Terra Galleria Photography

USPS Stamp Celebrating National Park Service’s Centennial

I am honored that one of the U.S. stamps commemorating the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service carries my photograph.

A distinctive characteristic of my project to photograph all the national parks is that I sought to explore each corner of each of them, even the most obscure ones. One of my goals is to bring attention to the lesser known areas of the parks. Those hidden gems offer unexpected discoveries and an experience away from the crowds where one can fully connect with nature.

Theodore Roosevelt is one such park, and the North Unit, where I made the image, is a quiet part of a quiet park, receiving only 10% of the park’s total visitation – which occurs mainly in the South Unit. Theodore Roosevelt National Park includes also the even less visited Elkhorn Ranch Site. The Little Missouri River provides a link between all three, reminding me of the time I spent in each unit. In the light of the late afternoon, the river appeared as a bright ribbon in the landscape, and I used a telephoto lens to emphasize the section of the river with a reflection.

I’ve been told that each year, the USPS receives more than 40,000 stamp ideas. This is the second time one of my images is featured on a USPS stamp, but because the national parks mean so much to me, I am particularly proud to be part of this campaign. The stamp is part of a collection of 16 new “forever” stamps marking the historic anniversary. I was humbled to notice amongst the other photographers the names of masters who have inspired me so much, foremost David Muench, but also Tim Fitzharris, Tom Till, and Art Wolfe. Congratulations to all other artists as well!

Two Books on Photographing the National Parks Reviewed

There are a lot of books about photographing a specific national park, but to the best of my knowledge, there are only two books about photographing all the national parks.


Photographing National Parks
by Chris Nicholson, 2015, Softcover, 232 pages, 5.5 x 8.5 inches, $28

Photographing National Parks is a modestly guidebook-sized volume (5.5 x 8.5 inches, 232 pages), composed mostly of text, although there are some color photographs – which look quite nice considering that the book is printed on uncoated paper. For a self-published book, the price remains acceptable considering the quality of the information. There are two parts: general tips, followed by a tour of each of the 59 national parks.

Photographing National Parks starts with logistical considerations. Some are specific to national parks, many apply to any outdoor photography trip, and will be useful for photographers not used to working in the relatively wild environment of a national park. They include some practical tips that took me years of trial and error to discover, like carrying in the car a gallon-sized jug of water for each day of travel. The section is followed by a general discussion of nature photography techniques, which although brief, has solid advice for everyday situations, and is not equipment-specific.

The second part of the book discusses each of the 59 national parks, with about a page and half dedicated to each park, regardless of its popularity or size. That uniform coverage will hopefully inspire readers to discover out of the beaten path areas rather than concentrating only on the most well-known parks. However, within such a small space, you won’t find many details. Instead, Nicholson does a good job at describing in a “big picture” way what each park has to offer, and suggesting a few locations that may be productive, which I found to be well chosen.

Besides being a photographer, the author has a background in journalism, and it shows: the book is extremely well written and, based on my experience, very accurate. If you bear with me for a digression, I wish the reviewers were as accurate as the author. I’ve seen some stating that the author has “taken his cameras to all 59 national parks,” whereas the book says clearly “In some cases, I had to write about parks I have not visited”. How many isn’t clear, since the author’s portfolio is not readily available, but I can attest that even for the parks that he hasn’t visited, the author’s descriptions and recommendations are right on the money.

Due to lack of details, Photographing National Parks is not a guidebook and therefore needs to be supplemented with books tailored to specific trips, such as the outstanding Phototrip USA books – which cover more than the parks. However, as the only book currently in print about photographing all the national parks, it provides to the photographer who is relatively new to the national parks useful planning tips and inspiration for where to go.


National Audubon Society Guide: How to Photograph America’s National Parks: Digital Edition
by Tim Fitzharris, Firefly Books, 2009, paperback, 192 pages, 8.5 x 8.4, $25

Tim Fitzharris is a well-established photographer with a large body of work, who has authored more than 25 photography books and is the nature columnist for Popular Photography. Although it is out of print, I am reviewing this book as the closest that we have to a photography guide to all the national parks. The book is essentially a re-issue of National Park Photography (2002), with a minimal number of updates for the digital age. However, this doesn’t matter as the bulk of the book is about locations and general photography tips based on the author’s methods.

How to photograph America’s National Parks is well illustrated with more than 250 color photographs which are excellent and diverse, including landscape, wildlife, and macro, although maybe a bit over-saturated. However, the presentation of the photographs doesn’t fully give them justice, as the book’s trim is a relatively modest 8.5 x 8.4 inch, and the design treats them as illustrations mixed with text rather than stand-alone works of art like a coffee-table book. The organization is clear, with general location information in the text, and photography tips specific to a particular image in its caption. After an introduction with general photography tips, the parks are listed in alphabetical order, and some of them are supplemented with “excursions” to nearby areas.

The book describes 23 of the most popular amongst the 59 national parks. For each park, there is a general introduction and discussion of shooting strategy, followed by an average of 5 “hot spots” keyed to a well-designed map – a total of 114 spots. Although I understand why one would want to concentrate on the most popular parks, there is quite a bit of information out there about them, including dedicated photo guides. I therefore feel it is a missed opportunity not to mention parks which are less reputed for nature photography, but nevertheless offer outstanding resources. Noteworthy omissions include Sequoia and Kings Canyon, which are amongst our oldest and largest parks. Also, the lack of inclusiveness is reflected in the choice of the “hot spots”. For instance, besides Anhinga Trail and Shark Valley, the four other locations in Everglades National Park are all ponds. It could be that those locations are particularly productive for bird photography, but their choice does not reflect the diversity of environments found within the park. Personally, rather than “hot spots”, I prefer to invite the reader to experience a representative sampling of the park.

Within those reservations, How to Photograph America’s National Parks is an excellent and well-organized resource, full of great information and images from a photographer with plenty of first-hand experience, that would deserve to be brought back to print.

What do those two books have to do with Treasured Lands ? In addition to being a comprehensive coffee-table book about the 59 national parks, its unique bonus feature is that it doubles as a guide that reveals how you can see and photograph each of the images in the book. As a guide, Treasured Lands aims to be inclusive like “Photographing National Parks”, but much more detailed. It covers all 59 parks and within each park, describes an average of 7 locations from each corner of the park, for a total of 421 locations. The descriptions are comparable to “How to Photograph America’s National Parks”, however its “art book” design is inherently more beautiful and inspiring. Thinking that maybe hauling a 7 lbs coffee-table book isn’t such a great idea ? You are not alone. A PDF of the guide will be available to owners of the book for a nominal fee.

