How Photography Shaped America’s National Parks

Have you ever gotten a postcard from a national park? Chances are the picture that comes to mind—maybe the powerful eruption of Old Faithful spouting up in Yellowstone or the rocky depths of the Grand Canyon—is the same shot that people across the world have seen.

There’s a reason for that. The idea of America’s national parks that’s ingrained in the collective consciousness has been shaped through more than 150 years of photographing them. You might be surprised by just how important a role photography played in constructing what America thinks of as national parks today.

While national parks were created to preserve the country’s natural heritage and allow any person to experience their beauty, few were able to see them in person until the mid 20th century, when improved roads and more accessible travel allowed tourists to experience the images in person. Early stereographs and photography helped justify the original national parks, but they also shaped how they were viewed by the public.

By the 1930s, thanks the invention of the modern car and the construction of paved roads within the parks, people began to make road trips to the parks en masse. Drawn in by the circulating images of the early photography and art that had already captivated their imaginations, people arrived in droves.

Advances in photographic technology made the parks seem even more accessible. The National Park Service used the advent of color postcards to highlight park amenities—not to mention the newly paved roads that wound their way through the established photo spots—as a way to encourage more tourism to help pay for conservation efforts.

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1 Comment

  1. Tim Truemper

    Went to recent Ansel Adams photography exhibit with some of his most iconic Yosemite and Yellowstone originals on display. Magnificent renderings of light and shadow along with the incredible depth of field and clarity. Certainly can see how his work influenced continuing conservation and reverence for our parks.

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