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National Park Artist Residencies
Nearly 150 years ago, visual artists played an instrumental part in the creation of the American National Park system, using their work to advocate for the protection of these majestic wild places. Today, painters, sculptors and photographers remain integral to the mission of the National Park Service as it administers more than 50 residency programs, inviting artists to live and work inside a national park for four weeks at a time. The immersive experience is perfect for landscape photographers like Chuck Kimmerle, who’s embarking upon his fourth residency in as many years. He says the residencies offer a unique, unparalleled photographic experience, and he encourages fellow outdoor photographers to apply.
“This fall, I’ll be living in Joshua Tree National Park for a month,” he explains. “The previous three were in Zion, Glacier and North Cascades national parks. The residencies are competitive, with anywhere from 12 to 200 applicants from all genres—visual, performance, music, literature, etcetera. Judges look not only for quality of work, but also intent, statement of purpose, exhibition and publication history, and how well an individual will live and work in solitude. Artists who are accepted are usually allowed to create without restrictions, other than park rules, of course, or oversight. In return, they’re often asked to give a couple of public presentations and donate a single piece of work, along with all rights to that piece, to the park.”
Zion National Park, Utah.
One key for applicants to remember, Kimmerle says, is that a residency isn’t a holiday. Those who approach it as such aren’t likely to get far in the process.
“It’s important that people not think of these as vacations,” he explains. “As a general rule, family members aren’t allowed to accompany the artist. These are for serious artists and photographers who want to commit to an intense and immersive experience. It really is hard, and often frustrating, work, but the rewards are unmatched.”
One of the hardest challenges in a residency is also one of its biggest advantages: solitude. While Kimmerle enjoys the intense focus he’s able to achieve, a few weeks in isolation can be unsettling.
“These can be lonely experiences,” he says. “Artists get few visitors and, as artists are prone to do, they spend much of their day working alone. Combined with the lack of Internet, TV or cellular reception, such solitude may not be for everyone. I enjoy my alone time, and even I felt the tinges of loneliness at times. Having the freedom of answering only to yourself, your schedule, your whimsy, your impulses, is quite refreshing and liberating, but there’s a definite transition curve, both starting the residency and after getting home to a fully connected life.”
Free hours during a residency may be used not only to process and print images, but also to brush up on, and connect with, the work of the masters who have come before. For Kimmerle, that means outfitting himself with several photography books and monographs.
“My typical daily schedule is to try and be in the field at first light,” he says. “That’s easy in the fall, hard in the summer. I stay out until midday and then either return to the cabin or take a siesta in the car. After a few hours, I head back out. It’s not that I dislike midday light, as I don’t believe there’s such a thing as “bad light,” but I’m only good for a few hours of photography at a time before I get loopy and my creativity stops. Of course, I have days when I’m hiking all day, or have very long drives, or I’m just in the zone and want to stay out.
North Cascades National Park, Washington State.
“I brought my desktop computer and 17-inch Epson printer to the residencies in Zion and Glacier,” Kimmerle adds. “I want to see my photos as soon as possible. Blame MTV or fast food, but I lack the patience to wait. It also allowed me to create prints to show during my public presentations. I was unable to bring more than a laptop to North Cascades and will be limited to such in Joshua Tree due to limited electricity; power to the cabin comes from solar cells. Despite that limitation, I do try and work on images every couple of days to give me some perspective on where I’m going artistically. Also, as the sun sets pretty early in the autumn months, it helps to pass the after-hours time. I fill the downtimes—afternoons, rainy days, evenings, off days—by doing a lot of reading. Past books include Edward Weston’s daybooks, The History of Photography by Beaumont Newhall, Photography Until Now by John Szarkowski, Lives in Photography by Edward Steichen and numerous monographs and a few non-photo-related classics. Rereading Weston’s daybooks proved especially enlightening, as I could relate better to his thoughts and concerns than I could when I read the books at home. Also, I felt a rather strong connection to photography’s past while reading the Szarkowski and Newhall books on photography’s technical and artistic history.”
Intrapersonal challenges aside, the biggest hurdle for a landscape photographer during a residency may be how to approach one of the most photographed places in the world. While repetition and unoriginality may be creatively dangerous, equally perilous is the quest to define an entire park in a few weeks’ time.
