Here is a confession. Every now and then, for whatever reason, I find myself holding an Audubon or Peterson field guide in my hands – birds or trees or butterflies or maybe the night sky – and hours slip away. I find what I am looking for easily enough (so what is the difference between a Redpoll and a House Finch?), but then I go dreaming. I look up birds I have seen my entire life and birds I have never seen. I learn about migratory patterns and birdcall. I learn about coloration and mating. But mostly I look at pictures. Field Guide photography should be its own genre. Specific and inspiring. Detailed and universal. These are happy hours.
“The Nature of Yosemite: A Visual Journey”, by Robb Hirsch
Published by Yosemite Conservancy, 2019
review by W. Scott Olsen
Although not a field guide, The Nature of Yosemite: A Visual Journey evokes the same feeling. It’s a wonderful book, a poetic and exact look at one of the United State’s most well-known national parks, a Mecca for landscape photographers. Every page has breathtaking images – the majority in color though the black and whites are mesmerizing – and every page has a bit of text. Sometimes the text explains geologic history. Sometimes the text explains biology. Reading this book is informative and emotionally evocative.
Author/photographer Robb Hirsch began his career as a field biologist, working for California State Parks and the US Geological Survey among others. As with so many of us, photography began as simple documentation and grew into something more urgent.
The Nature of Yosemite: A Visual Journey is a fine book for someone like me. I have never been to Yosemite National Park, but I have been looking at it for as long as I’ve been looking at pictures. Ansel Adams was all over Yosemite. National Geographic has been there (what seems like) a hundred times, followed by every other climbing, hiking, outdoors, wilderness publication. I am convinced it would take work to not see images of Half Dome, El Capitan, Cathedral Spires or any one of the many waterfalls in the course of any normal year.
At one level this is wonderful. At another level this is a problem. How do you photograph what has been photographed repeatedly, endlessly, forever? I’m happy to say Robb Hirsch has found a way.
Hirsch’s love of nature, and his depth of knowledge, are clear on every page. In his Introduction, he writes: “My training as a biologist and naturalist enhanced my deep appreciation of and fascination for the natural world and all its inhabitants, and I’m most content outdoors—exploring, learning, teaching. I would choose to be here even if I weren’t taking photos. I’m not in nature because I’m a photographer. I’m a photographer because I love being in nature. Whether my subjects are wildlife or landscapes, photography gives me opportunities to connect to the world at a sensory level. Photography is a wilderness experience for me…”
The book beings with a Foreword by John Muir Laws, an exhortation to get outside and explore nature. Then, after Hirsch’s Introduction, the book is divided into five sections: Valleys; Flora; High Country; Fauna; Wilderness. Each section contains micro-essays by naturalists. Kurt Menning writes about Fire Ecology. Rob Grasso writes about the Yosemite toad. Beth Pratt writes about pikas. Sarah Stock writes about bird diversity. The list goes on. Each micro-essay is informative and deserved. On other pages, Hirsch writes a brief explanation for that page’s image.
As much as I like the field-guide-ish design of the book, every now and then I do wish the book design presented the images with more fine-art-ish focus. The images are presented as representations of a place – as medium instead of subject – and the images are often good enough to be the subject. “Yosemite Valley from the South Rim,” “Clearing Winter Storm: The Merced River and Cathedral Spires,” and “Sunset from Sentinel Dome,” among many others, are profound.
The Nature of Yosemite: A Visual Journey is a fine book for anyone who has been to the park, thought about going to the park, seen pictures of Half Dome, admired Ansel Adams, enjoyed a field guide, taken a walk, been curious. It rewards the mind. It will also set you dreaming.
One final note:
The hardcover version of this book sold out in three weeks. The paperback version, 11 x 11, is sturdy and feels good in the hands. All sales of Yosemite Conservancy titles directly support Yosemite National Park. This is reason enough to buy a copy. Or a dozen.
A note from FRAMES: if you have a forthcoming or recently published book of photography, please let us know.
Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation.
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