Two NPS Centennial National Parks Photography Books Reviewed

Surprisingly, only two photography books about the national parks have been released for the NPS Centennial, and a third one is timed for this summer. Let have a look at them.


The National Parks: An Illustrated History
by Kim Heacox (author) National Geographic, 2015, Hardcover, 384 pages, 9.1 x 10.9 $50

Combining a history book and a coffee-table book, this is the official companion to the 2016 National Park Service centenial. As expected from National Geographic, the book is a sophisticated production and an excellent value. It has a bit of everything: 50,000 words, more than 400 illustrations that include historic photos, reproduction of artifacts, graphics, portraits, fold-out pages, and yes, landscape photos.

Besides its own historic illustrations, each of the history chapters is followed by a “photo essay” section consisting of a series of contemporary large landscape photos, intersped with quotes, extended captions and excerpts of past issues of National Geographic Magazine – which provide an interesting historic perspective on their own.

According to the publisher, the volume “collects the very best of National Geographic’s photographs”. They are indeed excellent and the reproductions brilliant (unlike The National Parks: America’s Best Idea which used uncoated paper), however, maybe to follow recent trends, some have had he contrast increased. How do I know ? One of the images is from me.

Besides covering a lot of subjects, the The National Parks: An Illustrated History covers a lot of territory. Almost each of the national parks are mentioned (if only briefly) and illustrated, and there is approximately the same number of images for the other national park units. With that much material, there isn’t much information or illustration about each of the individual units. They appear in the book in roughly the order in which the unit first received protection, which is logical in the book’s context, but may be confusing for some readers, as a park may be mentioned and illustrated in several different places in the book. All of this makes it a great book to learn about the National Park Service history and the diversity of the National Park System, but not so much about the national parks themselves.


The National Parks: An American Legacy
by Ian Shive (Photographer), W. Clark Bunting (Introduction) Earth Aware Editions, 2015, $50, Hardcover, 240 pages,11.3 x 12.4 $50

This the second national parks book by the tremendously talented and successful Ian Shive. His previous book had the distinction of abandonning any organization by geography. Unfettered by the constraints of presenting each park individually, brilliant groupings by visual similarity suggested a holistic view of the parks. The National Parks: An American Legacy comes closer to being organized park by park, but not quite. The grouping is still flexible enough to enable beautiful pairings and a wonderful image sequence that flows like a clear stream without division by park. An often-used strategy in the book, the presention of seemingly repetitive views of the same subject is effective at anchoring the sequence cinematically. For instance, we see 3 consecutive images of the same beach in fog in Olympic National Park, with another placed a few pages later, then 5 consecutive images of either Mount Rainier, flowers, or both. By the way, it is quite remarkable that Shive created those images (plus quite a few others others in the book) while in the process of recording a Creative Live tutorial, with the cameras rolling behind him!

One of Shive’s hallmarks has been to include people in the landscape. As a celebration of the National Park Service Centenial and an examination of our interaction with the parks, The National Parks: An American Legacy goes further than before, by including four dozen images that depict park visitors or park infrastructure. As a result, some of the imagery is not as stunning and dynamic as in the previous book, perhaps with the intention to convey the sense that those are the views associated with a common visitor experience of the parks. Fortunately for the reader, two dozen of the best images in the previous book are reproduced here. The corrected blurb did promise “200 never-before-seen images of the national parks”, but I don’t mind, since they are such classic masterpieces of light and color that it is worth bringing them back to print.

The National Parks: An American Legacy also shares with Ian Shive’s previous book an extremely similar selection of locations: 30 of the 59 national parks – plus 10 of the approximately 350 other national park system units, including 11 photographs from White Sands National Monument, a perenial photographer’s favorite where the changes in light yield an infinite variation from what would appear to be a limited subject. However, those 30 parks include all the most well known ones, and some of their most iconic shots, such as Delicate Arch, classically framed – with a contrail.

The text in The National Parks: An American Legacy consists essentially of six one-page essays authored by park conservation associations. While it is great to hear their voices and their call for preservation, some will miss the author’s previous insightful extended captions. That call is also present in both of the introductory texts, and I wholeheartedly support it, however the lament about spending more time battling crowds in the parks than on creativity doesn’t square with my experience.

How do those two books differ from Treasured Lands (456 pages, 9.75×12.25, $65)? My book is at the same time more limited in scope and more ambitious. It focuses on all the 59 national parks and their scenic features, using over 500 photographs – more than any other book. Within each of the 59 chapters, it tells in images and words a fairly complete story, visiting each corner of the park, even those out of the beaten path. As a bonus, Treasured Lands includes a unique feature that I’ll detail in another post.

Treasured Lands Book Introduction

This is the full text of the introduction to my upcoming book

In February 1993, I visited Yosemite for the first time. It was love at first sight. That visit marks the start of my 20-year affair with the National Parks.

Growing up in France, mountaineering had provided me with my only experiences of wilderness. My time on the mountain was exhilarating and compelled me to adopt photography as a means to share with those who couldn’t see for themselves the beauty of the high peaks of the Alps. Eventually, I came to the United States for what was to be a short academic stay. I did not know much about the geography of this country, but I chose the University of California at Berkeley because I had heard from other climbers that nearby Yosemite had tall cliffs. At that time, I was not aware of the significance of the national parks, nor did I anticipate that they would change the course of my life.

Shortly after I arrived, the mountains beckoned and I headed to Alaska to climb Denali. The sheer scale and pristine beauty of the north far exceeded anything I had witnessed in the mountains of Europe. Later, I toured Death Valley. After standing on the highest point of North America, I was now looking at its lowest. I had never seen such wide-open spaces and deserts before, and the geological surprises concealed within this arid land mesmerized me. I realized how much diversity the national parks encompass—they present every ecosystem a vast continent has to offer, and it was all new to me.

Exactly a century ago, in National Park Portfolio (1916), the first-ever photography book about the national parks, Stephen Mather wrote: “Each park will be found to be highly individual. The whole will be a revelation.” Those few words summarize perfectly what fascinated me so much about the parks and motivated me to visit more of them. Each park represents a unique environment, yet collectively they are all are interrelated, interconnected like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Not far from where I lived on the West Coast, Ansel Adams and others had established a rich tradition of American landscape photography. Wanting to approach my craft from the level of the prints I had admired in local museums and galleries, I learned to use a large-format camera in the summer of 1993. After I returned from Death Valley and inspected one of my first 5×7-inch transparencies on a light table, I was astonished to see more details than I noticed when I was standing at the scene. I realized that a viewer could have a close look at the landscape through the visually complex, detail-laden images, which would enable them to vicariously stand where I stood when I took the photo.

