To care about our natural spaces, people need a connection to them one way or another. The ties between public land and photography are endless. Where would we be if we didn’t have access to shooting in forests, parks, sidewalks and streets? Public land supports photography, from artistic expressions to photojournalism. How does photography support public land?

Oldest chestnut in landscape photography

Photographers working in Yellowstone in 1871
Photographers working in Yellowstone in 1871. Image from Yellowstone’s Photo Collection. Public Domain.

Photographer William Henry Jackson was part of a team sent to document Yellowstone, an area that would become America’s first National Park. His photographs were important to showing Congress that the geysers, waterfalls and rock formations were real and more than artistic embellishments. Traveling West was difficult in the 1870s and Jackson used a wet plate method that mean traveling with large, fragile planes of glass. The plates were prepared with chemicals and dried in the field.

The impact Jackson became a fish story among photographers. Some talk as if the expedition was only him and give him credit for the entirety of the US Parks system. Getting those photos was an impressive accomplishment and backed up the sketches and paintings made by others.

Later, Yellowstone National Park would become very associated with photographer Ansel Adams, whose photography become widely enjoyed and beloved art.

Access to Public Lands

Public land. One of Mr. Jackson's photographs documenting unique features of Yellowstone. photopigs.
One of Jackson’s photographs documenting unique features of Yellowstone. Image from Yellowstone’s Photo Collection. Public Domain.

The Columbia River Gorge near Portland, Oregon is an intensely loved place. It’s also a relatively easy place to get to. The Gorge has lots of trails, waterfalls, views, historic spots and wildflower meadows. Some of the waterfalls can be seen from the parking lot, you don’t even have to hike to have a picnic and a selfie in front of rushing water.

Easy accessibility leads to crowding, especially with many of the more adventurous trails being closed due to fire, and the strong feelings people have towards the area protects it. Locals fight to keep out factories, block sales of water rights and block companies who want to clear cut the whole thing. It is hard to imagine that people would fight Nestle for a full decade over land they didn’t feel passionate.

Few people will ever get out to the Gorge nearly as often as they would like. Photographs of endear it to people who have never been there. A lot of the enjoyment of natural areas is second hand.

Some lands are harder to access

Public land. Road of lava and wildflowers. photopigs.
I drove through this old lava flow with wildflowers growing on my recent trip to Newberry National Volcanic Monument. On my way back out of the area I saw deer munching on the flowers in the middle. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

I am just back from a more rugged trip to see public land. Newberry National Volcanic Monument isn’t secluded, Bend and Sun River are nearby. However, it certainly feels secluded even in summer. The road out to an area known as Lava Cast Forest was in terrible shape. It was so bumpy that driving faster than 15 miles per hour made it feel like driving on a rumble strip. I had to drive it at a crawl and even stopped twice to stretch and have a snack.

I will post the full story of that trip in an upcoming edition of Explore All of Oregon. The entire monument gets less than 10,000 visitors a month, and that is spread out over a lot of attractions. Most are far, far easier to access than Lava Cast Forest. It’s likely that over the next year more people will see my photographs of that particular trail than will actually make it out there.

If the place is ever threatened, then photos, writing and videos are an important resource for those wanting to protect it. If the time ever comes where that land is as threatened as areas like Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Southern Oregon, sharing experiences is crucial to rallying public support.

Look at every social media platform and you will see a demand for landscape shots. You’d think every possible landscape shot had been taken by now, but there is a steady stream of new material and new people looking at it. People having different and changing tastes in shots keeps landscape photography fresh as a genre. New and changing technologies also mean there are always news things to bring to landscapes. Drones, for example, open up new vistas that used to only be accessible by helicopter.

Photography requires diversity of voices

Black and white image of a fogged in lake
Not all of my photography is meant for a wide audience. I shot this specifically for people I know who like creepy or spooky images. I am always on the look out for views fellow fans of all things creepy will like. This picture lacks broad appeal, but it was a hit with creepy fans.

The diversity of people shooting is crucial. An atheist and a highly-religious person frame the sky differently and make different use of light. We need to look no further than the fact that we’ve moved from a photography trend of desaturated pictures to highly saturated pictures to see that what appeal to people can very wildly.

My landscapes don’t appeal to everyone and that is fine by me. Having my own voice is why I know that we need to have lots of voices out there. Some people react very positively to my style of photography. I include paths and benches, I ignore sweeping vistas in favor of small details and do other things that photographers criticize.

Boardwalk at Wildwood Recreation Site
Another photograph of mind that lacks broad appeal, but is intriguing to people I know. This is a boardwalk at Wildwood Recreation Site in Mt. Hood National Forest. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Using public land develops photography skills

Trees in front of a lake
Playing with shapes while parked on Route 58 in Oregon. This is one of dozens of photos that experiments with composition and mood. I was working on creating shots that are both authentic but also capture an aesthetic. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Public land, whether it’s a street or a lake, gives us endless material to practice on as photographers. It allows us to develop our own voices, something I see even seasoned photographers struggle with. We can play with composition and technique. Public land is an important resource for scientists, community building, public health and many more things. There is also that important synergy between the land the those who make images of it.

What do you think of the link between photography and our public lands? Does landscape and travel photography make you feel invested in keeping wild areas wild? Have you ever gone anywhere based on the pictures you enjoy online? What do you think about when looking at landscapes?

You can find more of Dawn Hewitt’s photos of exploring Oregon or wandering Portland at her website or see what she’s up to now on Instagram.

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