You could spend months traveling the United States to visit each of its 59 national parks—or, you could just make a trip to the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY. Through October 2, the museum is presenting Photography and America's National Parks, an exhibit showcasing a century's worth of National Park photography in an effort to examine the relationship the medium has had with the parks during the last 150 years.
"It actually started out as an idea that I had looking at the American West," explains curator Jamie M. Allen, "and how that landscape and photography grew up together." Looking back at the era of Westward expansion, Allen discovered the powerful role photography played in establishing swaths of the Western U.S. as worthy of preservation. "People couldn't travel to the West at that moment in time and see the land for themselves," she says, "so they would send images back to the East Coast—and, in particular, to Washington, D.C., and Congress—to lobby for this land to be set aside."
With the arrival of the railroad system, wealthy Americans were able to see some of these places for themselves. Those visits in turn generated more photos, creating a wondrous and artful self-perpetuating cycle. "It's about the same time that Kodak and George Eastman enter the snapshot into our mentality," says Allen, "so you could go and take your own photograph of the very same places that we'd always been photographing."
Since the museum had so many images to offer, the curators had to impose parameters on the show's structure. "As far as the image selection," she says, "I found that there were three major points I wanted to make: exploration and how the view gets established; tourism and how that helps perpetuate the established view; and then art photography, and how that responds to the established views and kind of pushes the envelope."
The resulting exhibition—along with its companion book, Picturing America's National Parks—is an astoundingly beautiful ode to America's open spaces, and one that truly communicates the power an image can have. "Photography perpetuated a longing for these national spaces in the American West," says Allen, "and that ultimately resulted in the National Parks Service."
And now: enjoy the view!
For more, see eastman.org. And if you have a friend with a serious case of wanderlust—share this article with them!