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Manufacturing National Park Nature: Photography, Ecology, and the Wilderness Industry of Jasper

By J. Keri Cronin

Review By Jenny Clayton

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 177 Spring 2013  | p. 201-02

Contributing to the emerging and vibrant field of national park histories in Canada, J. Keri Cronin’s Manufacturing National Park Nature: Photography, Ecology, and the Wilderness Industry of Jasper explores how photographs created for tourist consumption have depicted Jasper National Park in the century since the park’s establishment in 1907. Engaging with scholars of nature, culture, and power such as Bruce Braun and Tina Loo, Cronin examines the role that photography plays in shaping “how we think about and interact with our physical environments” (28). This study is also informed by an extensive reading of the literature on the history of parks, wildlife, landscape art, tourism, and photography. To explore the relationship between photography and the physical nature it represents, Cronin mainly employs published primary sources such as tourism brochures, postcards, films, park reports, newspaper articles, and reports by environmental organizations, in addition to photographs and government correspondence from archival collections. Organized thematically rather than chronologically, this book is divided into chapters dealing with wilderness, recreation, wildlife, and “fake nature.”

As Cronin asserts, photographic imagery is powerful due to its “ability to convince people that it records the truth” (17). She argues that photographic representations created for the touring public perpetuate an iconic “National Park Nature,” a particular “way of understanding place,” in which images tend to represent landscapes as pristine, animals as non-threatening and in harmony with humans, and recreation as having a minimal environmental impact. Repeatedly encountering these reassuring types of images, viewers do not need to confront the ecological degradation that has occurred in Jasper. Cronin shows how promotional photography of apparently untouched nature has helped entice visitors to the park to participate in outdoor leisure activities, while a range of manipulations of the natural environment took place to support these activities, such as stocking waterways with fish and maintaining permanent clearcuts on mountainsides for downhill skiing, not to mention constructing an infrastructure of roads, accommodation, sewage, and garbage disposal.

A provocative central claim of this study is that “for the most part the representations of this landscape have changed very little” in the century since the park’s establishment, and have continued to portray Jasper “as a safe and tranquil place, one that represented the antithesis of social and political change and in which Nature existed as a timeless entity” (20). While a compelling case could be made for the persistence of antimodern portrayals of national park landscapes over the twentieth century, this argument would be more convincing if it incorporated subtle shifts over time in promotional photography, and engaged more fully with studies such as I. S. MacLaren’s article on Jasper in the Journal of Canadian Studies (34, 3 [1999]) and Alan MacEachern’s Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970 (2001). These studies demonstrate that what Canadians hope to see in national parks has changed over time to reflect cultural values, and that the changing expectations of tourists in turn have shaped the design and management of parks.

Of the forty images printed here in black and white, nine have no date and at least twelve historic postcards are reproduced from the author’s own collection. Using only images with dates would strengthen the potential for historical analysis, and a detailed discussion in the introduction outlining Cronin’s methodology in terms of researching, acquiring, and selecting images would help explain how representative these photographic depictions are.

Manufacturing National Park Nature develops diverse and useful critiques of how photographers, filmmakers, government, and the tourist industry have created a selective vision of parks that is careful not to disturb longstanding notions of wilderness, recreation, and wildlife, and how this vision threatens to override public awareness of environmental problems in parks. This study sets the stage for further investigations into the role of photography in national parks, for example an exploration of how developments in photographic technology affected image-making, or an analysis of the photograph albums of park visitors to find out how tourists consumed, experienced, or re-imagined “National Park Nature” when framing their own pictures.

Manufacturing National Park Nature: Photography, Ecology, and the Wilderness Industry of Jasper
By J. Keri Cronin
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.  208 pp. Illus. $29.95 paper.