This notion inspired me to embark on a project that I thought was both original and compelling: photograph each of America’s national parks with a large-format camera, because only large-format photography would do justice to the grandeur of the parks. To pursue this, I settled in the San Francisco Bay Area and eventually left my career as a computer scientist to become a full-time photographer. By the summer of 2002, I had photographed the then 58 national parks. Each national park, even the ones close to one another, provided a unique experience, not only because of the diversity of their environments but also because of the ways in which one must explore them. While my outdoor proficiency was rooted in mountaineering, I had to learn the skills dictated by each park’s terrain, from scuba diving to kayaking to canyoneering. In order to find new ways of photographing the landscape, such as shooting the starry sky at night, I also added one of the first full-frame digital cameras to my kit. It entirely replaced the 35mm film camera that I carried to capture images unsuitable for large-format photography, but did not change my commitment to truthfulness and clarity. My quest to visit each national park was a twenty-year odyssey filled with the excitement commensurate with venturing—often alone—into the wilderness.

Traveling to many corners of the world has only increased my appreciation for our national parks and confirmed that they are the greatest treasures of the nation. One may think that their status guarantees that they will be preserved and protected for future generations, but that’s not a given. Even as the National Park Service celebrates its centennial this year, the agency faces a staggering budget deficit. Its mission can be successful only as long as citizens care about the land, which is often brought about by a personal connection attained through a visit that raises awareness. Exploring the national parks has brought me much joy, and the act of photography was an extension of that love, a desire to share with others in a tangible way the elation that comes with being in such special places. I measure its success by how much these photographs inspire viewers to visit the places for themselves, for the happiness they will bring through a deep connection with nature, and because the experience is likely to transform them into advocates for conservation. Most photographers understand that there is nothing more important than respecting the environment we seek to capture so that future generations will find it as beautiful as we did.

The Organic Act of 1916, which created the National Park Service, set forth two goals: to conserve the natural scenery and to provide for the enjoyment of these lands for future generations. The agency has done an outstanding job at meeting both of these objectives, although they can be contradictory. I am eternally grateful to those who set these treasured lands apart and to the men and women who protect them while making them approachable. During my long journey, I felt privileged to be able to experience such accessible yet untouched wilderness, a truly rare combination. If my photographs inspire viewers to visit these areas, the National Park Service has made it possible.

My hope is that this book will not only inspire you to go out and discover new places but also provide you with enough information for you to stand at the places where the photographs originated. You will see that even in the most crowded locations, even Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, it is possible to have an uncommon and solitary experience. Iconic attractions deserve a visit, but the parks are full of surprises as well—especially if you are willing to venture off the beaten path. This book pays as much attention to the lesser-known gems, such as California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, as it does to the well-known parks, and within each park, it covers many corners, some quite obscure.

Also included are notes on photography for those who like to capture the moment or simply want to understand how the photographs were made. Photography has the power to help you connect with nature and with yourself. The pursuit of photography can give you the motivation to immerse yourself in the national parks and lead you to experiences that you may not have had otherwise. This could mean venturing northward to the Arctic Circle in winter to see the northern lights or venturing out of the lodge on a rainy day, where the luminosity of the forest in rainfall will astound you. While looking for a terrestrial shape to frame the Milky Way, you may enjoy the quiet solitude of the park trail at night, normally bustling by day. Even if you are a night owl like me, the anticipation of a sunrise might persuade you to get out of bed at 4 AM and hike to an overlook. And when the cosmic event eventually unfolds, you will be lost in the moment, subject to an intense concentration, free from the distractions of everyday life. Few activities, save for perhaps technical climbing, have brought me the same sense of focus and flow. In that state of heightened awareness, the world reveals more of its wonders to you—the more you look, the more you will see. While the natural beauty of the national parks is unmistakable, photographing it enables you make observations you may have otherwise missed.

My odyssey through the national parks has been ostensibly driven by the desire to make photographs, but my primary motivation was to explore and engage with the earth. The journey is the destination, but the photograph you take away from that destination has the power to inspire others to embark on their own journey. I hope that this book will do that for you.

To enter a drawing to win a free signed copy, visit treasuredlandsbook.com

Four Death Valley midday images explained

Last week, I posted three images of the Death Valley landmarks, the salt flats, sand dunes, and playas. I invited you to think about how those images, which somehow defy the conventional landscape photography wisdom of not shooting at midday, could work. In this post, I am providing my answer to the question.

Most images of the Badwater Salt Flats use a wide-angle lens and place the horizon high. Since this creates a lot of space between the vertices of the polygons, light that shows the finer texture within them is necessary.

In this image, shooting in the middle of the day to convey the blinding feeling, I used the serendipity of a sky with many small clouds to place the horizon low. That placement not only emphasized the sense of openness and the sky, with its interesting texture, it also resulted in a denser pattern for the salt flat vertices, compared to what you’d see with a prominent foreground. That denser pattern matched the clouds texture and color, creating a symmetry.

Low light is usually preferred for the Mesquite Sand Dunes because it creates shadows by hitting the raised edges of the ripples, making them visible.

The same effect can be obtained with a high sun provided that the angle of the sun rays is close to parallel to the angle of the slope. Of all the dunes around, I selected those for their steep slope grazed by the sunrays, and shot backlit, which also helped revealed its texture. The background of mountains provides a texture that echoes that of the dune while remaining secondary because of the dark tones, and I made sure to exclude the sky since it would have been brighter than the dunes, therefore pulling the eye away from them.

Likewise, the low light of early morning or late afternoon is usually preferred because it delineates the tracks as well as the tiny honeycombs of texture in the cracked mud of the Racetrack Playa by projecting shadows into the mud cracks.

Shooting backlit emphasizes the specularity of the playa: that its flat, light-colored areas reflect the light like a mirror, or a body of water. The recessed parts – the space between the honeycombs – do not act this way, therefore they are much darker. So for a different reason, backlight reveals its texture, just like low light does. Having the sun in the frame allowed me to create a symmetry with the rock.

The Death Valley chapter of my upcoming book includes a total of 12 images, and most of them are not midday! However, there is another one which is. One of the most easily accessible of the deep canyons carved by water in the mountains surrounding Death Valley, Mosaic Canyon is a showcase of amazing rock formations. At midday, I found colorful close-ups in shaded parts of the walls. That’s a technique which can used in many places.

I hope that this post has inspired you to look more intentionally at the ways light interacts with a scene, and to realize that with careful consideration, some satisfying images can be made at any time of the day.

Death at Midday

Beginners often shoot landscapes at all times of the day, and don’t realize why some come out better than others.

