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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

America's Best Idea


Outdoor Photographer sits down with Ken Burns to discuss our national parks and the role photographers played in establishing these treasures of the landscape. The legacy of the parks is inexorably tied to the legacy of nature photography in America.

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The soothing baritone of actor George Takei quotes the contemplations of landscape painter Chiura Obata on the High Sierra: “In the evening, it gets very cold; the coyotes howl in the distance; in the midsky, the moon is arching; all the trees are standing here and there; and it is very quiet. You can learn from the teachings within this quietness.”

It’s a great lesson for painters and photographers alike, and one of many that can be gleaned from the remarkable program, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, the six-episode series directed by Ken Burns. The documentarian takes us on a journey not only through America’s most magnificent landscapes, but also back in time to visit the forward-looking people—many of them wielding heavy cameras and tripods—who helped preserve these great bastions of nature for posterity.

The development of photography and the national park movement grew and matured together in the 19th century. Soon after the ability to fix a shadow came into being, photography became an important weapon in the arsenal of conservationists in their battles with developers. Outdoor Photographer recently had the opportunity to sit down with Burns.

Soon after the ability to fix a shadow came into being, photography became an important weapon in the arsenal of conservationists in their battles with developers.

OP: In your program on the national parks, you’ve once again made great use of the still image. Let’s talk about the first two major locations you focus on, Yosemite and Yellowstone.

Ken Burns: The photographs that began to come back of the falls at Yosemite and the bare, polished granite peaks of El Capitan, the cathedral spires and Half Dome, along with the paintings of Albert Bierstadt, really galvanized interest in this area in the mid-19th century. It was possible to go back and make political inroads and convince people that this land should be preserved. Yosemite is the first time in human history where great sections of natural land were set aside by the federal government. It was given to the state of California, so it doesn’t qualify as the world’s first national park. It was the first federal reserve. The only reason that eight years later, in 1872, the same didn’t happen to Yellowstone is that it was in a territory. There was no state entity to give it to. So it became the world’s first national park.

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