If your summer plans include camping, you may find yourself spending more time preparing online than in the REI store. Rather than scout some isolated vista alongside the hiking trail, most tents in state or national parks are pitched in digitally reserved campsites. The repetitive photographic documentation of these sites, especially in the United States where camping is so rooted in nostalgia, fascinated Martin Hogue, a landscape architecture teacher at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York. He spent hours combing through nearly 6,500 US campgrounds’ online reservation sites, compiling their photographs in a visual survey. His resulting grids, which consider the campsite as a paradoxical space where consumerism and wilderness collide, are compiled in Thirtyfour Campgrounds, recently released by the MIT Press.
The hardback book — its endpapers decorated with tiny tents and an attached green ribbon playfully suggesting you might want to bookmark a site for your own camping excursion — has the earnestness of an academic text, which Hogue employs to give some humor to his endeavor. He acknowledges that, “Not surprisingly, perhaps, the individual campsite images are more often than not woefully impersonal, low resolution, inert, and dull.” His title references Ed Ruscha’s Thirtyfour Parking Lots, which has aerial photographs of vacant parking lots that celebrate and lampoon the concrete-heavy landscape of Los Angeles. Hogue also mentions the influence of the systematic industrial portraits of water towers and silos by Bernd and Hilla Becher. His typological composites of campsite photographs, all culled from websites like reserveamerica.com and recreation.gov, similarly reveal both the uniformity and subtle individuality of the repeating images.
Autumn might suddenly appear through the fallen leaves in one photograph, standing out from the summer scenes around it, while the adjacent “wilderness” is sometimes glimpsed in the mountains and rivers in the background. And there are intriguing distinctions to the locales. National Park Service campgrounds almost always show a populated campsite, such as the tents of varying primary colors pitched among the tall trees at Maine’s Acadia National Park, seeming to suggest something aspirational for the viewer. Meanwhile, the empty and numbered slots awaiting campers at the Mississinewa Lake campground, run by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, are more of a blank slate.
Hogue writes in his book essay:
Modern campgrounds are replete with delightful irony. Each “lone” campsite functions as a stage upon which cultural fantasies can be performed in full view of an audience of fellow campers interested in much the same “wilderness” experience. For the artist Robert Smithson (1938–1973), whose sensitivities to site and site-making were informed by the childhood family camping trips he helped organize, the campsite was where one could reenact the making of a place. Who in the camping community has not experienced a degree of gear envy at the sight, at a neighboring campsite, of a brand new Primus Gravity II EasyFuel stove (with piezo ignition), a Sierra Designs tent, or a Marmot sleeping bag?
Many of the campsites advertise some comfort of home, even when you are supposedly trying to get away from it all. Early 1900s camping guides encouraged Americans to use their new cars to get healthy air out of the cities, to “escape” from rapidly modernizing life. The images in Thirtyfour Campgrounds, supported by Hogue’s timeline of diagrams, show how we’ve slowly brought that life along with us. Clean restrooms, orderly tables, and, yes, wi-fi, are all available, and Thirtyfour Campgrounds explores how our desire for these amenities in the great outdoors has created a distinct form of landscape to be consumed.