The United States National Park Service was established in 1916 and tasked with overseeing the country’s national parks and monuments. With the institution of the New Deal, the NPS benefited greatly from emergency funds made available by the government to generate jobs; officials saw, in its sprawling network of protected lands, a way to create work throughout the country. Relief workers were tasked with everything from combating beach erosion in North Carolina, to building visitor centers and new campsites in national and state parks across the country.
By 1940, the NPS had received $218 million in emergency funds, nearly doubling the agency’s annual budget for each of the previous seven years. Much of this funding came from the Works Progress Administration and was applied to infrastructure projects. But the WPA’s Federal Project Number One, which employed artists, also put its ranks to work: artists built educational displays for the national parks system, created visual art, and sought inspiration from the country’s natural beauty to promote travel to public spaces.
Perhaps the best-known of the artworks produced for the NPS during this time were very nearly lost. From the Western Museum Laboratories—a base in Berkeley, California, run by the NPS and funded by the WPA—artists created striking silk-screened posters promoting the national parks, which park staffers then hung up in parks buildings or gave away to visitors. The simple, colorful graphics of the posters depict bold scenes of natural wonders: the billowing plumes of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser rocket into a robin’s-egg-blue sky; tiny, green trees dot the surface of an imposing rock face in Utah’s Zion National Park; and Florida’s Fort Marion National Monument (now called Castillo de San Marcos) is reflected in the moat that protects it. Not thought of as works of art, most of the posters were lost over the years. Many of them were probably just thrown out.
But in 1972, Doug Leen, then a seasonal ranger at Grand Teton National Park, was cleaning out a barn on the park grounds and unearthed one of the long-forgotten National Park Service posters depicting snow-capped mountain peaks rising over the park’s Jenny Lake. The design struck him, and he saved it from a burn pile.
The poster was an original silk-screen print produced by the Western Museum Laboratories. Created as part of the NPS’s concerted efforts to install credible museums and educational displays within public spaces, the Western Museum Laboratories were largely staffed by a WPA workforce between 1935 and 1940. Artists tackled a litany of projects: they painted historical scenes, drew maps and bookplates, made trail signs, colored slides by hand, and crafted miniature figures of Native Americans in traditional dress. Ray Stanford Strong, a respected Western landscape painter, was assigned to paint large dioramas for the White Sands National Monument, in New Mexico, and for the Loomis Museum, in California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Finding the poster inspired Leen to research its origins. Eventually, he set in motion an effort to unearth copies of all the posters that could be found—and 12 of the 14 original designs were recovered. About 40 copies survive in all. Some are held by private individuals, some by the Library of Congress, and some by national parks themselves. Leen turned his discovery into a business and now sells replicas of the posters online. He has even collaborated with parks to create new posters in the style of the WPA originals. In 2015, the US Department of the Interior mounted an exhibition of the posters. Once forgotten and relegated to the trash, the posters have since become iconic.
On July 3, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a crowd that had gathered for the dedication of Shenandoah National Park, the infrastructure of which had been provided by relief workers beginning the previous year.
“All across the nation—and it is 3,000 miles—at this time of the year, and in many parts of the nation at all times of the year, people are starting out for their vacations in national and state parks,” said the president. “Those people will put up at roadside camps or pitch their tents under the stars, with an open fire to cook by, with the smell of the woods, and the wind in the trees. They will forget the rush and the strain of all the other long weeks of the year, and, for a short time at least, the days will be good for their bodies and good for their souls. Once more they will lay hold of the perspective that comes to men and women who every morning and every night can lift up their eyes to Mother Nature.”
A few months ago, I hiked into and camped with a friend at the Cedar Mesa area of Bears Ears National Monument, a 70-mile-long plateau in southeastern Utah that’s home to one of the largest collections of pre-Columbian ruins in the country. Archaeologists predict there may be thousands of historic, still-undiscovered archaeological sites and relics within the surrounding 1.35 million acres; Barack Obama, in the waning days of his presidency, aimed to protect the area, designating 2 million acres surrounding the Bears Ears buttes as a national monument. This was part of Obama’s effort to protect public lands and waters from development and nail down his environmental legacy before Donald Trump would take office a month later.
My friend and I followed a remote and rugged trail that, though unmarked, has been traversed by locals and guides for generations. The hike was not too difficult, aside from the 20 pounds of large-format camera equipment I was carrying. We walked up and down red hills of ancient dirt, accompanied by the sweet smell of sagebrush. We dipped into canyons, following a stream overflowing with much-needed rain from the days before. The air was crisp and cool, and lizards darted from rock to rock underfoot. We had waited a day for the rains to clear before setting out. Locals say you should wait 24 hours after the most recent summer monsoon before entering dusty roads or washes; water makes the earth into a soupy mud, rendering the roads impassable and heightening the risk of flash floods.
