfully enjoying the otherworldly landscape.
The book includes repeating images of Old Faithful blasting in Yellowstone, and a framed tunnel view in Yosemite, which have been captured countless times, each shot affirming this place as a national icon. Photography and America’s National Parks focuses mainly on the most well-known destinations, like the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and Zion. It’s worth mentioning that, although the visuals present nature as something eternal, the parks have been altered since their founding. Fences encircle Yellowstone, bears must be kept at bay from camping grounds, and trees were tunneled through for winding roads in Yosemite, just part of their human management.
There are even National Parks that have been stripped of their status when the idea of what a park should be changed. The Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Sulphur, Oklahoma, was once Platt National Park, with its mineral springs drawing crowds. In 1976, following the rise of the 1960s Conservation Movement and an increased focus on the environmental, it was decreed to not be natural enough and lost its official designation.
Most of the contemporary photographers in Picturing America’s National Parks are very conscious of this odd balance between the natural and the managed, like Roger Minick, whose 1980s tourist photographs include one in which the falls of Yosemite appear in a manufactured version on a woman’s headscarf, and in their physical form beyond. John Pfahl has carefully framed views of the parks from interior windows, keeping the nature at a safe remove. The National Parks are without a doubt an incredible resource, although maybe not America’s “best idea” as Wallace Stegner famously claimed. They remain complicated places, at once beautiful and contained.
Photography and America’s National Parks continues through October 2 at the George Eastman Museum (900 East Avenue, Rochester, New York). The accompanying publication is available from the Aperture Foundation.