America’s national parks and photography share a historic, symbiotic relationship. Photographs played an important role in the preservation of the original parks, convincing the federal government to preserve relatively small, remarkable portions of the nation’s wilderness for the public to enjoy. The parklands have also served as subject matter for generations of photographers: Charles Leander Weed, Carleton Watkins, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Stephen Shore, Roger Minick and Rebecca Norris Webb are among the many photographers who’ve explored the parks and, through them, the photographic medium.
Their work, along with images made by many other photographers, is part of “Photography and America’s National Parks,” a new exhibition at George Eastman Museum that examines how photography has shaped perception of the national parks and vice versa. The exhibition, on view until October 2, and the release of the accompanying catalogue, Picturing America’s National Parks, co-published with Aperture, were timed to the centennial celebration of the National Park Service, which was established by President Woodrow Wilson. (August 25 is the big day—NPS is commemorating the date with free admission to all National Parks from then until August 28.) In the exhibition and catalogue, short profiles introduce many of the photographers who have worked in the parks, with each represented by a handful of images. As curator Jamie Allen notes in his essay for the show, “Six generations of photographers have mediated our understanding of these natural spaces.” These image makers have gone from attempting to depict the “majestic nature” of the parks to “introducing subtle critiques [that] call into question our attraction to the landscape, our impact on it, and our ever-growing need to soak in as much nature as we can while on vacation.”
The parks have also helped generations of visitors understand something about the uses and limitations of photography: Even the greatest photographs can’t come close to the experience of being in these places. Instead, images are like promises—of what can exist, what might be beheld. They also serve as a reminder, for those who’ve seen some of these 59 national parks for themselves, of what must be preserved. —Conor Risch
A Serene Look at National Parks
Daniel Kukla on the Joshua Tree National Park Artist Residency (For PDN subscribers; Log in required)