The standard operating procedure of the “serious” landscape photographer is to concentrate on the so-called golden hour, half an hour around sunrise and sunset time. Early morning and late afternoon are the second best. Midday, deemed “bad light” for photography, is spent scouting or resting.

The more flat and barren a landscape is, the more imperative this prescription becomes, especially if the day is sunny, and the subject a grand landscape. Is there any landscape more flat and barren than Death Valley anywhere ?

Besides the light, what’s great about golden hour photographs is that they capture a moment in time, a short instant of transition between day and night – capturing moments is part of the essence of photography. But that’s also what limits them. They don’t show what a place looks like most of the time.

I love the golden hour as much as anybody, and cherish it as I am aware that there are only so many sunrises and sunsets that I will be able to experience through my life. However, I prefer to keep looking for images all day, and I’ve arrived to a point where they can sometimes be reasonably successful.

In the three opening images of the Death Valley National section in my upcoming National Parks Book, I make a statement: each of those there images was shot at midday, within two hours of high noon.

Do those images work for you ? If so, can you figure it out what makes them work ?

Answers will be in the book, but you don’t have to wait until this summer, as I’ll post them in a week :-)

Full Outdoor Photographer Interview

In the autumn of 2012, William Sawalich interviewed me in a wide-ranging conversation. Only a small part of made it into a profile in Outdoor Photographer. With his gracious permission, I am publishing today the entire interview. Probably more than you wanted to know, but at least you’ve got plenty to read while I am working on the national parks book!

William Sawalich: Ansel Adams is the elephant in the room. Every serious landscape photographer – especially if they’re working in b/w, and especially if they’re working with an overt message of conservation-gets compared to Ansel Adams. Can you talk about what impact-if any-Ansel has had in your life and on your work? Do you do much (or any) b/w work? Are there other photographers who have really influenced you in your career?

QT: When I was living in France, I wasn’t aware of Ansel Adams (photography in France was dominated by the “humanist reportage” tradition dating from Cartier-Bresson and continued by Doisneau, Depardon, and Salgado). It was after I moved to Berkeley, California in 1993, that I discovered his work. I saw some of his original prints in local galleries and museums. They made such a great impression on me. That was the first time I’d seen large format landscape photography on the wall. I had never seen such beautiful prints. Perfection ! In the summer of 1993, after further study of the West Coast landscape photography tradition, I decided to learn large format photography myself, which vastly impacted my photography. Besides, what I learned from studying Ansel Adams was that the landscape is not a fixed subject, but something as transient as the light that makes it visible. This was particularly well exemplified in his series of Discovery View or Old Faithful. When I began to study his books to learn more about photography, I understood his contributions to the environmental movement, and how important it was to continue those efforts. This provided an added motivation, besides just trying to please myself.

I view Adams mainly as a roadside photographer. He traveled the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada – with mules and often much larger groups than is possible today – but he made a lot of his best known photographs close to the car. That’s not how I came to photography. I was initially interested in photography as a means to communicate to people who weren’t there the wonders I had seen on the high peaks of the Alps. I first realized that the type of mountain photography I was doing could be elevated to an art form through the words and images of Galen Rowell. Rowell’s aim was to be a participant in the scene and not just an observer. Without his climbing skills and his prodigious stamina, Rowell would not have been in the position to make some of his most memorable images. Although compared to his, my outdoor skills were modest, I intended to use them fully in my adventures.

I do reinterpret images in black and white, but all my image capture is in color. This brings me to two other influences: Eliot Porter showed me how to see subtle colors and patterns in the complexity of nature, and also that beauty can be found in very ordinary-looking scenes, if one cares to look enough. The first book of nature photography that made a profound impression on me was his “Nature’s Chaos”, which weaves together strands of science (Porter worked as a medical research scientist until his 40s) and art. Although it was Adams who opened my eye to large format photography, when I began to browse books for inspiration and to learn about new locations (national parks and other wild landscapes), I always gravitated towards David Muench. His productivity and dedication made him the most direct role model for me. I learned from him more compositional techniques: how to use wide-angle lenses to place the viewer in the scene, the importance of finding an excellent foreground, that with large format images one can include multiple points of interest.

I understand you have an interesting scientific background. You actually have a PhD in artificial intelligence, yes? How does one go from a career in science/academia to a career as a photographer? And how has that research background influenced your photography? (Do you feel you take a “scientific” approach to your photography in any way? Or is it a strictly creative endeavor?)

For the career transition, see: From amateur to full-time photographer.

My work was in artificial vision, a subfield of artificial intelligence, concerned with teaching computers how to see. The kind of mathematics I was working with had to do with geometry, the organization and perception of space, and the relationship between space and the two-dimensional image. So, in some sense, it was a different take on some of the problems photographers have been facing.

More generally, what I learned in science was the ability to make sense of patterns and structures. There was also the practice of trying to understand what is seen and making systematic comparisons. All skills that came into play when I photographed each of the National Parks with some typological depth, on trips which were research-based. I was interested in the individual character of each place, how each one represents a set of unique ecosystems, yet collectively, all are interrelated, interconnected like a giant jigsaw puzzle that I was deciphering,

The bio photo of you that I saw shows you working with a large format camera. Is that still your preferred approach? If digital is a part of your workflow at all, can you tell me a bit about how it fits in alongside film? And if your work is entirely analog, can you tell me a bit about why?

I still occasionally use the large format camera, but digital is now an essential part of my workflow. In the past, I have carried the large format to pretty remote places, but for those situations nowadays I enjoy the much lighter digital kit. So I guess after trying to combine the spirit of adventure of Rowell with the perfectionism and techniques of Adams/Porter, I now work with the large format mostly roadside, just like Adams. Adams and Porter used smaller format cameras in their later years. Nowadays, we are lucky that relatively small digital cameras produce much better results than their 35mm counterparts.

However, there is more to this transition than combatting the effects of aging! Although it can provide superior image quality, the large format camera has never been suitable for every subject and situation The high sensitivity of digital sensors opens up new possibilities. A good example is night photography, where it is possible to create images that were never possible before by capturing the star field in relatively short exposures. I find that a very exciting development. During my last national parks visits, I stayed up late many nights. It’s a great feeling to be experimenting again, learning new techniques, and creating new images.

I also read in your bio that your website is one of the most visited among photographers and artists. Is this a coincidence, or the result of very careful and deliberate marketing and SEO efforts?

The “coincidence” is maybe that in 1993 I had a website, but since 2001 this has been very deliberate. From a business point of view, my goal was to rely only on the internet at the exclusion of traditional promotional/selling methods. SEO was what made it possible.

