History | November 24, 2020 6:00 am

How Nature Photographers Helped Create America’s National Parks

Evocative photos made the case for preservation

Mt Broderick And Nevada Fall Fall = 700 Ft
Mt. Broderick and Nevada Fall. 1861, Yosemite. Artist Carleton E. Watkins.
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

The creation of America’s system of national parks is often ascribed to outdoors enthusiasts and conservationists working to raise awareness of dome of the nation’s most scenic places. But what if there was another factor that also played a role in the effort behind the preservation of certain parks around the country?

That’s the argument Winnie Lee makes in a very convincing article at Atlas Obscura. We live in a moment in time where crossing the country to take in a place like Yellowstone or Crater Lake is relatively easy for many people based on the East Coast to do. In the 19th century, that wasn’t the case — and photographs played a key role in communicating the importance of many of these sites.

Lee cites the work of Carleton E. Watkins, who photographed Yosemite in 1861. “It was believed that the images of Yosemite influenced President Lincoln to sign the Yosemite Valley Grant Act in 1864,” Lee writes, citing an early law that helped to codify the country’s national parks.

Due to the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, much of Watkins’s work was destroyed — but Getty Images maintains an impressive archive of some of it.

Bob Ahern, the Director of Archive Photography at Getty Images, addressed the important historical role of the work done by Watkins and others. “Photography has the power to inspire change in terms of how we treat our environment and for this reason, has never been more critical,” he told Atlas Obscura.

Watkins was far from the only groundbreaking landscape photographer to document what would be the cornerstones of the National Park System. Lee’s article offers a great overview of their work — and makes a concise case for why it matters even more today.