Review: Lessons form the Landscape
A confession: I take Yellowstone for granted. Almost every American probably does: it is iconic on a level that no other park can quite match, a key piece of national legend baked into the consciousness of nearly every citizen. Checklist, bucket list, cherished memory, roadside attraction or tourist trap or beloved retreat, we assume it’s there for us, but we also feel like we’ve already seen it. In my case, it was right up the road for most of my childhood and therefore was simply where we went, the default setting for nature in my formative years.
Likewise, I suspect most of us find that photographs of Yellowstone are also easily taken for granted. Images of the Park’s most striking features have been famous since the 1870s, and even excellent modern wildlife and scenic photos face an uphill battle to stand out. We are inundated with National Park imagery, and it’s tempting to wonder whether we really need any more or if photography in the best-known parks still has insights to offer.
Photographer Sarah Marino takes on these challenges with a different approach in her new e-book Lessons from the Landscape: Yellowstone National Park. She almost entirely avoids both famous views and wildlife, nor does she chase after remote trophy vistas in the backcountry. Instead, she points her lens straight at the very elements of Yellowstone we take most for granted: its woods, plants, stones and quiet waters.
The result is a calm, often dreamlike set of photographs showcasing the many small scenes and textures which comprise the warp and weft of the Yellowstone experience but which we seldom consider consciously. Anyone seeking quick thrills will be disappointed – these images should be perused at leisure, with patience and time for them to resonate. Lodgepole pines, grass and shrubs, stones, fire scars, algae, water hot and cold – these details, often very close up, form the majority of the 166 images in this collection.
There are a few wider views: Lower Yellowstone Falls, the Mammoth terraces and a lone bison put in cameo appearances as reminders of just where we are. A generous array of winter photos also adds depth to the collection. But Marino always brings our attention back to linger on the unsung, underappreciated elements that make up the vast majority of the Park’s ecosystem. In her own words:
The dominant culture in landscape photography elevates and encourages the tendency to appreciate only remarkable and rare conditions… After experiencing “perfect” conditions, it can be hard to reach that high over and over again if that is the only way we define beauty and awe. If we can instead look to find beauty in the everyday – in simple rippled water, for example – we can see many more opportunities for photography and find joy in any landscape.
In addition to imagery, Marino also gives us eleven short essays and six photographic case studies. The essays discuss various aspects of her history and experience of Yellowstone and reflections on her creative approach. Meditations on the subtle beauty of autumn huckleberry bushes and on the scientific value of thermophilic microorganisms in the Park’s hot springs offer some helpful context for the book’s visuals. Several of the essays feel as though they were written with fellow photographers in mind, and the case studies serve that audience explicitly, but general readers should also find Marino’s thoughts a welcome accompaniment to her photographs. It’s a pity this book is not in printed physical form, which would be better suited to give it the attention it deserves, but such are the times we live in.
It takes real discipline and confident creative devotion to put so much effort towards depicting small, even trivial details amidst the grandeur of Wyoming and Montana. Many of the images Marino offers could likely have been captured in numerous locations throughout the Rockies, the American West or even the world. But the universality of this collection is one of its great strengths. We hold up Yellowstone as an exemplar of American nature and conservation, but we struggle to observe the place attentively. Marino’s delight in details, compositional skill and thoughtful vision are welcome guides for considering what nature is and what we have left of it, both within the Park and beyond its borders. These photographs will enrich my next visit to Yellowstone or any wild place and remind me to see with less jaded eyes.
Lessons from the Landscape: Yellowstone National Park is available to purchase directly from Sarah Marino’s website. Five percent of e-book sales revenue will be donated to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition to support their stewardship initiatives.