Nature is clearly your love (or A love, anyway), but is it more apt to say it’s the National Parks that really hold a special place for you? By that, I guess I’m asking if the National Parks draw you simply because they offer such a great way to experience nature in the raw. Do you think coming from Europe made the American West even more amazing when you first experienced it? Maybe a better way to ask that is how you think growing up in Europe has affected your appreciation for the very wide open spaces of the American landscape.

What changed my life was indeed the experience of nature. I first gained that through mountaineering in the Alps, but high peaks of the Alps are pretty much all the remaining wilderness in Europe. In the national parks, this is magnified by the variety of the terrain which has remained wild.

Yosemite was the first park I visited – I would subsequently return to there time and time again to explore its vertical world, as well as to hike and cross-country ski. In the spring of 1993, I visited my second National Park, Denali, to climb Mt McKinley solo. The focus during those first parks visits was on mountaineering. In Nov 1993, I visited Death Valley. Growing up in France, I had never seen deserts before. After standing on the highest point on the continent, I was now at its lowest. The diversity of the natural world, and its potential to draw parallels and contrasts has always inspired me. I began to realize how interesting the National Parks system was, as a whole.

I thrive looking for new experiences. After spending so much time in the glacial atmosphere of steep high mountain faces, I was drawn to the natural diversity offered by the National Parks, as I noticed that each environment gave rise to distinct new emotions. They represented all aspects of a vast continent with large tracts of wilderness: deserts and rain forests, Tropics and Arctic, soaring mountains and pancake-flat areas where a pass is 4 foot above sea level. The contrasts were endless compared to what I was used to in Europe, where the last remnants of wilderness are found only in the mountains. Even just the forests in California were a source of wonder, with the tallest, largest and oldest trees in the world, whereas in Europe we didn’t even have any virgin forest anymore.

Do you feel like you approach photography differently than you approached your research career? What I really mean is, does it “feel” different to you? Where you’re challenging a different part of your brain, exercising different creative muscles, etc, or have you simply traded one form of “researching” and “cataloging” for another one, with a different tool (camera) and a different focus (nature/national parks)?

The answer is probably in between. In the big picture of things, I think there is more similarity than differences, although they are not necessarily where one would expect. Your brain is wired in a certain way, and even if you express yourself through different unrelated media (for you that would be photography & writing. they certainly don’t go automatically together), it’s still you.

There are very different kind of scientists, as there are very different kind of photographers. From an intellectual point of view, the work that I was doing in science was trying to push the boundaries of knowledge in a minuscule area. Extreme depth, but a very little range. Eventually, I grew tired of such a specialization. In photography, I enjoyed being able to explore the world at large. I know it’s not optimal from a career point of view, but I don’t think I’ll narrow my range of subjects (and stylistic approaches) anytime. In the national parks project, I’ve explored nature in a very broad way: large vistas, intimate landscapes, close-ups, even micro-photographs of grains of sands (unpublished so far), even images about the idea of national parks. “Cataloging” was not a major component of my scientific activities. It is, as you’ve correctly identified, a component of the national parks project. This goes beyond places, including seasons as well. When I return to a park, I try not only new locations but also different seasons – which is why I’ve done so many park visits. I’d rather stay two days in three different seasons than a consecutive week. For some places (Yellowstone), the experience is so different it is like visit a different park. That gives me more chances to create different images.

One may think that aesthetics is a significant difference between scientific and artistic endeavors, but I don’t see it that way. There is an inherent beauty, elegance, and simplicity in all great scientific explanations, and even in computer code.

The main difference resides in the exploration of emotions, and the self. There is simply no place for those in science. It’s all about objectivity. Although my approach to photography has been somewhat “scientific” (like you’d say that of Eliot Porter and Bradford Washburn, two of my major influencers who both were involved with science for a large portion of their lives), those aspects have allowed me to exercise a different “creative muscle.”

I apologize for being mister “force the connections where maybe none exist…” but I keep being struck by what a “scientific” approach you take to your photography (in terms of the whole picture of your photo business, I mean). For instance, do you think your prolific writing about photography on your blog is tied to your academic/research background, and the requirements to write and publish, publish, publish? Or perhaps in general the methodical “index all the parks” approach is simply evidence of the same personality traits that perhaps led you to an initial career in the sciences anyway? After all, photography is one of the arts that most incorporates the science, right? Our darkrooms are little laboratories. At least they were back in the good ol’ days… My point, ultimately, is that I wonder just how much you feel your photographic approach has also been a fairly scientific endeavor?

There is a continuum of approaches to landscape photography that run from very intuitive (Sally Mann, Rinko Kawaushi) to a quasi-scientific approach (the Bechers, Burtynsky). As you’ve noticed it, I am leaning towards that end of the spectrum.

My photography is partly based on research. I try to gain a good understanding of the places where I work. My goal is not to make a pretty (or even “awesome”) picture. Instead I try to create photographs with some “interesting content”, that can reveal some truths and teach something about the world we live in. It happens that for the picture to work, it also needs to stand on its own esthetically. I look for inter-relations, and work in a systematic way. This rigor may not be readily apparent so far on terragalleria.com because I’ve not organized the work in series like you do for your own, but there are a number of underlying ones (try for instance “reflexions” in the search box for something a bit different).

Not to put too fine a point on it, but could you quantify the large format vs. DSLR captures you now make? 80/20 digital to film, or some other ratio (that was a stab in the dark)? What is it, then, that dictates why you decide to pull out the large format camera since, as you mentioned, we all know how well DSLRs make pictures now.

In 2012, it’s more like 99/1. It’s very fast to shoot a digital picture! The heavy bias is partly due to logistical considerations. When I traveled to Denali and Gates of Arctic this winter, I thought it would be too cold to fiddle with the view camera controls. The focus was also on northern lights, which require high ISO, so I packed only DSLRs. On my Colorado Plateau trip, I figured out that after shooting every night I’d be too tired at day.

Working in digital has extended the number of subjects and times of the day when I can work, but I don’t think it has changed the style much. When I was using the large format camera more, I was able to use it in positions (and expeditions) which would generally have required the use of 35mm, because my outdoors skills provided me with enough comfort.

I’ve been using 35mm to complement LF for a while. In the past, I pulled the LF each time I saw a potential for a fine print (because 35mm was marginal for that purpose). Nowadays, I do so almost only for all-encompassing landscapes. They also have to be significantly different from what I’ve photographed before in LF.

Let’s talk about your photographic style for a moment. First, do you think it’s changed much in your switch from large format to digital SLR? I wonder if you find your compositions in particular have changed due to the ease of getting that little camera into interesting positions-like shooting up at the Bristlecone pines in the after dark shot you referenced in your first message.

