In his new book Yosemite People, published this month by A Thousand Words Press, Jonas Kulikauskas takes a street photographer’s approach to one of the country’s most beloved National Parks. The idea for the book began on a New Year’s visit in 2014. Kulikauskas was in the dining room of Yosemite’s historic Ahwahnee Hotel, and watched as a staff member unfurled a tablecloth. “I could feel the care being transferred to the next guest. It was lovely. I reached for my camera and took a shot,” he writes in the book. The combination of the natural beauty of the place, seen through the window, and the mundane but attentive action of the employee was intriguing to Kulikauskas. He eventually decided to make the Park and the human life that goes on in it the subject of a longterm project. Over the course of two years and 19 visits, he made images that reflect the experience of the park’s different constituents. As Kulikauskas tells PDN in an email, “I learned that our National Parks are very public places with several communities: National Park Service employees (rangers), contracted workers (Delaware North Corporation and then Aramark Corp.), and visitors/tourists, volunteers.” His images record the interactions of these groups, with each other and with the natural world. The book also includes interviews with a range of people who work in the park, including rangers, a gardener and a stable manager, and recollections from people who have lived and worked in the Park.
After observing the scene in the Ahwahnee, “I thought, they have a village here, and my street photography instincts took over. Like any other metropolis, I wandered and observed,” he tells PDN. “When I got home I could see something was happening here and committed to the project. I decided on some parameters based on my usual street photography approach.” He decided he would only photograph within the official boundaries of the Park, and only in places that the general public could visit. “The only exception [was] the harness shop at Yosemite Stables. I was invited to visit by J.R. Gehres, the manager. I gave it the exception because knowing J.R., if someone simply asked, he’d most likely give them a peek or mini tour—it feels natural and good. I manage a printmaking studio one night a week at ArtCenter College of Design—if someone hung around repeatedly with genuine interest, I’d probably do the same.” Kulikauskas limited his gear to black and white 35mm film and a 50mm lens. Walking around with his camera, “I learned that, like a city street, the same street photography rules apply: National Parks are a public space and like on any other U.S. street, I have the right to photograph people.”
One of the challenges he faced was getting to know the communities who live there and earning their respect. “They meet a lot of ‘weekend warriors’ and enthusiastic types,” he says. “People who work in Yosemite feel genuinely grateful. They’ve taken personal sacrifice and risk to secure their positions, so they aren’t particularly anxious to do or say anything that might even remotely tarnish their standing.” But by the end of the project, he says, “I feel at this point I have an honorary local status. Ranger Phillip Johnson paid me the highest respect last visit by saying, ‘We like you Jonas.'”
Visiting once a month, Kulikauskas didn’t plan his shots, but he tried to see as much as possible. “The process was more about exploring. All I knew is that I wanted breadth—to understand what this place is. To learn what people are doing, what is happening here, what are the traditions, why do people keep coming back,” he says. “I continually tested myself with the hypothetical: ‘You went to Yosemite and you missed a shot of X?’ I wanted no regrets.” One of the things he didn’t want to miss was the valley in snow. “I couldn’t imagine a Yosemite book without it.” When it didn’t snow during his first winter, he extended the project. “I didn’t hike every trail but, rather, I pursued the spirit of it all.”