At once a seemingly untouched virgin land and a territory of limitless opportunity for development, the American landscape has always fueled the imagination of artists. As rapid industrialization began to threaten some of America’s most striking natural features, President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir led the urgent call to protect the land on a national scale. Photography was not only an aid to the cause of conservation but also a way to popularize the newly formed tourist sites, aligning nature with American values.
Early photographers inherited the aesthetic of the great naturalistic painters. The enormous mural in the US Capitol Building, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1861) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze is an allegory of Manifest Destiny. That term was coined by journalist John L. O’Sullivan who in 1845 wrote that American expansionism was “the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole continent which Providence has given us for the great experiment of liberty.” The foreground of Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way is dominated by jostling people, horses, and covered wagons, but in the background we see the sublime western landscape lit by the setting sun.
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1861), US Capitol Building
Paintings by artists associated with the The Hudson River School and its outshoot the Rocky Mountain School further emphasize the sublime aspects of the American western landscape.
Thomas Moran, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872), Smithsonian American Art Museum
In art, the term sublime is an aesthetic description referring to something that is at once beautiful and terrifying, yet pleasurable in its terror. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described sublimity as a scale with light reflecting off of a flower (pleasure from looking at an object that can’t hurt the observer) at the low end of the scale. The middle to end of the scale is relevant here. Sublime (right in the center of Schopenhauer’s scale) refers to turbulent nature, or pleasure from observing objects that threaten to hurt or destroy the observer.
Once I went on an Alaskan cruise and we experienced a terrible storm while at sea. No passengers were allowed on deck because of the force of winds, and we could feel the huge ship dropping into the troughs of the waves. I suppose it’s possible we could have been hurt or destroyed with a wrong step, but we weren’t and instead took pleasure (and a little seasickness) from the experience. Next on the scale is the full feeling of sublime, or overpowering turbulent nature—pleasure from observing very violent, destructive objects. Maybe this category would include climbing Mt. Everest, or being near an active volcano. The peak sublime level described by Schopenhauer is the fullest feeling of sublime or feeling the immensity of the universe’s extent and knowledge of the observer’s nothingness. Or, staring at the starry night sky until you have an existential crisis.
Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (1868), Smithsonian American Art Museum
In the paintings of the Rocky Mountain School, the landscape is beautiful yet dangerous. Half-tamed yet still deadly. The land is passive to the plight of humans. It existed long before them and will continue to exist after any individual who looks upon the landscape dies. The American landscape painters, and later photographers, also spring from the Romantic tradition of painting, where the scenes are idealized. The landscape is mythical. Contemplation of the landscape is equivalent to a religious act, and therefore the landscapes become allegorical as well, standing in for a set of uniquely American beliefs about American exceptionalism and divine favor. This Romantic tradition was not limited to artists and philosophers. Eventually wealthy tourists also sought sublimity and restoration by contemplating nature, further linking nature and worship.
Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley from the Best General View (1866)
The landscapes that eventually became national parks provided photographers with unlimited raw material for their work. Carleton Watkins was one of the most important and earliest photographers of the American West. Among the many Easterners who headed west after the Gold Rush, by 1858 he set up his own photography studio in San Francisco. He first visited the Yosemite Valley in 1861, and the photographs of it remain his most important. They helped to establish the protection of the region, with President Lincoln signing a bill into law in 1864. In keeping with the accessible, popular nature of photography, Watkins made prints with different cameras, from stereo cards to mammoth plate images such as this. It was made prior to the existence of enlargements, thus the negative for this image was as large as the print itself. Watkins custom built a camera to hold 18” x 22” glass-plate negatives. In order to create these mammoth plates, the photographer would have had to carry approximately 2,000 pounds of equipment—including mammoth glass plates, flammable chemicals, and a makeshift darkroom—to these summits which did not yet have hiking trails and hand rails.
