Book Review: Landscapes for the People, George Alexander Grant, First Chief Photographer of the National Park Service, Ren and Helen Davis, pp 254

Landscapes for the People, by Ren and Helen DavisWhile doing research for their 2011 guidebook to the Civilian Conservation Corps’ work in the nation’s parks, Our Mark on This Land, Ren and Helen Davis searched through thousands of historic photographs at the National Park Service’s photography archive in Charles Town, West Virginia. The collection included striking images of the parks during the 1930s. The photographs were simply credited “National Park Service,” leaving the Davises to wonder who had taken them.

The answer led them to more years of research, and ultimately to write the award-winning biography of George Alexander Grant, the first chief photographer for the National Park Service.

George Grant’s 25-year career as the Park Service’s official photographer resulted in more than 30,000 photographs of national parks. Like his much-heralded contemporaries Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Eliot Porter, Grant wielded medium- and large-format field cameras and weighty tripods through rugged country. Grant often processed his images in the back of a panel truck, dubbed “the hearse,” that served as his darkroom and home away from home while on assignment.

Grant’s job took him to more than a hundred national parks, monuments, historic sites, and battlefields. His dedication, stamina, and exacting standards produced images capable of persuading Congress to fund, and the public to support, the expanding National Park Service.

It’s ironic that the worst of times, the Great Depression, would come to be known as the golden age of parks. State and national parks were vastly expanded during the New Deal, developed largely with manpower provided by the CCC. Many of Grant’s photographs document life in the CCC camps and the men who built the roads, bridges, museums, and facilities that transformed the parks from playgrounds for the rich to places welcoming to all Americans.

Grant’s photographs continued to promote the parks into the early 1940s, portraying Americans camping, picnicking, and hiking amidst natural splendor. After World War II, Grant’s work extended to photographing the construction of dams on the upper Missouri River, including documenting archaeological sites soon to be under water.

Landscapes for the People, with more than 170 exquisitely reproduced photographs, is an invaluable record of the shaping of the national parks and the modernizing of a nation. As important, thanks the Davises, a forgotten elder of American landscape photography is finally getting his due.

George Grant, Photographer of National Parks

Haircut at CCC Camp, Glacier National Park, 1933

Lake McDonald barber
Haircut at CCC Camp, Glacier National Park, 1933
Photo Credit: George A. Grant

More than eighty years after President Franklin Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), it remains one of the most memorable of the New Deal programs. Endearingly called FDR’s “Tree Army,” the CCC was key to an unprecedented era of environmental restoration and parks development that took place in the 1930s. Photographs of CCC “boys” at work and enjoying camp life played an important role in promoting both the parks and the CCC’s achievements.

The task of documenting the CCC, especially in western national parks, belonged to George Alexander Grant. A Pennsylvania native, Grant fell in love with the West’s rugged landscapes while stationed in Wyoming during World War I. Laboring in eastern factories after the war, Grant yearned to return to the West. He landed a seasonal job at Yellowstone in 1922. There he picked up a camera—perhaps for the first time—and produced images that impressed the park’s Superintendent Horace Albright. Grant reluctantly turned down a coveted ranger position at Yellowstone in hopes of working for the Park Service as a photographer. Six years of correspondence with Albright–and Albright’s appointment to Director of the National Park Service in 1929– led to Grant’s becoming the Park Service’s first staff photographer. Just months later, the nation was plunged into the Great Depression.

Death Valley, CCC Camp

Funeral Range
Death Valley, CCC Camp
Photo Credit: George A. Grant

By 1933 Grant was the chief photographer of the National Park Service and on the front lines of a golden age for national parks.  That year marked the creation of the CCC and FDR’s executive order nearly doubling the size of the parks system through the addition of national monuments, battlefields, and historic sites. Grant would spend the next seven years chronicling the CCC’s work in national parks. His finely detailed images depict men laboring on the shores of Jackson Lake in the Grand Tetons; pausing for lunch amid the grandeur of Glacier National Park; restoring historic fortifications at Vicksburg National Military Park; clearing snow from roadways in Rocky Mountain National Park; and tackling camp chores like laundry and getting a haircut.

CCC Clearing Snow in Rocky Mountain National Park, 1933

CCC Clearing Snow
Rocky Mountain National Park, 1933
Photo Credit: George A. Grant

Like the photographs of his friend and contemporary, Ansel Adams, Grant’s vivid black-and-white photographs were seen by millions of Americans. Through these images, Americans could see the results of the CCC’s labors and the physical and emotional sustenance the work provided its enrollees.  Yet, Grant has remained virtually unknown because nearly all of his published photographs were simply credited “National Park Service.”

The Park Service’s 2016 centennial year is an ideal time to remember the contributions of this unknown elder in the field of outdoor and landscape photography.

CCC Crew lunchtime at Glacier National Park

CCC Crew
Lunchtime at Glacier National Park
Photo Credit: George Alexander Grant

Ren and Helen Davis are writers and photographers based in Atlanta, Georgia. Their newest book, Landscapes for the People: George Alexander Grant, First Chief Photographer of the National Park Service (University of Georgia Press, 2015, $39.95) complements the National Park Service Centennial commemorations. The Davises have co- authored six books, including Our Mark on This Land: A Guide to the Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps in America’s Parks, published in 2011.

Our Mark on This Land: A Guide to the Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps in America’s Parks

Our Mark on this LandFor anyone seeking out the finest examples of the New Deal, no road trip is complete without a copy of Our Mark on This Land. In the manner of the Federal Writers’ Project guides to the states, Helen and Ren Davis have compiled a superb illustrated guide to the extraordinary contributions made by the Civilian Conservation Corps to our national parks and forests and our state parks. Those public lands were vastly expanded during the Great Depression largely because of the labor provided by three million CCC “boys” as well as President Roosevelt’s lifelong commitment to conservation.

The book opens with a 55-page introduction to the CCC that is one of the finest summations of its origins, organization, philosophy, and accomplishments I’ve read. It introduces some of the key players including the designers of the “National Park-rustic”-style buildings featured in the book’s illustrations as well as the landscape architects who strove for an artful artlessness in the way roads, campgrounds, and lookouts were constructed.

The second section is a state-by-state guide to select parks, including maps, brief histories, and CCC-built features. “Destination parks” are provided for those seeking out the all-stars. The final section is an appendix of supporting information and an extensive bibliography about the CCC.

The book is generously illustrated with photos of parks and structures, many taken by the Davises. If the sixteen color plates whet your appetite for more of the same, I’d also recommend Cynthia Brandimarte and Angela Reed’s excellent Texas State Parks and the CCC: The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Our Mark on This Land is a work of love as well as scholarship. It will make you want to hit the road to seek out what the Davises found in their own travels. Don’t leave home without it.

Reviewed by: Gray Brechin, Ph.D. is Project Scholar for the Living New Deal.