There are 58 national parks in the 391-unit National Park Service system, and if you haven’t yet visited them for yourself, the magnificent vistas and striking images of flora and fauna in The National Parks: Our American Landscape might prompt you to go. Photographer Ian Shive shot more than 3000 images over the course of four years at 33 of the parks, from Maine to Florida and California to Alaska, and selected 200 of “the best of my best” with the help of designer Iain Morris at Earth Aware publishing.
“I took into consideration geography, the season,” says Shive, who visited some parks multiple times. “Yellowstone in summer is completely different from Yellowstone in winter,” he points out. Other than making sure to represent every region of the U.S. (excepting Hawaii), “We wanted to get away from the traditional national parks book, and show a side of the parks that hadn’t been shown.” Rather than present the images geographically by park, “I wanted to mix it up, for the pages to relate by color, line and shape. I’m trying to convey how everything is connected, and this is a really cool way to show it.” Including iconic spots like Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon was a must, but otherwise, “You have to read the caption to know where it is. It’s a really new look at the parks.”
Shive’s overall goal in doing the book was to “inspire people and get them motivated to go back and reconnect with nature. There are so few places like this anymore outside of the parks,” he notes, especially since so many state parks have closed or are in danger of doing so. A New Jersey native, he’s been passionate about the parks ever since his first family trip west to the Grand Canyon when he was 14, followed the following year by a visit to Glacier National Park in Montana. “That trip had a major influence on my decision to go to college in Montana at MSU Boseman, which is 90 miles north of Yellowstone National Park,” he says.
A committed conservationist, he “wanted to be able to give back in some way to nature and to the parks specifically” by doing the book and making a “sizeable donation” to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) from the proceeds. “The parks have been struggling with being under-funded for years, certainly under the Bush administration, though I see a recovery in sight now,” he reflects. Nevertheless, “The glaciers are disappearing in Montana. You couldn’t find a more obvious place to see climate change in action. They say Glacier National Park will be glacier-less by 2020. There’s a 190 ft deep lake where one of the largest glaciers once was.”
As for endangered species, “The Channel Island foxes are recovering but they walk a critical line because they’re isolated, and the wrong disease or the wrong management decision can wipe them out. It came close -- it was down to 15 foxes at one point and now it’s back up to around 1,500. That’s a conservation success story.”
Conscious of his own carbon footprint, Shive didn’t fly much on his photo trips (Denali in Alaska excepted), and estimates he put 72,000 miles on his car over the couple hundred days in the last two years he spent on the road. When he is home in Los Angeles, he keeps his office sustainable and paper-free. “I have bamboo floors, low-flow water units, and of course I recycle. The government needs to take the lead -- unless other alternatives are found it’s hard for people to make the huge strides that we need to make. But I think we can do our part too,” he believes.
Shive started shooting national parks photos on weekends and vacations while working at Sony Pictures as a publicist, and sold some images to the NPCA and to magazines via an agent. He left Sony two years ago to concentrate on photography full-time. “The way the book came up was relatively unexpected,” he reveals. “The publisher had heard of me, seen my work and contacted me and asked me if I could get it together in four months.”
The son of a photographer who specialized in architecture and rock music, Shive assisted his father, “making black and white prints in a darkroom at eight-years-old, though I never picked up a camera for myself. A lot of my style is self-taught,” he says, admitting that he had to “re-learn a lot” in the transition to digital cameras, though he soon realized the format fit his style even better.
His equipment included Canon SD cameras and a variety of lenses and filters, 50 pounds’ worth that he toted to remote locations. The images may look serene, but Shive often endured 120-degree desert heat or 30 below zero cold to get them. Not surprisingly he experienced the toughest conditions at Alaska’s Denali, where he was embedded with a search and rescue patrol for three weeks in June 2008. It was a “brutal ski uphill” in rarefied air with the camera equipment, another 50 pounds of gear, and nowhere to charge batteries. “I had to bring a lot of memory cards and protect the camera from moisture,” he relates, all this while navigating around openings in the ice a mile deep.
Even so, “I’ve never really felt unsafe,” insists Shive, who photographed grizzly bears and wolves. “Most creatures want nothing to do with you unless you surprise or harass them,” he says, noting that the foxes were the friendliest, and “incredibly curious.” One Channel Islands fox pup “came so close that I couldn’t focus my lens on him. I had to change lenses.” In contrast, he kept his distance with larger animals like the wolf he photographed in Yellowstone with a 600 mm lens.
Shive was usually accompanied by a videographer shooting HD footage. “Originally, it was going to be a three-minute making-of, and then we realized we had 35 hours of beautiful broadcast quality footage, so let’s make it a four-part series on the Web. We did two of them, and Current TV is airing them. We’re hoping to turn it into a regular series, if not at Current, somewhere else. We’re getting ready to execute a full-fledged pilot for how that would look,” he says. He’s also reaching out to the younger generation. “I’m trying to put together a map of all the parks, a coloring-book type of thing.”
As for his next book, Shive is planning photo treks to Hawaii, the Arctic, the Channel Islands, and the Yucatán. “I’ve already gotten started on a larger, more comprehensive 365-page book for the national parks’ 2016 centennial that covers more than just 30 parks, to have it be a true celebration,” he says, encouraged about the parks’ future. With more families staying closer to home these days, “it seems like the parks will have a role in resuscitating local economies,” he suggests. “I heard that upwards of 280 million people will visit the parks this year, which would be three percent more than last year.”
Book tour: See Shive’s spectacular images and check out information about his appearances at bookstores across the country on his website, waterandsky.com.