Visual Culture

13 Photographers Who Captured the Epic Beauty of America’s National Parks

Abigail Cain
Jul 1, 2016 8:09PM

On August 25th, the National Parks Service turns 100 years old. Celebrations have ranged from the First Family’s vacation through Yosemite and Carlsbad Caverns last month to an exhibition at the George Eastman Museum exploring the intertwined histories of photography and parkland. From the intrepid early photographers whose works inspired presidents to preserve parts of their country’s wilderness, to contemporary photographers who train their cameras on the crowds of tourists that gather there, here are 13 artists who captured the awe-inspiring beauty of America’s national parks. 

Carleton E. Watkins

Watkins made a name for himself in 1861 when he first photographed Yosemite Valley, producing a magnificent set of images that, three years later, would help convince President Lincoln to sign a bill to preserve the valley from development. Some 50 years down the line, that legislation would serve as a guide for the creation of the United States’ national park system. Watkins’s photographs were admired for both their size and clarity—his “mammoth” prints measured 18-by-22 inches and required him to haul about 2,000 pounds of equipment into the mountains using a team of donkeys. He later worked for the California State Geological Survey, returning to photograph the valley twice more throughout the 1860s.

Eadweard Muybridge


Remembered today for his innovative stop-motion images that froze horses mid-gallop, Muybridge first rose to prominence for his photographs of Yosemite Valley. In direct competition with Carleton Watkins, the other major West Coast landscape photographer of the day, Muybridge travelled to Yosemite in 1872 to memorialize its pristine lakes and breaktaking views (some taken from such treacherous vantage points that his crew declined to follow along). The series of images obtained during this five-month trip would win Muybridge both a gold medal at the Vienna Exhibition of 1873 and international fame. 

Kolb Brothers

Kolb Brothers, “The Grand Canyon of Arizona,” ca. 1912. Images courtesy of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

These pioneering brothers established the first photography studio in the Grand Canyon in 1904 and would go on to see the site officially designated as a national park in 1919. Emery and Ellsworth were among the first to explore national park tourism as subject matter, snapping photographs of travelers and then racing to process the images in the water found 4.8 miles below the canyon’s rim so they would be ready to sell to visitors at the end of the day. National Geographic’s August 1914 issue—which included a 85-page account of the Kolb brothers’ expedition down the Colorado River—cemented their reputations as daring explorers whose photographs captured a landscape few in America had seen before.

Ansel Adams

Thunderhead from Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, California, ca. 1940
Jackson Fine Art

Adams holds a particularly iconic place in the history of both photography and national parks through his dramatic, large-format photographs of the American wilderness. These black-and-white landscapes, immortalizing such places as Yosemite and Glacier National Park in the American imagination, were in part commissioned by the National Parks Service. Unlike earlier masters of American landscape photography such as Carleton Watkins, Adams focused on the ephemeral—moments of light and shadow, clouds scudding across the sky—instead of the immutable geography of the place.

Edward Weston

A close friend of Ansel Adams and another innovator of 20th-century photography, Weston was always fascinated by natural forms. His close-up images of common objects, like green peppers or seashells, helped pioneer modernist photography. He returned time and again to California’s Point Lobos to capture the wind-wizened cypress trunks and the dark surf. Although Weston once said his style of “straight” photography was untenable for landscapes, “for the obvious reason that nature—unadulterated and unimproved by man—is simply chaos,” he found order in the sinuous lines of the dunes in Death Valley and White Sands.

Abelardo Morell

When Watkins and Muybridge photographed Yosemite in the 19th century, they used what was, for them, cutting-edge technology. Two centuries later, Morell is employing the opposite approach in capturing national parks—since 1991, the Cuban-born photographer has experimented with the camera obscura, an antique image-capturing technique that predates photography. His light-proof tent projects views of the surrounding landscape onto the natural terrain, creating images that manage to be both familiar and unorthodox.

Sharon Harper

Left: Sharon Harper, Watching the Grand Canyon for an Hour at Sunrise (5:15 AM – 6:15 AM) June 7, 2013.  Right: Sharon Harper, Glacial Erratics, 2016. Images courtesy of the artist and Rick Wester Fine Art.

Harper is perhaps best known for her “star scratches,” images that fuse long exposures with multiple photographs taken over weeks or years to create a whirling image of the night sky. Her series taken at sunrise in the Grand Canyon also engages with time and the natural world, documenting the slow illumination of the misty cliffs one June morning in 2013. In her latest body of work, Harper shifts her focus from the heavens to the earth, capturing rock formations in Utah’s Zion National Park or the preserved trees of the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona as markers of the slow aging of the natural landscape.

Stephen Shore

Shore, who sold his first photographs to the Museum of Modern Art at the age of 14, was already a recognizable name when he set off in 1972 for the first of several cross-country road trips. His resulting series of images, many of which would go on to become the book Uncommon Places (1982), included  such slices of Americana as a pancake breakfast at a Utah diner and a roadside billboard. Indicative of the interplay between avant garde art in America and documentary photography that was taking hold at the time, Shore’s series also included this idyllic scene overlooking Yosemite’s Merced River.

Roger Minick

Left: Roger Minick, Mother and Son at Minerva's Terrace, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 1980. Right: Roger Minick, Twins with Matching Outfits at Lower Falls Overlook, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 1980. © Roger Minick. Images courtesy of Jan Kesner Gallery, Los Angeles.

National park photography often focuses on the stunning vistas or soaring cliffs that made the site worthy of such a designation in the first place. Minick, however, turned his camera towards a perhaps less dignified but no less integral subject—the tourists. His series “Sightseer” offers a fashion plate of high-waisted jeans and loud patterns, transporting viewers back to the Yellowstone and Grand Canyon of the 1980s.

Stephen Wilkes

It takes Wilkes somewhere between 16 and 30 hours to capture the 1,500 frames that go into the production of one of his “Day to Night” images—eventually compressing an entire day’s worth of visual information into a single photograph. Sometimes he focuses on iconic city scenes, including Times Square and the National Mall; other times, he turns his lens towards the natural world. Wilkes has captured several national parks this way, including Yosemite, where he spent 26 hours tethered to a rock ledge at a 45-degree angle to get the perfect shot. 

Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe

For five years, Klett and Wolfe collected images of the Grand Canyon—both archival and contemporary—to construct a series of works that collage together moments from the almost 150-year photographic history of the site. Playing off the idea of rephotography, a scientific practice that uses photos from the same location to track environmental shifts over time, the duo instead covered one image with another to envision a timeless new landscape. Some images use vintage postcards, others tourist snapshots. Klett and Wolfe often mine the rich archive of national park photography, bringing figures such as Adams and Alvin Langdon Coburn into direct conversation.

Abigail Cain

Explore Heather James Fine Art: Benefit Auction 2016, in honor of the National Park Service 2016 Centennial, on Artsy, closing July 11th.