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The National Parks, Our American Landscape

Published : 2009-08-18

Is it possible to have too many large-format coffee table books on national parks? I don't think so. In The National Parks, Our American Landscape, photographer Ian Shive approaches the parks brimming with wonder, and comes away with rare moments in time from the parks.

Here's a rush of snowmelt departing Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, and there's a flush of tide at Otter Cliffs in Acadia National Park. While many view Balanced Rock in Arches National Park during the day, Mr. Shive captures it against a starry backdrop, as he does with a giant sequoia in, where else, Sequoia National Park.

Through 200 pages the photographer takes us through the national parks on a journey that, while not entirely inclusive of the 391 units, is one that captures both many of the traditional, and many of the non-traditional, images that are there if you look hard enough. One of the more unusual shots is of a scorpion at Big Bend National Park that glows green under a UV black light used by researchers to locate these arthropods. One of the more peaceful shots is that of the snow-shrouded Yosemite Chapel in Yosemite National Park.

Mr. Shive compiled this collection during the past four years, with 80 percent shot while on assignment for National Parks, the magazine of the National Parks Conservation Association.

"The balance of the images in the book were shot specifically with the book in mind or on backpacking trips I took with friends," he says. "What's unique about most of the images shot on assignment is they are a look at the parks that many people never get to see; views from the 14,200-foot base camp of Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park or silhouettes of fish 60 feet below the surface of the ocean in the Channel Islands.

Somewhat curiously, the book is lacking in images from cultural or historic parks, such as Mesa Verde National Park or Fort Laramie National Historic Site.

"There actually is one historic place, which is given four pages in the book - Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The inclusion of that was sort of an homage to my start in the parks as it was shot as a personal project that went on to get published and win an award, sort of establishing me as a parks photographer," explains Mr. Shive. "Steamtown was a place that really moved me when I was there and had a real emotional connection to. It was like exploring the Titanic but instead of a boat, I was exploring the old rail cars from the cusp of the industrial revolution.

"Other historic sites aren't included because the book - as the title implies - is about the American landscape. The parks are so diverse and so varied that I could easily have done a book 500 pages long, but that isn't practical from a publishing perspective. Besides, I wanted to stay focused on the environmental aspects and especially with Ken Burns' project coming up this book works as an inadvertent companion to what he is doing, which is more focusing on the history and people behind the parks. That being said my next book on the parks which will be tied to the centennial of the park service in 2016 will be a more comprehensive look at all parks, historic sites and experiences that they offer."

With that out of the way, here are some quick Q&As with Mr. Shive:

Do you have a particularly favorite park for shooting, and if so, why?

"It's cyclical for me depending on the season. Lately I've had a real affinity for Channel Islands National Park just off the coast of Southern California. It's a photographers dreamscape - you can shoot stunning coastal cliff views hundreds of feet above the Pacific Ocean at sunrise and by noon, have a wetsuit on and shooting underwater in the marine sanctuary. It's a photographers dream because there is no "high noon downtime" provided you have a housing and enjoy shooting underwater. I also love the biodiversity of the islands and the unique species there that can be found nowhere else on earth."

What in your opinion is the best park for landscape photographs?

"Glacier National Park. Stunning views 360 degrees. It's hard to go wrong there. It is truly a special place and I encourage anyone with a camera to get off the road and get into the backcountry to really see what it has to offer."

Best park for wildlife?

"If megafauna are your thing, then Yellowstone National Park is of course the classic spot for test firing that new 600mm lens. Even on a one-day trip you are guaranteed to see something. In the last few years, I've never left the park without seeing a grizzly or wolf after just three days there. If you are looking for something different and unexpected, I really enjoyed the smaller creatures and challenges of Big Bend National Park in Texas. It's not the first place you think of for wildlife, but the scorpions, tarantulas, badgers, black bear and mountain lion (I actually saw my one and only in the wild there) are there and against a unique landscape which could garner some dramatic imagery."

Why isn't Great Smoky Mountains National Park captured in your book?

"Great Smoky is a park I wish I could have included but never had the opportunity to photograph, and once the book started to come together - it came together very, very fast. I could have photographed it specifically for the book - but the season was off and I didn't want to do it to just do it - I want to do it right and spend quality time there and hit it during a couple different seasons. There are definitely a number of places I wish I could have included in the book, but I think I cover more places in this volume that have never been included in any national parks photography book ever to precede it, and that helps me sleep a little better at night despite the lack of inclusion of a few places. With over 390 units in the parks, it's a subject matter that I could easily spend a lifetime documenting and still never get it all - which is part of the beauty and fun of being a national parks photographer."

Editor's note: The National Parks, Our American Landscape is available nationwide at any book store including Borders, Barnes & Noble and local retailers, or it can be purchased online through Amazon or anywhere else. It retails for $39.99 but you can get it 30% off if purchased via the web.


You can never have to many coffee table books with pictures of National Parks. My favorite park to take photos in, is always Yellowstone. I was in the park in 1988 during the fires. Wish I took more pics but was able to get some spectacular shots of fire plumes from the top of Washburn. I also got great photos of wild life in many different trips of Trumpeter Swans and their babies on the river in front of Mt. Haines. I did get great shots of Grizzlies after I went digital off the road near Washburn in 2003. We also experienced the changes in coyote from the wolf introduction. We had a coyote beg at our vehicle for food (we knew better than to support their habit). This made for a very interesting close up shots that rival the best. I use many of my National Park photos for my screen saver that can bring up great personal memories and make me long for new ones. As for landscape pics, the variety in Yellowstone is wide (Bechler corner water falls were awesome). But I also enjoy any National Park in Utah. Bryce and Zion (the narrows hike) the best.
I will check out the book but I suggest your own Photo album can always get your mind to remember your love of the Parks best.

The image you chose of this book reminded me of Ansel Adams. Never too many books on the parks. But how about more photos on the website?? Just a thought...

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