National Treasure

By Michael Reid Busk

Posted August 13, 2009 in Arts & Culture

Photography’s greatest boon is perhaps that it allows you to see something you might never see otherwise, transporting you to Tibet, Paris, Kenya; making distant parts of the world more real. But the trouble is that photography is no longer a new art and because of it, these photos, compiled over the years in our collective mental encyclopedia, often fail to surprise.  We hear Tibet and we picture orange-robed monks and crumbling mountain temples, we hear Paris and we picture the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe and street cafes, we hear Kenya and we picture brightly cloaked warriors jumping with spears. So common now, these images are easy to gloss over as just another piece of visual Muzak, and nowhere is this tendency more prevalent than with images of America’s National Parks.  Whether you’ve been there or not, it’s easy to feel like you know Yosemite and Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon—the stately photos are everywhere, from drugstore postcards to motivational posters. Usually they’re dully pretty, the equivalent of Thomas Kinkade paintings, Photography Lite.

In The National Parks: Our American Landscape, L.A.-based photographer Ian Shive undertakes the treacherous task of capturing these American institutions, and he succeeds precisely because he manages to break from the straitjacket of photographic cliché. The book is the culmination of four years of work, much of it done while on assignment for the magazine National Parks, and Shive’s photos do what great art always does, making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. For instance, instead of the typical formula that includes a foreground outcropping and a remote vista with a color scheme washed-out or garish, Shive’s Grand Canyon—a three-page spread—is a complexly shadowed composition that seamlessly fades into the far distance, employing a rich, subtle palette of russet and ochre. At Yellowstone’s Mammoth Springs Shive snapped a lovely close-up tableau looking down the snowy steps of a trail lined with powder-frosted pines, the trees beyond obscured in fog. Shive has said he wants to appeal to a younger generation, and these photos have an originality not to be found in the typical bathroom photo of El Capitan. These are not your parents’ national parks.

Shive hoofed it everywhere, traveling more than two hundred days a year, snapping everything from undersea photos of the Channel Islands’ kelp forests to a marvelous aerial shot of a base camp on Mt. McKinley taken from the window of a tiny plane as it was banking 90 degrees, throwing him into the window. During a few arduous weeks on McKinley, the jewel of Denali National Park, Shive was embedded with a rescue unit and spent many days hiking over treacherous fields of blue ice, hauling his 50 pounds of gear.

He also braved the brutal light and high heat of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument to capture its stark dunes, an experience he compared to being in a Star Wars film.

Shive’s photos are often painterly, with elegant color schemes and a careful relationship between foreground and background, including one of the book’s finest images, a foggy shot at Point Reyes featuring a snowy egret perched in the shallows, surrounded by a thicket of rushes. As Shive notes, the painting recalls the Japanese painting tradition of cranes foregrounded in front of rolling hills, but as he notes, “Only in nature could such a perfect understated palette of colors occur.” Just as delightful are Shive’s near-microscopic close-ups of leaves and grass and algae, often so zoomed in that the subject is not always clear. “Sometimes we fail to look down,” he said of his interest in the tiny as well as the grand. In his essay accompanying the book, National Parks editor Scott Kirkwood put it well: “These are things that children discover as they crawl on their hands and knees—while their parents are distracted by a map or a guidebook.”

Our National Parks system isn’t a visual buffet, it’s a time capsule, and the collective past that the system sustains unites us not merely with other contemporary Americans, but with those who have gone before us and those who will come after. And that’s not anodyne—it’s exciting, as Shive believes conservation should always be. His motto is Remember, re-inspire, rediscover, and to that end, he’ll soon travel to the Capitol to give a copy of his book to every member of Congress.

Perhaps a journey through the book’s pages will lead you on a physical journey to one of our nation’s glorious parks in the hope, as T.S. Eliot wrote, that “We shall never cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

The National Parks: Our American Landscape by Ian Shive, Earth Aware Editions, 224 pages, hardcover. $39.95.   


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