Historical Landscape Change in Yellowstone National Park: Demonstrating the Value of Intensive Field Observation and Repeat Photography

Historical Landscape Change in Yellowstone National Park: Demonstrating the Value of Intensive Field Observation and Repeat Photography

Geographical Review Early View

Judith Meyer and Yolonda Youngs

Q: What is the main purpose of your study?

A: The purpose of the study was to conduct a collaborative field course on the cultural geography of Yellowstone National Park. Typically, when we consider what sort of research is being conducted in Yellowstone, what springs to mind is the variety and number of thermal features, the charismatic megafauna (bison, bears, wolves, and wapiti, especially), and the park’s role in the American conservation movement and settling of the West. What interested us, however, was the use of repeat photography to understand elements of a historical tourist experience and how some aspects of the tourist experience did – or did not – change over time. Students participating in the field course learned first-hand how to read and interpret historical photographs as well as read landscapes and landforms to set up the rephotograph. Using a once-famous but now decommissioned hiking trail, the Howard Eaton Trail, as our field site, students hiked, observed, discussed, photographed, and learned-through-doing about the landscape and the experience of traveling through Yellowstone at the turn of the century and today.

Q: What are the practical, day to day, implications of your study?

A: This study is serves as proof of repeat photography’s usefulness of as a research tool for cultural geographers. The study’s resultant photopairs document both change and resilience in how people experience(d) Yellowstone as place and have become, themselves, part of the park’s historical record. Often, when compared with studies quantifying aspects of the physical landscape, studies centered on understanding the cultural landscape are discounted as too subjective to reveal quantifiable results. The photopairs resulting from this study, however, provide tangible evidence of the tourist experience over time in a high profile, meaning-leaden place, and the conclusions may be used to understand tourism and outdoor recreation in other, similar parks and public spaces.

This study also offers practical implications and ideas for geographers and other scholars considering a field course in national parks or other tourism sites. Because this was a collaborative field course, costs were shared by two institutions, making it a more feasible project than if either institution had to absorb the cost alone. Not only the financial burden of paying for transportation and housing, but the time and effort required to secure permits, advertise the course, prepare lessons, and procure field equipment was shared by the faculty and lightened the load of everyone involved. Further, interaction among students and faculty from two institutions provided a broad range of expertise, experiences, and perspectives that made the give-and-take of discussion fresh, informative, and new.

Q: How does your study relate to other work on the subject?

A: This study makes a case for using repeat photography as a research tool in human geography research and connects with the work of geographers, artists, and other scholars who are combining repeat photography, fieldwork, and cultural landscape analysis and observation. Others in the field have used repeat photography to better understand and analyze physical changes in landscapes such as glaciers, vegetation, or streambeds. Cultural scholars have also used repeat photography to explore historical changes in cities, border towns, western U.S. landscapes, and a variety of other places. We extend this work to reveal how repeat photography can be used as a tool to better understanding how landscapes, and our experiences in them, change over time.
In addition, our study highlights the value of using repeat photography in national park contexts to show changes in the tourist landscape and experience over time that may escape viewers of only historic images. We also extend other work on the subject by showing how repeat photography can work on multiple levels at the same time in fieldwork situations. Here we present a case where it is both a research tool for scholars working on a collaborative project and an effective pedagogical tool for students in a field courses. This project also builds on the long tradition of landscape and fieldwork studies in geography and the work of other human geographers.

Q: What are two or three interesting findings that come from your study?

A: 1. Our photopairs reveal the fallacy of some popular misconceptions about the national parks. First is that the parks are being “loved to death.” Our students were able to rephotograph scenes captured almost a century ago showing little change to the physical environment. Changes to the cultural landscape – most to accommodate more tourists or to lessen the impact of increased tourism – were associated mainly with the gateway communities rather than inside the park. And, cultural landscape changes or improvements are, for the most part, in keeping with a sense of place for Yellowstone that is cognizant of and respectful of park history.

2. Teaching, studying, and conducting research in cultural geography is enhanced by engaging in field work. In no other discipline can being “in the field” do more to engage the learner/teacher/scientist in understanding the connection between people and the environment.

3. National parks make excellent sites for fieldwork. Most national parks have extensive museums, archives, and libraries where documents, artwork (including photographs such as the ones used in this study), and artifacts are preserved and made available to the public. The National Park Service will waive entrance fees for educational groups. Although the cost of housing students and faculty may be higher in national parks during the summer high season, the fact that parks are important tourist destinations means there are many options for accommodations from camp grounds and rustic cabins to historic hotels inside the parks and a wide variety of hotel options or even university housing in the gateway communities.

Q: What might be some of the theoretical implications of this study?

A: Our study aims to broaden ideas place, space, and time and the role of visual representations of the environment in national parks. We extend the work of others interested in these themes by asking our readers to consider historic photographs of national park landscapes as more than mere documents of physical or even cultural landscape change. They can also reveal changes in places that, in turn, shaped human experience. Take for example, a repeat photograph pair depicting the historic and more contemporary scene of tourists driving through the famous Roosevelt Arch of Yellowstone National Park. The rephoto reveals changes only minor changes in the road and arch but striking differences in transportation—from horseback to a hybrid fuel car. The power of these visual representations of draws viewers in and asks them to consider a very basic human experience while on a tour of any sightseeing venture. How would these two ways of traveling the park feel and sound? How would these different modes of transportation change the speed that tourists could experience the park?
Theoretically, we build on the work of other geographers who seek to “read landscapes” to reveal textures of places not easily gathered by consulting only written documents, maps, or other archival documents. In this sense, we build on the field tradition in geography and encourage scholars to embrace fieldwork in a renewed way through collaboration with other scholars and our students.

Q: How does your research help us think about Geography?

A: The connection between people and place is both immediate (how we feel right now: in this place, in this moment) and the moving endpoint of the history of our association with the place and the space around it. Rephotography can freeze points in the continuum of our relationship (concern, passion, awareness) for individual places and allows us to glimpse the evolution of what Yi-Fu Tuan called “topophilia.” This research helps us to understand the cultural and historical geography of Yellowstone as place through the lens of a camera and the interpretation of the photopairs.

The connection between people and place can be conceptual, intellectual, and emotional but it is also physical. This research helped remind us that doing cultural and historical geography is not confined to the office, libraries, or museums. Instead, fieldwork can be as essential to understanding the cultural landscape as it is to understanding the physical landscape, and cultural geographers should avail themselves of every opportunity to take students into the field.

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