Reviewed by Geoff Wittig
Landscape photography is one of those pursuits that sound easy. I mean, how hard can it be to take a gorgeous photograph of Mount Rainier or Half-Dome, right?
...Until you try it, that is. Even the latest digital cameras lack a ‘sublime’ button. Translating a perfect moment in an achingly beautiful location into a photograph that conveys more than a pale echo of the experience is surprisingly diﬃcult. It generally requires multiple visits to a site just to earn a chance at catching it in perfect light, with foliage at its best, or a waterfall at full ﬂow. Easy familiarity with gear and technique are essential to avoid wasting a 15-second opportunity.
I live within 25 miles of two spectacular State parks. I visit and photograph them frequently, trying to catch a bit of the magic in the form of a print. After more than 20 years and countless visits, I’d say I have maybe 20 to 25 photographs I’m completely happy with. I have lots more near-misses, and thousands of frames that deserved swift deletion. And this in my backyard, at sites I’m intimately familiar with.
This is a long-winded expression of my admiration for QT Luong’s accomplishment with Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America's National Parks. Over the course of more than 20 years, Dr. Luong visited every one of America’s extant 59 National Parks, and photographed them in depth. On large format ﬁlm. The simple physical eﬀort required boggles the mind. The consistently high quality of the photos is striking; hundreds of ﬁne photographs, and no ‘ﬁller’ shots.
Quang-Tuan Luong, known as QT (Tuan to his friends), born in France of Vietnamese parents, was a high-level scientist before arriving, through his interest in mountain climbing, at his passion for photography. He also runs the Large Format Forum (LFF), the primary online resource for LF photographers. Portrait by B. Squires.
The foreword is written by Dayton Duncan, who partnered with Ken Burns to ﬁlm the PBS Television series "The National Parks: America’s Best Idea." Duncan notes that their team traveled with Tuan Luong to some sites, and came to use some of his images as part of their project.
QT's introduction explains how he came to this intense photographic survey of the Parks. Like the late Galen Rowell, Luong backed into landscape photography from mountain climbing. Growing up in France, he found climbing the Alps the only way to experience wilderness. Traveling to the U.S. for a career in computer science, the National Parks were a further revelation, and he eventually left computer science for full-time photography after embarking on his project to photograph every National Park.
The book is organized by region. Each section begins with an introduction describing the geology and biomes of the region, followed by beautifully reproduced color plates from each park. The large images are followed by a map of the park showing where each photograph was taken. This is followed by thumbnails each accompanied by narrative text including trail access, weather, and engaging anecdotes about taking the photographs. You can see this as a generous invitation to try your hand at shooting these sites yourself.
Some of the photographs are well-known motifs, such as wildflowers below Mount Ranier, or Yosemite Valley in winter. Sunrise under Mesa Arch is my personal bête noir and, yep, it’s here. But most others are unique images, and all are beautiful. The visual æsthetic is one of vivid (but not neon) color, meticulous sharpness, and classical composition. I’m quite familiar with Badlands National Park, and can attest to how diﬃcult it is to reach the sites Luong photographed in the southern Stronghold unit of the Park on the Pine Ridge Reservation. And that’s just one park; Luong photographed the other 58 too, just as deliberately. The entire book is a testament to the virtue of obsession.
Physically it’s a very ﬁne piece of work, printed on heavyweight semi-matte paper with gloss varnished photo-reproductions. The text is set in a small point size of digital Baskerville font, but it remains quite readable. Inside the heavy dust jacket, the book itself is covered in a panoramic reproduction of giant sequoias, a very nice touch.
I was tempted to include a few images, but it’s probably better just to direct readers toward QT’s very nice website for the book, as it includes an excellent viewer for browsing through the chapters.
I'm aware of at least five other relatively recent photo books explicitly covering America's National Parks. Each has its virtues and some very nice images. Clyde Butcher's Celebrating America's National Parks is a treat for those who love black and white. But all of them pale in comparison to the remarkable depth and breadth of QT Luong's project. Every one of the parks is gorgeously rendered, from the giant Alaskan parks to the tiny "pocket parks" in the east, and the ancillary information is a delight. I can't recall any other photographer including detailed notes and maps demonstrating how to reach every one of his or her subjects, including the most remote locations. Pure catnip for landscape photography hobbyists.