“There’s an ounce of uncertainty at the beginning of each residency,” Kimmerle says, “at least for me. These national parks have been photographed by tens of thousands of others who have created millions of photographs. Will I be able to add to the photographic conversation, or will I be destined to repeat, to be derivative? These thoughts usually dissipate after my first couple of outings, but they never go totally away. I actually prefer a bit of doubt, as I think it helps keep me from falling into the traps of ‘cliché’ and ‘shallow.'”
One of the most profound benefits of a monthlong residency is the chance to immerse oneself in his or her work and, as a result, to grow as a photographer. For Kimmerle, it’s the ability to intensify his focus and to work in places outside of the norm that affords the opportunity for artistic growth.
“My main reason for wanting to do an artist residency,” he says, “is to challenge myself, to grow as an artist. That greatly influences my choice of parks. My first residency was in Zion National Park in 2011. It’s vastly different than my usual photo locales in the Northern Plains, which was one of my reasons for applying; I needed to approach it differently than the plains. Second, it’s photographed a lot. With 350,000 visitors a month during peak season, there are millions of images being made every few weeks. If I wanted to be unique, to add to the conversation rather than echo what had been said before, ad nauseam, I had to work, and work hard. It’s hard, when visiting such grand and unique places, to avoid being cliché, and it takes a lot of hard work and staying true to one’s self and to one’s vision. The trick, I’ve found, is to just not worry about people liking my work. That frees me to react to my surroundings in my own way.”
When Kimmerle first arrived in a national park, he was overwhelmed by the grandeur of every vista. He saw photographers at work, but could find no traction of his own; he simply couldn’t understand what they were seeing. Eventually, he realized that their artistic vision was quite unlike his own.
Glacier National Park, Montana.
“One of my favorite photos from Zion,” he says, “is of a riverside tree that had fallen over, revealing its intricate root ball. When I saw that scene from the shuttle bus, I got instantly excited. I raced off the bus, found the path leading down the hill and half ran toward the tree—where I found three other photographers pointing their cameras in that general direction. I was heartbroken. But since I made the effort and the next shuttle bus was 15 minutes away, I decided to make a photo anyway. As the trio was close to where I wanted to set up, I asked them if I could photograph their tree, only to have each of them look at me oddly. They were photographing the mountain and hadn’t even noticed the tree. I think they really missed a great opportunity.”
Here are a few key things to remember when applying for a residency in a national park.1 Don’t just show pretty landscape pictures in your portfolio. Many applicants are doing exactly the same and you won’t stand out. Instead, show unique work that goes beyond merely pretty. Show work that’s consistent in quality and vision.
2 A history of exhibits, publications and contests is crucial. These aren’t vacations, and a decent artist résumé will help show that you’re serious.
3 Have a purpose in mind. Do you want to study the history? The flora? Fauna? Human impact? You won’t be restricted to these, but it will help you stand out from the bulk of the applicants.
4 If given a finalist interview, never, ever refer to the residency as a vacation (as has happened in the past).
5 Think about what the residency will mean for you and your development as an artist, and sell it in your application.
For a list of the national parks that offer artist-in-residence programs, as well as their application procedures, visit www.nps.gov/getinvolved/artist-in-residence.htm.
Kimmerle knows the residencies have changed him as an artist, making him a better photographer. Far from instantaneous, though, the change is more like a seed that’s planted during a month of solitude in a beautiful place.
“These are amazing experiences,” he says, “the opportunity to have such an intense and immersive experience, to photograph without expectation or constraints, all without having to be concerned with the usual daily distractions, is wondrous. I can confidently say that I’ve come away from each of my residencies a stronger, more focused photographer. It’s quite difficult to express how these experiences have changed me. I don’t really know myself, actually, but I do know I’m not the same photographer I was. I think the cumulative effects of a residency don’t happen during the experience, or shortly afterward, but are applied slowly and gradually and subconsciously as we create new work. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that my vision and style have remained consistent, but they have become stronger and more refined.”
See more of Chuck Kimmerle‘s work at chuckkimmerle.com.