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Friday, October 30, 2009

America's Natural Treasures

A new book pays tribute to the national parks

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Panorama of Slough Creek at sunset, near Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

American historian, writer and conservationist Wallace Stegner once called the national parks “the best idea we ever had.” While that description may be debatable, there’s something to the notion that these beautiful natural landscapes are to the United States what the Roman Coliseum, Greece’s Parthenon or countless medieval cathedrals are to Europe. They’re unique treasures that allow visitors to step back in time.

Merced River and El Capitan at last light, Yosemite National Park, California.
Having spent a few years working steadily for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), photographer Ian Shive was building up quite a collection of images. His assignments allowed him to see the parks in ways that most people can’t, like when he accompanied a search-and-rescue team to Mount McKinley in Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve or an underwater archaeological team to Lake Mohave, which is part of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada.

So his plans were to do a book, but one that would come out in 2016 when the National Park Service celebrates its centennial. After floating the idea to a couple of colleagues who then contacted a publisher, Shive discovered that there was great interest in his book now. He had four months to fill in the gaps of an archive that had grown to more than 3,000 images. Missing in his collection were those iconic spots, like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Point, which he had purposely stayed away from in order to bring a fresh perspective to these often-photographed places.

Having done several cross-country jaunts already for National Parks magazine and the International League of Conservation Photographers, Shive embarked on two 3 1⁄2-week trips across the Rockies during the winter. His travels included a 7,500-mile trek in which he was sometimes shooting two parks a day. The result is The National Parks: Our American Landscape (Palace Publishing Group, LP, 2009), a volume containing 200 of the photographer’s best shots—from familiar, but always breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim and Death Valley to lesser-known spots like the rail yard at Steamtown National Historic Site in Pennsylvania and Big Bend National Park in Texas.

The remains of a 225-million-
year-old tree from the late Triassic period, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona.
Definitely one for getting off the beaten path, Shive goes to great lengths to make sure the entire country is represented and to show places, even within the most popular parks, that few people ever get to see, like a stunning aerial shot of the Alaska Range’s snow-covered landscape taken from a helicopter.

With so many images of national parks published each year, it’s a real challenge for a photographer to capture these classic landscapes in ways that are new and interesting. Shive’s approach is equal parts historical account and personal journey, with his focus more on capturing a moment than a landmark. Rather than arranging the images by geographic location, he groups them by color, theme and shape, emphasizing that these places are all interconnected.

In doing the book, Shive’s goals were not unlike what William Henry Jackson’s were back in 1872 when his photographs helped convince Congress to pass an act establishing Yellowstone as the country’s first national park. While Jackson was revealing to the public a series of places that were previously thought of as rumor, Shive is sharing his experiences in the parks to inspire people to explore and reconnect with nature. In both cases, the power of a photograph is used to tell a story or provide some kind of insight that motivates others to go out and form meaningful connections to the land.

“Exploration is about personal discovery,” says Shive, “seeing something for the first time about yourself.”


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