To understand why I prefer LF for wide-angle landscapes, see this blog post (almost a statement actually) which describes my approach for landscape work.

Why I keep using LF? On these images, the edge of LF is more apparent (DSLRs are excellent, but from what I’ve seen, it takes the Phase One IQ 180 to deliver the resolution of 5×7 film). I also try to maintain a continuity of this aspect of the project.

Although both are interrelated (the collection of wide-angle landscape is a “catalog” of natural environments), I see two angles in parks project. The first is about sharing a sense of place, emotions, and discovery through the large format fine print. The second is the typology, or “cataloging” as you put it. For the latter, there are so many images involved that using LF alone wouldn’t have been practical. Also, not all images lend themselves to a fine large print.

Was photographing in every national park a challenge you created arbitrarily? Or was it the natural consequence of wanting to exhaust absolutely every opportunity to experience, and photograph, that natural diversity?

I like to use best-of lists for many things. It makes easier to make decisions (in this case, where to go), help me discover things I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise, and at the same time focus explorations on areas that others have found worthwhile. The National Parks represent the list of the greatest natural sights in America as nominated by the Congress. It was also a practical list for me: the goal was attainable (the count is reasonable, the infrastructure excellent), yet the sites were varied enough to encompass something representative of all the nature of America. I also greatly admire the very idea of the National Parks, so I wanted to (modestly) help spread the word about them. I liked the fact if my images hopefully inspired folks to visit themselves, thanks to the NPS, that would be something that most would be able to do.

I said “experience and photograph” in the previous question, drawing a distinction between simply being in nature to enjoy it, and taking pictures of nature. I get the impression that your photographic pursuits really stem from wanting to be in nature as much as possible. As in, “hey, if my job requires that I go spend time in nature, then I’ll spend a whole lot of time in nature.” Pretty brilliant in its simplicity. Any truth here?

For many years during the national parks project, I was still working as a research scientist. On the job, I was sitting all day in front of a computer, dealing with mathematics and algorithms. Photography in the national parks provided a much-needed connection with the real world of nature, not only through seeing things but also being there, experiencing, like you said.

After I got married and started a family, it would have been difficult for me to justify all the time spent on photography and travel if this had remained a hobby. Indeed, One of the primary reasons I made the career change was so that my job would require me to spend time in nature (and other locales that interested me as well).

I’m sure people always ask “what’s your favorite park,” and if you’ve got something special to say about that, feel free. But I’m wondering what do you think should be OUR favorite park that maybe isn’t one of the “big name” parks? A hidden gem, if you will.

They are all very different (which makes a comparison difficult) but I’d say Yosemite. There are several objective factors: intrinsic beauty (no need to elaborate there !), importance in history of National Parks, rock climbing, and photography, familiarity, and proximity. However, the most important may be sentimental. After I had completed my PhD, I wanted to spend a couple of years in the USA, to see what this most powerful country was all about. At that time, I was an avid mountaineer and climber. I even had a government certification for guiding. As I didn’t know much about the geography of the USA, one of the few places I kept hearing about from other climbers was Yosemite – because of its high cliffs. At the beginning of 1993, I came to the University of California at Berkeley, since of all the top US research universities, it was the closest to Yosemite.

Hidden gem: Capitol Reef. From the perspective of a European, the Colorado Plateau is the most unique region in the US. There is a single combination of spectacular geological formations, desert climate (which keeps the vegetation sparse so it doesn’t hide the geology), and great light. Of all the Colorado Plateau Park, Capitol Reef offers one of the largest geological diversity. There are also so many opportunities for solitude and explorations since the paved road just scratches the surface.

How about photographs you’ve made elsewhere, outside of the parks. Do you have any favorite photographic destinations that you love to return to? The alps, perhaps, just because of your origins? Somewhere else entirely, perhaps?

You guess it right. The Alps are the place where I first got seriously involved in the outdoors and photography. However, at that time, I knew much less about photography than now, so I always enjoy revisiting the place with more experienced eyes. I don’t think it’s possible to surpass the combination of spectacular high mountain scenery and ease of access. I haven’t traveled there as much as I would have liked too, though (only a couple of visits since I moved to California) because the parks project had eaten so much of my time. The somewhere else would have to be Vietnam, although so far I haven’t done any nature photography there, focussing on the culture instead. If I want to rejuvenate myself, I prefer nature to cities. Asia is very crowded, but there is something there that strikes a chord in me.

How about documenting the natural world vs. making artistic interpretations of what you saw. Do you have any strong feelings either way on this spectrum from “fact” to “art”?

I am very interested in facts. However, intellectual interest alone wouldn’t have been enough to sustain the project. When you think about it, nature photography is tough work, no matter you put it. Some of my relatives don’t understand why I left the comfort of an office – and a salary. To do that work, I had to be driven by love for the subject – in this case, nature. Facts are about trying to understand the natural world. They are important because deeper love stems from understanding, but eventually, it is love that matters the most. This is where the “conservation” part of the effort comes into play. I’m trying to help the viewer feel the same emotional response as I felt myself when I experienced the land. This goes beyond just facts. I am hoping that they will feel moved enough to care for the natural world and want to help preserve it. To elicit the emotional response is the “artistic” component. I’m trying to teach and delight at the same time. Both are equally important.

One more! I almost forgot to ask you explicitly about Yosemite. (Though I think ultimately the text will emphasize your work in the parks as a whole, rather than Yosemite in particular-even if the illustrations lean heavily on Yosemite.) As you mentioned in your email to Chris, so much has been done there. Does that make it a particular challenge to photograph there, or is it as simple as trying to find the off-the-beaten path spots? Is it up there in your list of favorite parks? Or perhaps you have favorite places, both popular and hidden, that you wouldn’t mind talking about?

Yosemite is my favorite park. I actually like the fact that some many great photographs have been made there before. Rather than hindering me, this creates a benchmark against which I can measure my images and progress, and see if I can do something new there.

A lot of photographers do not go beyond the established trails and overlooks. Those overlooks concentrate all the photographic activity taking place in the area. Often to find new perspectives, it is just a matter of walking a short distance from the designated viewpoints. For example, my nighttime Lower Yosemite Falls image where you see Upper Yosemite Falls above, isn’t commonly shot nowadays despite an unusual alignment, but it is only about a 10-minute walk from the bridge where most shoot. Carlton Watkins photographed many times from that particular viewpoint. I assume that during the 19th century there was no paved trail and bridge, and therefore, he would roam all around the place and happen naturally over this excellent view.

