George Grant was one of the most important and influential outdoor photographers of the first half of the twentieth century, but few know his name. For the duration of his 25-year career as chief photographer of the National Park Service, any time one of his 30,000-plus images was published it was credited solely to his employer. One Georgia couple is working to correct this injustice by bringing Grant’s story to the fore with their new book, “Landscapes for the People: George Alexander Grant, First Chief Photographer of the National Park Service.”
“He was the unknown elder of landscape photography,” author Helen Davis says. “So many people have seen his images throughout the years—we learned they were in textbooks, brochures, magazines, National Geographic, on the walls of congressmen’s offices, there were big displays of them—and they always said ‘National Park Service.’ We think this is a story that needs to be told.”
“He is recognized,” adds Ren Davis, her husband and co-author, “as quite possibly the finest staff photographer the Park Service ever had.”
In 1929, after more than five years petitioning officials in the department of the interior to create a position, Grant was finally appointed as the first official photographer of the National Park Service.
At that time, most of the country’s population centers were in the East, while all of the major national parks were in the West. The American people had neither the time nor the money to visit the national parks, so Grant’s work brought the beauty and grandeur of these then unknown places to them. This was, in fact, the government’s goal all along: to increase appreciation for the national parks and inspire Americans to experience them firsthand.
President Roosevelt was a strong advocate for outdoor recreation in general, and for the national parks in particular. He wanted to make it clear that the parks were literal landscapes for the people, and he wanted depictions of everyday Americans enjoying them.
“That became a primary objective of Grant’s work,” Ren says, “to visually document everyday people enjoying the parks, hiking and on horseback and things like that. He loved to create images where the people in the photograph are small to really express the grandeur of the landscape.”
The plan worked. Even during the Great Depression, visitation to the National Parks tripled and quadrupled throughout the 1930s. Grant’s beautiful landscape images—many of which contained visitors not just for scale but also to reinforce the idea of the parks as truly “for the people”—played a large part in the improved awareness, increased attendance and ultimately the clamor for conservation of these wild lands.
Ren and Helen Davis discovered Grant’s work while researching another project at the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection near Charles Town, West Virginia. They were looking for images of the Civilian Conservation Corps when they kept stumbling upon black and white 5x7 contact prints of beautiful landscapes.
“We came to one,” Helen says, “and I looked at it and said, ‘Ren, I think this might be an Ansel Adams.’ We turned it over and were introduced to George Grant.”
Grant and Adams were actually working concurrently in many of the same places, and in fact have produced photographs from some of the same vantage points. While there is evidence that they knew one another (Grant listed Adams, along with Edward Steichen, as a character reference on a government employment document in 1946) they had different approaches and largely focused on different parks. Adams, of course, is known for his work in Yosemite, while Grant, it appears, didn’t spend much time there—perhaps because he knew the Park Service could get everything it needed from Adams.
Instead, Grant traveled all over the West. His favorite places were the desert Southwest and, more than likely, Glacier National Park—the folder of images the Davises uncovered contained many more prints from there than other parks. Grant did occasionally photograph back east, where he wintered, but it was the American West that first spurred his love of the outdoors, the national parks and photography in general.
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In 1917, with the United States’ entry into World War I, Grant quit his job and enlisted in the army. Within a year he was promoted and subsequently stationed at Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne, Wyoming. This first experience in the American West changed his life forever.
“He fell in love with the wide-open spaces,” the Davises write in their book, “the rugged landscapes, the scenic grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, and the sense of freedom that the West offered. At war’s end in 1918, he was discharged from the army and reluctantly headed back to the industrial East, making a promise to himself to return someday to live in the West.”
A few years later, Grant successfully lobbied for the position of a temporary Ranger in Yellowstone National Park. It was during that summer that he began to take pictures with regularity, where he taught himself to develop and print negatives, and where his future plans galvanized. He declined a promotion to full-time Ranger, fearing that it would derail his path becoming a photographer, “a profession that I have fully made up my mind to master.”
Grant did so, spending the next several years studying photography in New York and then working various jobs, including briefly as a photography instructor at Pennsylvania State College. It was there that Grant’s annual correspondence with Horace Albright, the longtime assistant director of the National Park Service, finally took a positive turn. After years of championing Grant to his superiors, Albright was promoted to director of the Park Service and immediately created the position of Chief Photographer. The director believed not only in the importance of photography in promoting the national parks, but that George Grant was the ideal man for the job, bar none.
In 1929, Grant began his 25-year career with the National Park Service. Year after year, as spring gave way to summer, Grant would leave his base in Washington, D.C., and head west with his 5x7 view camera in tow.
“When he went into his field seasons,” Ren says, “he would invariably travel out to the West, usually by train, and then he would have his panel truck stationed at one of the parks, where it was overhauled during the winter, and he would take it out into the field for two or three or four months to do his field work. He would be out for months at a time, going from park to park to park.”
He affectionately referred to his panel truck as “the hearse.”
“In there,” Helen says, “he had the chemicals to develop film each night, and load the holders in a light tight bag. He had to take his camping gear, his provisions, and then enough equipment in case there was any type of mechanical problem, to take care of his vehicle, and he would process the film and then drop it off when he would get back to the headquarters at Estes Park or one of the other large parks that might have a darkroom. If he had to go on to another park, he would leave it for a technician to finish the process.”
“He didn’t have the creative freedom to manipulate his images in the darkroom, to tweak them,” Ren says. “He was really very much a documentary photographer, on the road, moving from place to place to place.”
“The quality of his photography is quite good,” Ren continues, “but Grant rarely if ever entered his work in fine art competitions. The one example we have in the book is a photograph he took at Death Valley in 1935: Sand Dune Near Stovepipe Wells. He entered it into the inaugural New York Explorers Club photography competition in 1937, and among 300 entries—including at least one by Ansel Adams—George’s picture won first place.”
Grant’s work was selected for inclusion in U.S. Camera’s annual juried photography issue, as well as appearing in National Geographic multiple times and even in the acclaimed book and film on the national parks made by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan. A series of ten national park commemorative postage stamps, issued in 1934, featured two photographs by Ansel Adams, three from other commercial photographers, and five from George Grant. Rarely, though, was the photographer credited by name.
“There’s a wonderful interview with him back in 1962,” Helen says, “after he was retired. The more we delved in, the more we found that he thought the parks were important and he felt that his work was underappreciated. His career ended because funding ended. And there was no funding available for him to train someone. And he felt like all this knowledge I have, I can’t even share with someone. He was very frustrated by that. But I think he was excited that he could share the story of the national parks. And he loved photography. I think it was those two things that kept him going.”
In retirement, Grant was honored by the National Park Service with a Meritorious Service Award. His pension remained $40 per month, though, as he lived a meager existence in his beloved Southwest. After his death in 1964, he was named an Eminent Photographer by the Park Service.
“He never sought a lot of personal fame or renown in his life,” says Ren, “but he was a very gifted photographer who literally was going to be lost to history.”
“This was a federal employee who did such amazing things,” Helen adds, “but because of the nature of the job he’s so unknown. We want to make sure that people learn about who he was and what he did, and get some recognition before those pictures that have been sitting in folders for decades, untouched, disappear as the amount of money available for the National Parks Historic Photographic Collection has diminished year after year. There will be no one left who knows about him if we don’t get the story out.”