The clouds on this particular day were unlike any I had ever seen: the clearing precipitation created bouncy, cotton-like formations that floated just above the dramatic landscape and contrasted with the turquoise sky. In lower Utah, I have noticed that cloud formations actually reflect the red earth below, giving them a subtle, coral-pink underside. The sky competed for my attention with the intense green patchwork of desert flora, dominated by the mint-colored leaves of cottonwood trees. Springtime in Bears Ears feels like a really good dream—but, as with the sadness that comes when you wake up, there’s this looming melancholy in knowing that the fate of this paradise hangs in the balance.
I stopped at every turn, deciding what to photograph. I looked up at the clouds again, and down the northern horizon of the 80-mile-long Comb Ridge. We peered through binoculars to see the Moki steps—ancient hand and toe holes punched into the red rock, ascending the vast vertical sandstone of Comb Ridge, and leading toward the not-yet-visible cliff dwellings created by the Anasazi Navajo, who occupied this region starting in the 12th century BCE. They vanished about 700 years ago, leaving behind clues about their lives in the form of ruined villages, kivas (or chambers), and cliff dwellings, pottery and tools, and through their language of petroglyphs and pictographs.
We continued hiking, and finally reached a dwelling in the rocks that was both accessible by foot and remarkably intact. High above the dwelling, on the inside wall of the rock, was a pictograph of maybe 20 sets of hand silhouettes, outlined in white powder. It felt eerie to see the physical presence of the Anasazi Navajo recorded in handprints reaching toward the sky, with a ghostly glow surrounding each finger. As I photographed the pictographs, I couldn’t help projecting my own feeling of desperation about the place: they seemed like hands pleading to stop, or maybe even trying to scramble away from the area before they were destroyed by outside forces.
As dusk neared, light began to turn golden, and the trees seemed to stand even taller as their limbs waved in the breeze. I photographed a massive cottonwood that created a canopy for its own gargantuan trunk; it conveyed a feeling of safety, as if it had survived all kinds of adversity by protecting itself in this way. A swarm of swallows rose up then from the surrounding trees, and their fast-moving wings reflected the setting sun like glitter sprinkled over a dance floor. They flipped and soared, catching the flies and gnats that were emerging as the sun descended.
I first visited a Western national park when I was 26 years old, the same time I took my first landscape picture, and believe it was then that I fell deeply in love with the West. I was brought there after the sudden death of a very close friend; the trip was a gift from my mom, who had prescribed it and helped me pay for it with money she didn’t really have so I could work through my trauma. I’ve since moved my entire life out here to Los Angeles.
Though the West is far from where I grew up on the East Coast—where I never traveled much farther than the Catskills—I’m often gripped with a strange, unearned nostalgia while hiking through Western landscapes. I think I’ve always felt like a Westerner at heart. Photography books of the American West line my bookshelves, and they have been formative for me personally and professionally. These photographs have documented our country in all of its upheaval over the last century, and ultimately all seek the same truths about how we live.
The reality of our situation here on Earth is grim. In April 2017, the Trump administration ordered a review of 27 national monuments to determine which, if any, should be shrunk. In December, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s final report was released. He called on President Trump to shrink four national monuments and change the way that ten other land and marine sites are managed. The report recommended reducing the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half, and Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent—as well as cutting or changing the management of Nevada’s Gold Butte, Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou, New England’s Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, the Rose Atoll and the Pacific Remote Islands in the Pacific Ocean, New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande Del Norte, and Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters. On February 2 of this year, the first of the planned reductions went into effect, leaving Bears Ears at 16 percent of its original size. My heart breaks knowing that I may never get to share my experience of this place, or revisit it as I have known it before.
David Benjamin Sherry was born in Woodstock, New York, in 1981 and currently lives and works in Los Angeles. He received his BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 2003 and his MFA from Yale University in 2007. Sherry shoots with a large-format camera, creating his images’ vivid hues though laborious manual processes, to “inject a more queer and colorful vision of American Western photography.” He is represented by Salon 94 in New York and Moràn Moràn in Los Angeles. An exhibition of this project, Monuments, will take place in Los Angeles in September 2018.
Explore Federal Project no. 2
Stoop Life and Survival
Documenting a life of a neighborhood means covering street life in all of its joy and pain.
This Land Is Your Land
During the Depression, the federal government urged Americans to visit the country’s natural wonders.
The Exquisite Catalog of a Crow Fair
Wendy Red Star brings illustrations from the Denver Art Museum’s card catalog to the Crow Nation’s annual gathering.
The American Guide to the New Vermont
Shane Lavalette follows the refugees who have made their home in the whitest state in the nation.
More Federal Project No. 2
Back to the Music, Back to the Game
A visit to the juke joints in the Florida Everglades where migrant laborers could go to relax.
Stoop Life and Survival
Documenting a life of a neighborhood means covering street life in all of its joy and pain.