Even an extremely well-trodden viewpoint can yield new (as far as nature landscape photography is concerned) images as the weather and light changes. As an extreme example, consider my Winter Sunset image made at Tunnel view. Adams himself photographed many times from this viewpoint, as he felt that it would yield different images. Series of views in differing conditions can be found in his book “American Wilderness” and the centennial retrospective. No matter how hard I looked, I could not find a viewpoint that captured the “essence” of the Valley better, so it has become a favorite of mine. I felt that Adams “owned” the view so much that I consider most of my images made there an homage, something that Adams would do, with a bit of color (superficially) added. Usually, I seek to photograph something I haven’t photographed before, but in this case, I sought to a photograph that Adams hasn’t made before, yet using of his most often repeated composition. There is something missing in Adams series, and that is color – which I think is an essential component for setting up mood and atmosphere. So I sought to make a photograph in which color would be an integral part, one which would not work if it was B&W. This meant color contrast. Since the Yosemite granite walls are gray, the most color contrast would be found at sunset between the yellow/orange illuminated cliff tops and the valley bottom, which would turn blue because of the open shade conditions. Most evenings, the valley bottom would be too dark, but if there were some fog in the bottom, that would lighten it up, and enhance the blue tint. One evening, as I was in the Valley, I noticed the fog forming and a hole in the western horizon. I rushed to Tunnel View, and here was the image, almost a decade and maybe a hundred visits after my initial one.

Another classic location that I particularly like is El Capitan meadows. Unlike Tunnel View, the number of possible compositions there is limitless. Here is a write-up.

If one is willing to hike for one or two hours, there are quite a few possibilities. I particularly like the view of Upper Yosemite Falls from the trail with Half-Dome in the background, as it captures together the two main features of the Valley

Here are some of the out of the beaten path favorites: Ribbon Fall and Fern Ledge.

Okay, one more quickie question has just occurred to me as I’ve been digging in to your images for the past few hours. You’ve got a real knack for finding new views and unique takes on heavily photographed places. Obviously it’s a skill you have (part of your “eye” I suppose) but I wonder how much it has been shaped by the “10,000 hours” principle. Meaning, not only have you spent plenty of time photographing, and exposed a lot of film… but by virtue of traveling to all of the parks, you kind of literally have seen it all and been everywhere. And I wonder if simply having been everywhere means you’re that much less likely to settle for the same old shots. If I’ve never been to Yosemite, I’ll settle for any great shot. If you’ve spent dozens of days or weeks there, you really need to push yourself if you’re going to satisfy yourself, I assume. Am I on to something here? How do you think your vast experience enables you to not only find unseen areas in popular parks, but find unique angles on the most popular places in those popular parks?

Right. In fact, it took me several years of working in Yosemite before I created images I was happy with, and the two of Cathedral Rocks that you picked were part of this session.

To complement the point you are making, I’d add that my vast experience includes shooting “icons.” Unlike some, I do not eschew them. Although they are iconic because of the ease of access, there are often other good reasons for them to reach that status, and it’s something I want to find out for myself. Even if the images are too derivative to stand on their own, they can help tell a story in conjunction with other images – not to mention generate a few stock sales. But to me, the most important reason for shooting those “same old shots” is that once I’ve done them, I can move on.

I’m constantly trying to create photographs that I haven’t made before. To me, this seems more natural than always trying to create photographs that haven’t been made before at all. Since I already have the “same old shots”, then when I come back, I’ll look for something different. Therefore indeed, if you spend enough time to get to know a subject, you’ll do something more original, without needing to be a particularly original person yourself.

I was thinking about the winter sunset at tunnel view photo, and wondering about your reaction to first seeing the scene in real life (or seeing your photograph of it). Even though we’ve spoken about a sort of “scientific” approach of wanting to document a place, share the experience for others, and simply show nature in all of its natural, unadorned beauty… I wonder if gorgeous scenes like this still take your breath away. What I mean is, you’ve seen all the parks, made many wonderful photographs of places grand and small, and so I wonder if it takes more to impress you. You’ve got a higher standard, perhaps. Anyway, what was that moment like–either seeing the scene unfold before you, or seeing the finished photograph. Is it a heart-pounder? A special sort of thrill? Any other images in your portfolio that provided you with a similar thrill?

In February 1993 (one month after arriving in the US), I went on my first trip to Yosemite with the Cal Hiking And Outdoor Society (CHAOS), which is the a student club of UC Berkeley. We arrived by night on Friday. On Saturday morning, I awoke to see impressive cliffs, but the weather was not nice, and we didn’t spend much time in the Valley. Instead, we promptly drove to Badger Pass, at a higher elevation, to start a backcountry ski trip with snow-camping near the rim in iffy weather. Upon completion of the trip, we drove back to the Valley, passing again through the Wawona Tunnel. As we exited the tunnel, the storm cleared, and a rainbow appeared over the Valley, prompting us to stop and take in the scenery at Tunnel View (we hadn’t stopped there on our way to Badger Pass). Although I had seen the Valley from its floor, and then from the rim, that was the first time I saw this view.

At that time, I didn’t know how classic it was, but it made me realize immediately how special Yosemite is. It was a thrilling moment, how the other thing that I understood right away, is that the picture I took didn’t do it justice (I’ve never published it). This set me on a long quest to make a more satisfying image, to which I added the color requirement after seeing the Adams series. I’ve often driven into the Valley through the Wawona Tunnel (I have friends in Yosemite West). Although there is nothing like your first sight, the view still never failed to impress me, even when the light wasn’t particularly good – and I didn’t stop to take a picture. So when I made the “Winter Sunset” photo, I was doubly thrilled, first by the view, second by the image I was anticipating. I set up in a mad rush, thinking the light might change at any instant. In fact, it lasted maybe a good ten minutes, which left me time double check the camera settings after exposing the first pair of images. I was viscerally excited during the drive home.

I still get very excited when I come to a new, spectacular view, especially when seeing it for the first time. The first image I ever made of an iceberg is still my favorite. But even if I’ve seen it before, if the light redefines it in a new way, the excitement is anew.

And secondly, do you mind providing me with a basic list of your preferred cameras and lenses? You can include as much or as little as you like. Our manufacturer advertisers like seeing their names in print!

Canon EOS 5Dmk3, 24-105mm f/4L IS, 24 TSE II
Canham KBC 5×7, Schneider Super Symmar XL 110mm f/5.6

Those lenses account for more than 50% of images made in their respective formats. I’ve seven 5×7 lenses and about two dozen Canon lenses, but none of them is “indispensable” compared to those listed above.

