Landscape Photographers from 1850 to Modern Day: Yosemite National Park

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Before the 18th century most painters did not paint landscapes to be the main subject of their work. Landscapes were instead used as a background to their works main subject. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that styles of painting started to change to make landscapes more of a main subject, painters were starting to become even more fascinated by nature.

Early photographers and their work had not been considered to be artistic as they did not look like the art people were used to, they showed a level of realism not achievable by painting. American inventor Samuel F B Morse saw the daguerreotype after its first public demonstration in Paris in 1839, and he wrote,

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It was during the late 1800s that photography was starting to be used for artistic landscapes. Although the photographic technology had existed for many years beforehand, camera prototypes were only now becoming portable enough for use on trips. In this period people were starting to explore the world for themselves, this meant they were able to see sights previously they would have only been able to read or hear stories about, and so they began documenting their explorations. Early landscape images mostly resembled the style used in landscape paintings in terms of their composition and subject matter.

To understand the history of landscape photography it is important to look at certain photographers, the pioneers of landscape photography. Their images were created to render reality in its purest possible way, and seeing as photographers had hardly explored the world, there was plenty of landscapes to photograph, especially in the U.S. I believe that you can see how landscape photography has developed since the 1850s by looking at photographers working in America’s national parks.

America’s national parks are areas of natural beauty which are protected through conservation to allow them to be appreciated. These protected sites offer areas to be enjoyed like treasured wilderness areas which are home to a wide range of diverse flora and fauna. The first location to become a national park was Yosemite, in 1864 President Abraham Lincoln declared Yosemite as protected land and in 1890 it became America’s first national park. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act, creating the National Park Service.

Many people say that Carleton Watkins’s images from Yosemite were the reason that Yosemite is now a national park which serves as a place of “public use, resort and recreation.” However the strongest advocate for the formation of national parks was John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, the first large-scale environmental preservation organisation in the world. John Muir worked with Carleton Watkins and Charles Leander Weed to create images which he used in his published articles “The Treasures of the Yosemite’ and ‘Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park”. These pushed the U.S. Congress to pass a bill in 1890 to establish the Yosemite National Park.

Carleton Watkins is considered to be one of the first pioneers of landscape photography. His images are known as symbols of the American landscape and is best known for his photographs of Yosemite Valley. Watkins was born in 1829 in New York, United States, and became interested in photography whilst working in California between 1852 and 1854 as an “outdoor man’ or camera operator for established photographer Robert Vance, an early Daguerreotypist known for making daguerrotypes during the California gold rush.

In July 1862 Carleton Watkins took his specially made 18×22 inch wet-plate camera with a wide angle lens and travelled to Yosemite Valley to explore the soon to be National Park. He returned with 30 mammoth-plate glass plate negatives and dozens of stereoscopic negatives. Watkins displayed his mammoth-plate images across the U.S. as well as selling stereographs. 

It was these original images and some later images which established him as a master of landscape photography, portfolios of his work were sent to politicians who helped lobby for the preservation of America’s beauty spots.Watkins kept travelling to Yosemite to create images as well as establishing the vantage points tourists still use today to capture their own images – including Tunnel View, perhaps the most famous view of Yosemite.

The landmarks that Watkins’ photographed became icons. Landmarks such as Half Dome already existed, but Watkins’ brought these icons to people through photography so that they could be experienced. Travel to Yosemite was difficult due to the limitations of nineteenth century transport, for this reason it was his images that allowed the public to experience the area. Images of these icons became something that people wanted to see for themselves. These images helped Yosemite to become a national park more than just encouraging people to visit.

The Yosemite National Park was the leading factor for Ansel Adams getting into photography. Adams took his first photograph of Yosemite when he was 14 with a Kodak No.1 Brownie camera that his parents had given him, this would be the start for a lifetime of his photographing America’s landscapes. Not long after taking his first image of Yosemite he became involved with the Sierra Club, where he started as the custodian for the club’s headquarters and eventually leading tours and being involved in trips to the Yosemite High Country. Adams’ eventually was elected to the board of directors where he lobbied for additional areas to be set up as national parks.

At first he experimented with etching and soft focus, a technique used by early photographers to recreate the look of paintings which he abandoned to carry on with his signature style of clean and sharp focused landscapes. Adams’ invented the zone system, a method used to help accurately calculate exposure and development times. This system also required him to visualise the finished picture and to take the necessary steps to achieve the image.

Adams’ passion for producing clean and sharp images led him to co-found the Group f/64. The group was made up of photographers who refused to follow the creative license of the pictorial movement and instead worked on creating a more detailed, purist style of photography. f/64 is a reference to a setting used on a large format camera to create a large depth of field needed for a photo that will be sharp in all areas.