©2017 by Geoff Wittig, all rights reserved
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Ken: "I'll second this review—not that it needs seconding. We ordered the book a couple of months ago—it was out of stock—and it just arrived about a week ago. It's a magnificent overview of the national parks—and well worth the price."
RubyT: "I have learned from past experience that if a book featured here lists 'one left' I must buy it immediately, so I did. National Parks are my charitable focus this year, so this recommendation was perfectly timed."
Joe Decker: "An exhibition of prints from this body of work has been making the circuit as well. I caught it in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the prints hold up to the incredibly fine standards you'd expect from the work. Highly recommended."
Dave Van de Mark: "One November morning many years ago, I found myself racing up to 70mph on roads in darkness I probably shouldn't have been going above 25 on, and then hiking furiously to near exhaustion, just to reach Mesa Arch minutes before the beginning of a lovely sunrise. Knowing my gear at the time—like the back of my hand—had me ready in time, and I was rewarded with some exposures I feel very good about. But I nearly knocked myself out getting them and know just how lucky I was, what with the weather and light all being with me. The timing was on me but just barely! This makes me appreciate immensely the effort QT Luong had to make to capture the magnificent photos Geoff describes. Geoff's review makes me really want this book."
David Evans: "$40, I thought. That's a very good price for such a book—at the official rate it's £32. So I look on Amazon UK. £51.89! I suppose I will buy it, but I resent that someone is making an awful lot of money out of me."
Mike replies: Think about what you're saying for a sec. Tuan worked for 20 years with a 5x7 view camera and traveled to 59 National Parks in 27 States, packing his gear to numerous wild and remote locations. For every picture in the book there were probably at least three rejects and quite likely many more than that. Can you imagine how much work and expense that represents? The book has 456 pages and copious amounts of spot-varnished color illustrations. Finally, are you aware of how much it costs to ship 7.2-lbs. books across the Atlantic in bulk so Amazon UK can stock it in its warehouses? That cost is not trivial. All that, and you're being exploited? You're going to begrudge an extra £19.89 on a book that you yourself say started out at "a very good price for such a book"?
You're plenty tight with a twenty, man, is all I can say. :-D
GUY PERKINS: "I think Mike that your response to David Evans is a little strong, and frankly unfair. We in the UK routinely pay more for identical products than you pay in the USA. And that is the same whether that product has been made and shipped from the Far East, from the EU, or from the US. It needles us. And to try and justify a £20 excess the price just on transport costs, when Amazon ships gazillions of product by container daily, is not on. What you say about the amount of work and skill the book represents is true, but you can't apply that argument to us over here while enjoying a bargain price yourself."
Mike replies: I've long noticed the "gouging" of your entire nation—you do pay more for comparable products. But that's not something I can do anything about, and I don't think it's something that Tuan should take the blame for. He'd like for his books to sell, I'm sure. I still think it's a pretty good bargain despite the tariff, but then that's not up to me—you (and David) have to make your decisions rationally and for yourselves.
Sorry about the situation, though. It's not fair and I've never seen it explained satisfactorily.
Tom Bell: "Excited. Live on Dartmoor National Park here but never been to your great parks. Just ordered it."
Dave Karp: "I too participate on QT's Large Format Forum. His LF Home Page [AKA LFphoto.info —Ed.] was a godsend when I first entered into the large format world. I still refer to parts of it regularly. We large format photographers owe him a great debt. I have met QT only once, at a gallery showing of Ray McSavaney's beautiful work. QT is a heck of a nice guy, generous (what a gift that Large Format site is), and a heck of a photographer. His national parks book is a treat."
QT Luong: "Thank you to Geoff and all the commenters for the kind words. Regarding the value of the physical object alone, please compare to the book that Aperture released to celebrate the National Park Service centennial, with pricing quite typical for photo books. [Smaller, less than a third as many pages, less than one third the weight of Treasured Lands —Ed.] It gives some perspective to the third Amazon customer review of Treasured Lands: 'I would have paid triple the price to add this book to my collection.' By the way, said customer acted on his words by subsequently purchasing a limited edition.
"Note also that Treasured Lands is from the same printer who produced Salgado's Genesis. Regarding the price outside the US, if you look at my own signed/limited offerings, I charge $12 for shipping to the US and $66 for shipping to the UK. Those are my actual costs via USPS Priority Mail."