I know you finished the “National Parks project” proper back in 2002, but is it fair to say that you still continue to photograph in the national parks? Is it something you still do regularly? Basically, I’ve framed it as the “project” took ten years, but for another ten you’ve continued photographing America’s wilderness in the National Parks. Fair, or no?

Photographing in the National Parks is still a priority. Although it is not that clear cut, in the first ten years, my goal was mostly to create representative images of each park in large format. In the last ten years, it has gradually shifted to try to create a comprehensive record of each park.

Picturing the Top of North America

The huge cliffs of Yosemite are what brought me to California, however, compared to the more northern, and therefore more glaciated Alps, the California mountains didn’t seem that big nor impressive. In the spring of 1993, a few months after arriving in California, I therefore set my sights on Mt McKinley – the official name for Denali at that time.

The top of North America amply deserves its nickname “the Big One”. Although the mountain, 20,308 feet high, is much lower than the Himalayan giants, its vertical relief of 18,000 feet from base to summit is larger. Because of its latitude, just a few hundreds miles below the Arctic Circle, it is one of the coldest mountains on earth. Climbing Mount McKinley combines the challenges of a high-altitude climb with those of a polar expedition. Each year, about a thousand climbers try for the summit, the vast majority of them through the West Buttress route. About half of them succeed.

A bush pilot dropped me at the base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier (elevation 7,200 feet) with 100 pounds of gear and supplies, good enough for three weeks. Climbing solo, two weeks later – which included tent-bound days during storms – I set up my final camp before the summit, on a tiny ledge protruding from the steep slopes of the West Rib.

Before going to sleep to rest for what promised to be a long summit day, I could not help but open the tent’s door to take in the scenery. Viewed from 18,500 feet, the immensity of the glaciers extending to the horizon below overwhelmed me. I had never before experienced landscapes at that scale. Adding to the beauty of the pristine landscape, the twilight at those northern latitudes and time of year, lasted for hours. All the efforts made to arrive at this position felt worthwhile, and I resolved to keep exploring North America. Because the temperatures were in the negative double digits (F), I sat inside the tent, and just poked my upper body out. I attached the camera to an ice-ax that doubled as my monopod, and made a few exposures. Only a few weeks later, after I had come home and gotten my film back from the lab, did I realize what the photograph could have been on this truly once-in-a lifetime evening, had I stepped outside for a better foreground.

The next day, as I rewinded the roll of film in my Nikon FM2, it snapped, having become brittle because of the extreme cold. If I opened the back of the camera to install a new roll, light would fog the exposed roll. Since I did not want to lose any of the images, I resolved to use only my backup camera – a point and shoot Yashica T4 carried in my bib’s pocket – for the rest of the expedition. In my elation to reach the top, it didn’t matter that I had to photograph the summit ridge of Denali with that modest camera. In some ways, I have not gone down that mountain since.

Help Me Pick a New Book Title

Can you help me decide on the subtitle for my next book ?

I am finishing my long-overdue photography book about the National Parks, to be released this summer for the NPS Centennial: 456 pages, 450+ photographs, 120,000+ words, 60 maps, 12×10 inches, $65. The book has two unique features. It is comprehensive, with images from each corner of each US National Park in a beautiful design. It doubles as a photography guide (location notes, with a bit of my experiences and impressions). More details are at TreasuredLandsBook.com, where you can also enter a draw to win a free signed copy.

The working title is “Treasured Lands” because it is the name of my traveling exhibit, but it itself, it doesn’t say “National Parks”. I need a subtitle. With that in mind, I have created a survey with exactly one question: “Which subtitle would make you more likely to purchase my book”. To see the options and vote, click here if you don’t see options below.

Create your own user feedback survey

In addition, would you be interested in reading a chapter of the book ? This would be about a single national park (you let me know which one you are interested in), and I’d like to hear your ideas, rather than grammatical corrections. If so, email me.

Thanks for your help!

The First National Parks Photography Book

As you all know, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. What is less known is that 1916 is also the year when the first photography book about the national parks, National Parks Portfolio, was published.

It was no coincidence. As recounted in the film by Ken Burns The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, Stephen Mather built a formidable publicity machine to advocate for the creation of a new federal agency to oversee what had been an haphazard collection of National Parks with inadequate protection and management. National Parks Portfolio was a centerpiece of that effort.

The cover of the publication gives credit to the Department of the Interior, however the government had allocated no budget to cover its cost. So the financing model deployed by Mather was the same as some of today’s self-published photography books: fund part of it out of his own pocket, and look for corporate sponsorship for the rest. Except that at more than one million of today’s dollars ($48,000 in 1916), amounting to $3.8 per copy with a first printing of 275,000, that was an ambitious project by any measure, dwarfing any self-publication project that I know. The “sponsors” turned out to be the Western railroads – there was no Eastern national park yet. You can see their influence on the interior of the Portfolio cover, a map entitled “National Parks and Principal Railroad Connections”, and the back of each booklet, which repeats the same map under the heading “How to reach the national parks”, with street addresses of 17 railways companies.

Rather than a bound book, the publication, put together by Robert Sterling Yard, consisted of a soft cover holding nine illustrated booklets of 24 pages and a trim of about 6×9 inches: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, Mesa Verde, Glacier, Rocky Mountains, and Grand Canyon – the later was still a National Monument at that time, but its significance was properly recognized. In the preface, printed in a separate spread, Mather writes: “This is the first really representative presentation of American scenery of grandeur ever published, perhaps ever made”. The previous paragraph summarizes in succinct words what fascinated me so much about the national parks, and motivated me to visit each of them: “Each park will be found to be highly individual. The whole will be a revelation”.

Although the printing quality pales compared to modern standards, and to original Watkins prints made 50 years earlier, leafing through the publication, you realize that some of your tripod holes have been in used for more than a century. This reminder that landscape photography had already reached a mature state back then helps put today’s achievements in perspective. The last page of the Yosemite booklet includes an image of two women in long dresses, followed by a man who looks like a ranger, hoping over snow hummocks in the ascent of Mount Lyell, whose glacier looks much larger than it is now. The location is still on my to-do list.

The whole publication is available in electronic format from the National Park Service. However, as a book collector, I was delighted to find a first edition copy in good condition. As I am finalizing my own national parks book, it is cool to hold in my hands the one that started it all – exactly a century ago. In a century, our computers, tablets, and phones will certainly be obsolete, but this book has traversed a century, passing thorough the hands of many generations. In addition to his intrinsic power, it carries to a great historic value. Although ebooks are a lot cheaper and more convenient, they lack the tactility and the focussed, distraction-free experience of reading a physical photography book. Viewing a form of art is an experience.