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Inspiration at Yosemite

Roger Minick's photograph, "Woman with Scarf at Inspiration Point, Yosemite National Park," cleverly captures the blend of natural beauty and tourism. The image reflects the role of photography in shaping our perception of national parks. It also raises questions about humanity's place in these landscapes and the inspiration we draw from nature.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) - [Beth] We're in the LACMA Study Center for Photography and Works on Paper looking at a really witty photograph by the photographer Roger Minick, Woman with Scarf at Inspiration Point, Yosemite National Park. - [Elizabeth] Part of the reason people love this image is with a quick take you understand what's going on. At the same time, the photograph gives a nod to the role that photography has played in the history of America's national parks. - [Beth] So photographers like William Henry Jackson, Carleton Watkins, in additional to the painters that we think about like Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt played a pivotal role in helping Americans understand the American West and create an image of the American West. - [Elizabeth] Some of Watkins' photographs were circulated in Congress and were instrumental in Yosemite being set aside as land in what has become the national park system. You then fast forward to a photographer like Ansel Adams who has made these places in some ways the icons that they are in the public imagination. So that filter, that lens of photography, is one way that we understand our national parks and perpetuate the iconic status of these spaces. - [Beth] And so it's no wonder that, if you visit these places today, you go to some place like Inspiration Point and you take out your camera and you snap the picture just like everybody else but it's your picture and you were there. - [Elizabeth] The more time you spend with the image, you notice that her scarf has Yosemite Falls on it, one of the major destinations when you're in Yosemite Valley but here at Inspiration Point to the left she's looking at Half Dome and to the right she's looking at Bridalveil Falls, not Yosemite Falls and so I think you get that understanding of the circulation of imagery and the commodification that comes with tourism. - [Beth] What's especially wonderful, I think, too, about this photograph is that she's got her back to us and you do enter into her place and imagine what it must be to see this almost transcendent landscape in front of you but at the same time you're drawn into the present world of tourism and reproductions and souvenirs and those two things coexist in this image. - [Elizabeth] In some ways I think this picture brings up for us what is humanity's role in these exceptional landscapes of our national parks? It also brings up the question what is the inspiration that we get from nature? We're at Inspiration Point. - [Beth] We often think about photography as snapping a picture, but there's so much intentionality and thought here and we actually have some quotes by Minick that help to explain what he was thinking and doing when he created this sightseer series. "Previously I tended to look on sightseers with disdain, "and never consider them a subject I would want "to photography seriously, but something "about what I was witnessing made me realize "here was a fascinating cross-section of people "engaging in a uniquely American activity "and it was something that I now suddenly very much wanted "to photograph," and it does make us think what do we expect to get out of these views. For 19th-century American painters, it was this view of the sublime, the sense of the power and grandeur of the American landscape, which is still very much present but also somewhat diminished if there are buses and parking lots and souvenir shops and what happens to that experience? Is it fulfilling or maybe it's just a lot easier to get to and see and experience? There's something wonderful about that, too. - [Elizabeth] I think Minick, in photographing this series over multiple years, he came to wonder about these very questions of the ubiquity of tourism, the easily accessible aspect, and what was the role of this journey that people would take and then the snapshot that they would also take. He writes, "In the end I came to believe "that there was something more meaningful going on, "something stronger and more compelling, "something that seemed almost woven "into the fabric of the American psyche. "I would witness this most dramatically "when I watched first-timers arrive "at a particularly spectacular overlook "and see their expressions become instantly awestruck at this, their first sightseeing of some iconic beauty "or curiosity or wonder. "I began to compare what I was seeing "to the religious pilgrimages of the Middle East and Asia, "where the pilgrims are not just making a trip "to make a trip or simply to return home "with some tangible piece of evidence "that they were there, the snapshot. "They have instead come seeking something deeper, "beyond themselves and are finding it "in this moment of visitation. "For as with all pilgrimages, they have made the journey, they have arrived and are now experiencing "the quickening sense of recognition and affirmation, "that universal sense of a shared past and present "and, with any luck, a shared future." (jazzy music)