Sunday, September 13, 2015

Landscapes for the People, by Ren and Helen Davis

I think we can all agree that our national parks are a great national treasure.  We owe a debt of gratitude to those visionary Americans who set aside the land that became national parks.  One of those visionaries, in a literal sense, who captured the vision on film, was George Alexander Grant.  From the 1920s to the 1950s Grant, a veteran of the Great War (WW1), criss-crossed the country capturing on film not only the distinctive beauty to be found in the national parks, but a chronicle of the development of the parks.

Ren and Helen Davis have compiled many of his photographs, ranging from sweeping landscapes to intimate portraits and detail studies, in Landscapes for the People: George Alexander Grant, First Chief Photographer of the National Park Service.  Besides the photographs, they have included very nice historical and biographical background in accompanying essays.  Grant's own writings are included as well, in which he discusses the technical side of his photography for students of the art.  That alone is worth reading, especially as a reminder, in the age of digital, iPhone photography, of the techniques that for so many photographers, are in danger of being completely forgotten.

To be honest, Grant's photography, while impressive, doesn't have the emotional and artistic brilliance seen in Ansel Adams's work.  That may be an unfair comparison.  What I loved about seeing Grant's work was the history.  He didn't simply photograph the parks, he photographed people developing and enjoying the parks.  The clothing, cars, camping gear, tools all show a slice of the outdoor life in the first half of the twentieth century, while emphasizing the timelessness of nature.

(Here's my suggestion for the Davis's next book: using Grant's photographs as a guide, set up the camera in the same spot, and have people in modern dress and modern camping equipment replicate the poses and scenes.  That would be fun to see.)

Even though these pictures are all at least 60-70 years old, they capture life in the national parks in such a way that readers will be inspired to start planning their next visit.  It's time for a road trip!

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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