William Henry Jackson, Mammoth Hot Springs, Pulpit Terraces (1883)
Topographical surveys, those that named the mountains and rivers of the west, with photographers accompanying them led to more sublime views and more landscapes deemed worthy of protection. The survey photographers offered proof to people who had not seen the landscape first hand that sites thought to be myths actually existed. Like Watkins, William Henry Jackson was one of the American West’s first photographers. In 1868, he opened a studio in Omaha and traveled with his darkroom wagon making views of the landscape and Native American villages. He participated in eight geological surveys from 1870 to 1877, and was the first photographer to capture the wonders of Yellowstone, an important factor in convincing Congress to establish Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872. These views were so overwhelming, explorers who named western landmarks often spoke in religious metaphors.
Although there would be no denying that these sites were beautiful and sublime, photographs did not assure protection. Thomas Jefferson believed natural resources should be put to productive use, specifically the clearing and cultivation of the wilderness, as the foundation of democracy and national prosperity. This belief is equally rooted in American values as the landscape itself and creates a conflict between those who believe as Jefferson did, and those who feel like Teddy Roosevelt, that some land, especially that which is most beautiful and sublime, should be protected from development. In the Yellowstone Park Bill of 1871, the nation was assured that setting this land aside would have no detrimental effect on the use of the frontier for progress of the nation. Yellowstone was “not susceptible of cultivation” and its “winters would be too severe for stock raising.” Its altitude was argued to be “problematic for settlement,” and it was “[im]probable that any mines or minerals [would] ever be found there.” Setting this land aside for a national public park was only possible because the argument was made that it was unsuitable for other uses perceived to be more in line with Manifest Destiny and industrial needs.
Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Ancient ruins in the Cañon de Chelle, N.M. In a niche 50 feet above present cañon bed (1883)
In the nineteenth century, the American elite began to feel the differences from their counterparts in Europe in the lack of uniquely American cultural identity. Europe, of course, had centuries-old architecture and rich cultural traditions. American elites experienced this lack acutely, however the younger nation had its natural treasures to compensate. Rome has its ruins, and America does too. The native ruins of the Western US more than made up for the lack of ancient Greek or Roman structures.
Attributed to Carleton Watkins, Cathedral Rock and Spires (1872)
The great cathedrals of Europe were not as old as some of the “cathedrals” of the west.The landscapes of the west were often described in architectural terms such as the pulpit terraces above, and the spires of Cathedral rocks, but also Gothic columns, noble castles, fortresses, pillars, minarets, turrets, obelisks, organs, conflating natural formations with venerable architectural constructs.
The views of the parks that we experience in life are constructed, just as a painted or photographic image would be. Park visitors receive the privileged view that comes with elevation so they can look out from on high and take in as much of the landscape as possible. Or if not, the views are often the opposite where visitors must look up to feel the sublime power of the landscape around them. Foliage and trees are managed in such a way as to never obscure that “best general view.” “Gallery” windows are cut from rock tunnels permitting visitors teaser views from their car, hinting at the beauty and majesty that they will be able to see when they come all the way through the tunnel and pull off in the permitted spot.
Early photographs of the lands that would become national parks essentially defined the views that we still see when we visit today. By choosing the points of view they did, these photographers essentially “pointed” at parts of the landscape prioritizing their importance and beauty. The points of view of the photographers are still set aside as the “best general view” of any given location. Roads, parking lots, turnouts, and hiking trails point us ever toward the best spot to capture our photograph that is essentially identical to Watkins’, Jackson’s, or O’Sullivan’s.
America’s National Parks are now such a part of its national identity that many of us take it for granted that they will remain as they are now—protected from exploitation and development. However, there are still many powerful people who, like Thomas Jefferson, believe the land should be exploited for its natural resources, regardless of how dear it has become to the national imagination. National Parks as they exist today have far more in common with museums than with undeveloped nature. They preserve designated land which is tied to American national cultural heritage and ideals that permeate American ideology. They actively create meaning by framing how visitors interpret the landscape they see before them. Our national parks also exist as a testament to the idea that public lands have inherent value, that everyone should have access to the most beautiful areas of the country as opposed to allowing them to be made private and access restricted, and that looking upon a sublime natural landscape is uplifting, restorative, and patriotic.
Parts of this essay were originally written for the exhibition Pleasure Grounds & Restoring Spaces which I curated for the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, FL in 2013.