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Two NPS Centennial National Parks Photography Books Reviewed

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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 centennial. 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. A winter image of a sequoia tree from top to bottom, with researchers scaling it used to provide scale, is unique and stunning once unfolded at a length of four pages. The image on the back provides a striking and unusual composition of Vernal Falls that make this often-photographed waterfall look exciting.

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, interspersed with quotes, extended captions, and excerpts of past issues of National Geographic Magazine – which provide an interesting historic perspective on their own. However, not only did I find the narrative in The National Parks: America’s Best Idea more coherent, detailed, and compelling, its collection of historic photos was also more comprehensive.

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 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. It is a gorgeous tribute to the National Park Service Centennial, just as it was intended to.

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 abandoning 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 presentation 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 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 Centennial 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.

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