Do you know which national park was the first established in the United States of America? In 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park, which sparked a movement to protect areas of land for the enjoyment of the people. This movement began with the influence and hard work of several famous politicians, writers, and most surprisingly, photographers. Photographers, to this day, continue to bring awareness to national parks through their craft and social media, and may be the answer to preserving parks through the years to come.
Theodore Roosevelt has received a lot of credit for being the first President to advocate for preserving lands, but it really all started with former President Abraham Lincoln. A few years before former President Ulysses S Grant signed in Yellowstone as the first National Park, Lincoln had put Yosemite under the protection of the state of California during the Civil War in 1864. Lincoln and Grant merely ignited the spark for the movement to protect treasures in nature.
Five new additional parks were created from 1901 - 1909, under Roosevelt. His administration also created eighteen national monuments and over one hundred million acres of national forest. All of this protected land was created with no organization to oversee and manage them, that is until 1916. Stephen Mather, an industrialist, gathered support from schools, newspapers, and other media outlets to gather support for a National Park Service in 1915. A year later, his wish came true as former President Woodrow Wilson signed in the service and he became its first director.
Creatives have always been at the forefront of the movement for preserved lands. Wallace Stegner, a writer, led a group of visionaries in the mid-1800s who believed that the greatest national treasures should belong to everyone, forever. He called it the “best idea we ever had”. Nature journalist John Muir would publish articles in 1890 that described the Sierra Nevadas in such enthusiasm that he became a driving force for the National Park movement. Muir is affectionately known as the Father of National Parks for his efforts in bringing an awareness to these American natural wonders.
Now the question is, who actually convinced Lincoln to protect Yosemite in 1864? The answer is a photographer named Carleton Watkins. Watkins ended up making the voyage to California from the east coast in 1849 for the promise of gold. He never struck it rich, instead becoming a photographer for the mines. Watkins went on nature trips in his free time. Watkins’ camera equipment was definitely a lot more to deal with than today’s DSLRs. He trekked into Yosemite in 1861 with his equipment, weighing a ton, being carried by mules. Watkins’ images of the Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan and more created fame for these sights, catching the attention of Lincoln.
It was Watkins who created change in the United States by doing what he loved best: taking photographs. Since his time, many other famous nature photographers have followed in his footsteps including Ansel Adams, William Henry Jackson, David Muench, and Art Wolfe. The National Park Service, realizing the importance of photography in convincing people to visit the parks and contribute to conservation efforts, utilized color photography on postcards to highlight certain areas of the park along the newly paved roads which appeared in the 1930s. The imagery did the trick. People arrived to the parks in masses, paying to get in to see in person what they had witnessed on a postcard, and the parks saw a great increase in funding.
Photographers of the digital age still enjoy traveling to these parks and nature reserves to capture the beautiful landscapes and monuments. If one were to search images of Yosemite National Park, it would be discovered that over 60,000 images are on Trip Advisor, and do not even try to find the last image on Google Image Search, else you will be scrolling for a very long time. You cannot even calculate how many photographs are circulating around social media of just Yosemite National Park, never mind the rest of the Parks. On Flickr, a photo sharing social media group, there are over one million photographs using the search term “Yosemite” and there are a plethora more when you search other related terms such as “El Capitan”.
Photography has survived as a craft since its initial process in 1717. It became popularized in 1839 when the first permanent image was created. Photography was simplified fifty years later with the invention of the Kodak camera in 1888, making a camera a household item. The digital age has brought photography to everyone’s fingertips with cameras inside phones, computers, and the DSLRs. Since landscapes are always changing and every photographer is unique, new photographs of national parks are being released every day, meaning that the photographers work is never quite complete.