Book Review: “Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks”

TREASURED LANDS
A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks
By Q T Luong (Forward by Dayton Duncan)
Illustrated. 456 pp. Cameron + Company

This new book by Q T Luong, a photographer featured in Ken Burns’s series, The National Parks, is a glorious birthday present to help us celebrate our park system’s centennial year. 

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Back in 2009, I (like many others) was completely swept away by Ken Burns’ magisterial series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. There were so many admirable parts of the series, but two things in particular have stayed with me.

First I was how it humanized the parks—it wasn’t just a 12-hour collection of gorgeous images, but a study in how we’ve thought about, and even fought about the parks. Along the way, it focused attention on the long and distinguished line of thinkers, writers, and photographers who have helped us understand these natural treasures and what they mean to us, such as John Muir, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, or Ansel Adams. The series brought us face to face with these luminaries, giving us a chance to get to know our National Parks through their works.

The other point that resonated with me was how skillfully the series told the story of ordinary (and not so ordinary) people who were completely transformed by their experiences in the parks. People like Stephen Mather, or even Teddy Roosevelt himself, wandered into these natural wonderlands at some critical point of their lives… and never really left.  In seeing these transformations, we were transformed ourselves.

Toward the end of the program we were introduced to a person who embodied both these ideas: photographer Q T Luong.  Mr. Luong was a relative newcomer, someone who was first drawn to the parks in the early 1990s; but once he experienced them, he too was hooked.  More than that, he was moved to capture the essence of the National Parks and share them with a larger audience… to transform how we saw them.  Inspired by the long tradition of American landscape photography, he decided to embark on an unprecedented, multi-year project to photograph all the national parks with a large-format camera.

Now, some years later, the project is complete… just in time for the National Parks’ 100th birthday.  Mr. Luong has gathered the collected photos into a new book, Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks, due to come out October 1.  And in a word, this book is spectacular.

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Mr. Luong is a fascinating figure, whose early life would not necessarily indicate he would become a passionate National Parks enthusiast. Born in Paris to Vietnamese parents, he originally trained as a scientist working in the field of artificial intellegence, going so far as to earn a PhD from the University of Paris.  But per his biography, his life was transformed by a hiking trip to the mountains.  Ever since, he has been inspired to communicate his experiences in the wild with a larger public.

As chronicled in the Burns series, in the 1990s Mr. Luong formulated his plan to photograph each and every national park using a 5×7 large format camera… rightly described as “a single-handed, self-financed, monumental project.”

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This project was still very much in progress at the time of the series, but the images he had already managed to capture were absolutely breathtaking.   I vividly remember these images—and the fascinating background of the photographer who captured them—and I’m thrilled to finally able to see the final finished project. (Sample photos are available at his website, here.)

I’ve been fortunate enough to see an advance review copy and my short review is:  stop reading my review and order this book right this very minute from links at the bottom of the page.  Don’t worry… I’ll wait.

Back? Okay. So now let me tease out what makes this book so special.

First, one of its strengths is that Mr. Luong is seeing the parks with relatively fresh eyes.  For one, given his childhood abroad, I suspect he’s largely avoided having all the iconic shots we grew up with drilled into his mind.  Also, although he’s been at this project for some time now, the photos still sparkle with the fire of a new convert—every image leaps off the page with a sense of joyful discovery and a new-found sense of wonder, excitement and surprise.  There is no sense that this is just an updated rehash of Ansel Adams. Instead, we’re treated to all the freshness of an unexpected journey.

But also, the pictures are so wonderfully specific.  This isn’t a collection of standard shots for postcard #12, but a collection of highly personal photographic statements. Maybe it’s Mr. Luong’s training as a scientist, but he is extraordinarily exacting in his images. Each manages to convey a sense of a particular moment of a particular place at a particular time… nothing is random, and each one reflects a clear point of view. Maybe it’s a paradox, but this sense of specificity ends up making the pictures become more universal.

But this isn’t to say the pictures are clinical or forced… on the contrary, they teem with life and convey such a sense of whimsy.  The photos of the great trees in Sequoia National Park look for all the word like a great pair of legs with giant wooden toes, as if paparazzi had snapped candid pics of Tolkien’s Ents walking around.  Or the petroglyphs of Canyonlands that are framed in such a way that they almost convey the feeling of a cocktail party.

And it’s not just that the images play, but that they play together on the page.  I love how the Bryce Canon photos pair epic shots of the park’s famous hoodoos rising like needles from the ground, along with another of fresh icicles reaching down from a canyon wall.  Or how the previously mentioned petroglyphs are paired with landscapes of similarly-shaped rock formations, so that they feel even more grounded in the natural environment.

Other personal favorites are the tumbled boulders in Pinnacles that immediately bring to mind the harrowing James Franco movie, 127 Hours. Another is one from Great Sand Dunes in Colorado that looks like a frothy wave crashing on the shore.  Or the rock formation in Wind Cave that appears to be a spider’s web flash-petrified into stone. So many to choose from—and in several cases they’ve made me reorder my priorities of which National Park to visit next.

So again, this book is absolutely wonderful… not just meeting my expectations, but blowing right through them.  How wonderful that the pictures, while technically brilliant, are so emotionally compelling, too!  Bravo all around.

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TREASURED LANDS
A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks
By Q T Luong (Forward by Dayton Duncan)
Illustrated. 456 pp. Cameron + Company.

The book is available from the publisher here, as well as at retailers including Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

.

Xochipilli

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