We’re looking over a stunning vista of rocky peaks, a few touched with snow, their outlines crisp under a blue sky rippling with clouds. A serene lake reflects those peaks, all the way from the distant shore to the one we’re standing on. A small dock, right at our feet, has six colorful kayaks on it. It couldn’t be more inviting. Except the sign says “Please Keep Off.”
And the way the picture’s taken, it could refer to the kayaks, or the dock — or to the entire landscape.
So David Ottenstein’s “Swiftcurrent Lake, Glacier NP, 2013” captures some of the complicated questions that he and fellow photographer Robert Lisak raise in their joint show, “The National Parks Seen: Two Views,” on display at the EleMar Gallery on Gibbs Street, just off Shelton Avenue, through Jan. 14.
Coinciding with the Yale University Art Gallery’s own exhibit about Yosemite Park, Lisak’s and Ottenstein’s show takes on several of the places in the National Park system, and in so doing, dives nimbly into the tangle of romance and reality that make up our fraught relationship with the natural world.
The show begins with the romance. Early on, we’re treated to Lisak’s “Columbia River, 2013,” which evokes the Hudson River School in its ravishing, painterly treatment of its subject. Here is nature in its jawdropping splendor, bathed in dazzling evening light as mist rises off the hills and sparks fly off the water. The people fishing on the river’s shore are insignificant specks by comparison, though they’re part of the romance for us, a entrance for us into what seems almost like a fantasy.
But the romance in this show is punctured as soon as it’s established, by Ottenstein’s “Goose Island, Glacier NP, 2013.” There is the majestic landscape again, but this time it’s a backdrop for the photograph’s real subject: the tourists trying to take pictures of it. How are those pictures turning out? Not well, the photograph slyly suggests. The tourists’ various cameras, phones, and tablets are almost certainly not up to the task of getting a good image. One of them even has her back turned to the view; she’s checking her work, and if she’s satisfied with her results, it doesn’t show.
Our inability to take it all in, to comprehend what is incomprehensible, is the beginning of a set of awkward questions about national parks. That they are stunning is beyond dispute; visit one of them, and you understand instantly why the National Park Service was created in the first place.
It’s not only the grand vistas that argue for protection, but the smaller details. Like the pen-and-ink pattern in the face of a dune.
Or the complex architecture in a ravine.
But people who want to preserve these places immediately face a conundrum. The best way to protect them, after all, is for everyone to stay away from them. But their incredible beauty is what draws people to them — and without seeing them, it’s hard for skeptics to fathom why they’re worth preserving. A postcard of Yosemite won’t convince. Standing on the floor of Yosemite Valley, looking up at Half Dome, just might.
It’s not a revelation that humans don’t tend to be very good at preserving their environment. From a preservation standpoint, a person who builds his house on a cliff by the seaside to enjoy the unspoiled view has pretty much spoiled it for everyone else because now his house is in the way. Even in our national parks, some visitors can’t resist leaving their marks.
They carve their initials into sequoias and etch their names onto rocks as old as the planet.
Though, as Lisak’s images point out, if you wait around long enough, graffiti can become historical carvings; wait even longer, and they can become petroglyphs, which some people then consider as worthy of preservation as the landscape around them.
Even the National Park Service’s own carefully planned infrastructure — the roads, parking lots, lodgings, and visitor centers that make the parks accessible to the general public — can be part of the problem, with hilarious results.
But how grateful are we that this infrastructure exists? How else would most of us get there? And Ottenstein and Lisak’s images suggest, in the abstract, that there is a way for humans to visit national parks — and in a broader sense, to live in their environments — in a more harmonious way. In Lisak’s “Visitors, Badlands NP, 2016,” the women exploring the terrain around them aren’t intruders. With their vibrant, multicolored dresses, they look almost like wildflowers.
And Ottenstein’s “Big Sur, California, 2014” brings us back to where we started. Four tourists stand along the side of the road. It’s unclear how they got there. Two of them are pointing their cameras at something. The other two stare off into the distance. Whatever they’re seeing must be magnificent; it’s enough for them to leave their car behind and walk out to the edge of the land. We know they’re at Big Sur, so maybe they’re seeing a coastline staggering and unique in its beauty. But we have to draw it for ourselves in our minds. Ottenstein’s approach suggests it’s too big for photography, too much for lens, films, and pixels to convey, and he’s right. The only way to comprehend it is to go — but then to take a step back, and gaze in awe. And then, maybe, to leave it alone.
“The National Parks Seen: Two Views” is on exhibit at the gallery at EleMar New England, 2 Gibbs St., through Jan. 14. EleMar is open Mon. through Thurs., 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Fri. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sat. 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Admission to the gallery is free.