Even though there were 50 years of photography before Adams he is considered to be the spiritual father of American Landscape Photography. He is one of the most recognisable names in photography and his work is timeless. Stephen Shore started his photography career when he was 14 years old when Edward Steichen, the director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York acquired his work. He then went to work for Andy Warhol in 1965 where documented the scene and learned how artists worked.

By the time he was 24 he had his first solo photography exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and he had begun working in colour, at the time not many photographers were working in colour. Shore has been credited with leading the New Colour Photography movement in the United States. During the 1970s Shore travelled to Yosemite National Park to create a series of photographs which ranged from classic landscapes to snapshots of his daily life.

During the 1970s Roger Minick started photographing American sightseers visiting the Yosemite National Park. Minick was teaching an Ansel Adams workshop when he was inspired to document the phenomenon of the American tourist after noticing all his students and tourists would take the exact same images of the famous vistas and also get the traditional pictures of themselves and families to prove they were there. Which is a phenomenon we still see today with the current trend for “selfies” in well known places of the world.

The style of the American sightseers of the 80s and 90s stood out from rest the of the world, in Minicks images you can see Americans dressed in bright matching shirts, bum bags and head to toe denim, while casually posing in front of extraordinarily beautiful landmarks. His interest in the American tourists of the Yosemite National Park resulted in him touring the country for two decades documenting stereotypical tourists.

At first Minick worked in black and white, but would soon change to colour film which worked to emphasise the bright colours worn by visitors in contrast to the natural landscape. His pictures also included commonly seen events such as busses parked at Yosemite’s Inspiration Point. His work can now be seen as a time capsules of 1980s American tourism culture, but it also shows how the national parks of America are used and contained.

Jimmy Chin is a professional photographer, mountaineer, climber and skier who organises and documents climbing and exploratory expeditions around the world. Chin finished college and despite his parents disapproval he became a climbing dirtbag. During his early years as a dirtbag he stumbled upon photography as a fortunate accident.

Chin was preparing for an expedition to Pakistan by climbing in Yosemite National Park when he picked up his friends camera and took a photo of El Capitan. After this trip to Yosemite his friend submitted the photo to an outdoor clothing company where they bought his photo for $500, a fortune to a climbing dirtbag. It was this first image he sold that inspired Chin to buy his own camera and start a career as a professional photographer.

Since this first photographic sale Chin has become an Academy Award winning filmmaker, National Geographic photographer and professional outdoor athlete. His ability to work in extreme mountainous environments has meant he is able to computer dramatic photography of outdoor pursuits and the stories of climbers and skiers in high risk environments and expeditions. His photographs have been published in magazines such as National Geographic, Outside, and Men’s Journal, and Patagonia.

Over the past year Chin has focused on filming and photographing Alex Honnold, a U.S. rock climber best known for his free solo ascents of big walls, as he prepared to free solo the Freerider route on El Capitan, Yosemite’s 3,000 foot southwest face. This would mean climbing the entire without a rope. Honnold spent a year choreographing thousands of moves to get through the vertical obstacle course. Chin had to spend hundred of hours on Freerider, attached to ropes, working out a way to capture the entire ascent on camera.

The photography and film making from this expedition has brought new interest and tourism to the Yosemite National Park as well inspiring a new generation of climbers and mountaineers. Photographic technology has evolved a lot since the early daguerrotypes invented in the 1830s. The first cameras were simple wooden boxes which housed a plate covered in a photosensitive material.

Next came view cameras which showed you an inverted image on a ground glass screen where the film slide goes during an exposure. The image seen on the screen is the same image that you will get on the film. These allowed for more precision. These cameras are commonly known as large format cameras. Some landscape photographers still use large format cameras.

35mm film cameras were a huge development in the photography world. Photographer no longer had to haul around heavy plate cameras, the 35mm camera was smaller and lighter. This also made photography more accessible to the general public and still remains the most popular type of film camera.

Digital cameras are now the standard for photography, full frame DSLR cameras are the main tool for a landscape photographer, this is allowing photographers to capture images with even more details and perfection in images. Digital equipment has made photography easily accessible for everybody. Anybody can now capture their own landscapers with the use of a smartphone camera.

Landscape Photography is allowing everyone to make the outdoors their own. As well as photographs from a century ago, images being captured and posted to social media showcase how the outdoors is being used and enjoyed. From the first mammoth view photographs to digital images being taken and uploaded to social media, we can see how the history of landscape photography has evolved.

Without landscape photography, our understanding of the worlds beautiful landscapes would be limited to descriptive words and artists renderings. Landscape photography has grown to include a wide range of disciplines from the original artistic painting style of images, to the documentary style of photography covering the first ascents of big walls and even covering the snapshots taken by regular people who just want to prove they have explored the world.

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