Talk about suffering for art. Philadelphia painter Thomas Moran had barely sat in a saddle in his life. But here he was, urging a mule over the Rockies, on assignment from the U.S. Geological Survey to capture on canvas the rumored wonders of Yellowstone.
Moran’s journey in the summer of 1871 was a triumph. He painted hot springs, he painted geysers, he painted The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one of the masterpieces of American landscape art. His works helped convince Congress to set aside Yellowstone as the world’s first national park the following year.
Still, Moran had raised a haunting aesthetic conundrum. When he first set eyes on Yellowstone’s great canyon, he deemed it “beyond the reach of human art.”
That has been the quandary ever since. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. (Some individual parks, like Yellowstone, predated the government agency.) Our parks enshrine the country at its most majestic—canyons and mountaintops and coral reefs. How the hell does an artist do them justice?
Some artists went for brilliant drama. Moran later painted Arizona’s Grand Canyon in a Sturm und Drang style befitting a backdrop for a Southwestern production of The Ring Cycle. Photographers employed a cooler, black-and-white eye. The same year the Park Service was founded, a 14-year-old San Francisco boy made his first trip to Yosemite. Young Ansel Adams wanted to be a concert pianist. On his first morning in the park his parents gave him a Brownie box camera. Adams eventually changed his career plans.
Contemporary artists are drawn not just to our parks’ landscapes (Death Valley dunes, Wrangell−St. Elias peaks) but also to an element earlier artists tended to leave out: the people, the nearly 300 million of us who visit the parks each year. We pose by Crater Lake, we swim in a river in Yellowstone. And just as Moran did, we gaze at the scenery and ask, how could any artist approach that? Call it the greatest of American challenges— making art that can stand alongside the glories that inspire it.
Here, eight artworks that capture the beauty, grandeur, and surprise of the national parks.
Nick Meek immortalizes the emphatic stony splendor of Yosemite’s 3,000-foot-high El Capitan (the largest granite monolith in the world) rising above Yosemite Valley’s floor. The 2011 image is deceptive in its solitary aspect; the California park draws more than 4 million visitors annually, with most of them concentrated here in the valley.
Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park is known for wide-screen grandeur—tan and red cliffs thrust up by an 87-mile-long warping of the earth’s crust. In 1962, modernist master Minor White narrowed his focus to a single rock formation, the Moencopi Strata, limning a personal geology that is sinuous, intimate, erotic.
Shaggy and stolid, two bison amble across a Yellowstone roadway in this Mikael Kennedy photograph. The park looms large in bison lore. In the early 20th century, Yellowstone’s tiny remnant herd helped rescue the entire species from extinction. Today, an estimated 4,000 bison roam here.
A bush pilot guides his plane past the steep peaks of Wrangell–St. Elias National Park. The southeast Alaska park is the largest in the United States—at 13.2 million acres, it’s nearly as big as six Yellowstones—and sweeps from 18,008-foot Mt. St. Elias to the North Pacific.
David Benjamin Sherry’s 2013 shot captures the sharply sculpted dunes with an extraterrestrial glow, as if photographed by a NASA rover on Mars. In fact, these vast dunes are the easiest to visit in the park—and the only ones open to sandboarding.
Wish you were here! In their 2008 collage, Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe employed decades’ worth of postcards for a fresh look at one the world’s most iconic vistas—the Grand Canyon as seen from its south rim.
Yellowstone draws travelers for its larger-than-life spectacle—geysers, hot springs, canyons, and grizzly bears. But the park also has a simpler, easygoing side. Peter Marlow’s 1992 photograph shows swimmers enjoying “the boiling river,” a hot springs–warmed stretch of the Gardner River near Yellowstone’s north entrance.
Deep (at 1,949 feet, the deepest lake in the United States), cold (38°F average water temperature below the surface), and famously clear, Oregon’s Crater Lake was formed by the eruption of Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago. It makes a stirring backdrop for amateur shooters, as shown in Roger Minick’s 1980 photograph.