National Parks

Treasured Lands, A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks

September 9, 2016 ·

QT Luong

TREASURED_LANDS_front_cover_800px

The 100th anniversary of the National Park Service has finally arrived. My contribution to the occasion is the photography book  Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey through America’s National Parks, the most complete visual tour of all 59 US National Parks in a coffee-table book, with location notes for each photograph.

Falling In Love With the National Parks

Winter Sunset, Yosemite National Park
Winter Sunset, Yosemite National Park

Growing up in France, and trained as a computer scientist, with no awareness of the significance of the U.S. National Parks, I was quite an unlikely person to author this book. In Europe, mountaineering had provided me with my only experiences of wilderness. My time on the mountain compelled me to adopt photography as a means to share with those who couldn’t see for themselves the beauty of the high peaks of the Alps. Eventually, I came to the United States for what was to be a short academic stay. I did not know much about the geography of this country, but I chose the University of California at Berkeley because I had heard from other climbers that nearby Yosemite had tall cliffs.

In February 1993, I visited Yosemite for the first time. It was love at first sight.  Shortly after, the mountains beckoned and I headed to Alaska to climb Denali. The sheer scale and pristine beauty of the north far exceeded anything I had witnessed in the mountains of Europe. Later, I toured Death Valley. After standing on the highest point of North America, I was now looking at its lowest. I had never seen such wide-open spaces and deserts before, and the geological surprises concealed within this arid land mesmerized me. I realized how much diversity the national parks encompass—they present every ecosystem a vast continent has to offer, and it was all new to me.

Exactly a century ago, in “National Park Portfolio” (1916), the first-ever photography book about the national parks, Stephen Mather wrote: “Each park will be found to be highly individual. The whole will be a revelation.” Those few words summarize perfectly what fascinated me so much about the parks and motivated me to visit more of them. Each park represents a unique environment, yet collectively they are all are interrelated, interconnected like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

The Photography Project

Twomile Branch of the Pigeon River, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Twomile Branch of the Pigeon River, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Not far from where I lived on the West Coast, Ansel Adams and others had established a rich tradition of American landscape photography. Wanting to approach my craft from the level of the prints I had admired in local museums and galleries, I learned to use a large-format camera in the summer of 1993. After I returned from Death Valley and inspected one of my first 5×7-inch transparencies on a light table, I was astonished to see more details than I noticed when I was standing at the scene. I realized that a viewer could have a close look at the landscape through the visually complex, detail-laden images, which would enable them to vicariously stand where I stood when I took the photo.

This notion inspired me to embark on a project that I thought was both original and compelling: photograph each of America’s national parks with a large-format camera, because, at that time, only large-format photography would do justice to the grandeur of the parks. To pursue this, I settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, and eventually left my career as a computer scientist to become a full-time photographer. My quest to visit each national park was a twenty-year odyssey filled with the excitement commensurate with venturing—often alone—into the wilderness.

Each national park, even the ones close to one another, provided a unique experience, not only because of the diversity of their environments but also because of the ways in which one must explore them if one is to see them in depth.  While my outdoor proficiency was rooted in mountaineering, I had to learn the skills dictated by each park’s terrain, from scuba diving to kayaking to canyoneering. In order to find new ways of photographing the landscape, such as shooting the starry sky at night, I also added one of the first full-frame digital cameras (the Canon 1Ds mk2) to my kit. Treasured Lands” combines  large-format film photography and digital photography.

A Complete Presentation

Florida Bay, Everglades National Park
Florida Bay, Everglades National Park

The National Park Portfolio of 1916 aimed be “the first really representative presentation of American scenery of grandeur ever published”.  In the same spirit, Treasured Lands aims to be the most complete coffee-table book about the national parks published in the interleaving century. The goal is almost certainly met if you go by the numbers – 456 pages, 500+ photos, 130,000+ words, depicting 410 locations. However, what really matters is that not only the book includes all 59 national parks, but also the coverage of each park is deeper than any other coffee-table book. Iconic attractions deserve a visit, but the parks are full of surprises as well—especially if you are willing to venture off the beaten path. This book pays as much attention to the lesser-known gems, such as California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, as it does to the well-known parks, and within each park, it covers many corners, some quite obscure. It includes each significant area of each national park, for example:

the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park,

the three islands that make up National Park of American Samoa,

the three main keys of Dry Tortugas National Park,

the five districts in Canyonlands National Park,

the three units of Theodore Roosevelt NP, including Elkhorn Ranch.

An Invitation To Visit

AValley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Katmai National Park
A Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Katmai National Park

Traveling to many corners of the world has only increased my appreciation for our national parks and confirmed that they are the greatest treasures of the nation. One may think that their status guarantees that they will be preserved and protected for future generations, but that’s not a given. Even as the National Park Service celebrates its centennial this year, the agency faces a staggering budget deficit. Its mission can be successful only as long as citizens care about the land, which is often brought about by a personal connection attained through a visit.

Unlike other coffee table books about the national parks, which after inspiring readers via images, leave them wondering about the exact locations, Treasured Lands provides you with enough information for you to stand at the places where the photographs originated.  For each of the images in the book, you’ll find a description of the location, the best times to be there, and sometimes comments about my experiences and photography. The series “A national park quick guide to photography” of which you saw the first seven entries on the Luminous Landscape should have given you a good idea of the material, and you can see more details Here.

My odyssey through the national parks has been ostensibly driven by the desire to make photographs, but my primary motivation was to explore and engage with the earth. The journey is the destination, but the photograph you take away from that destination has the power to inspire others to embark on their own journey. I hope that the book can do that for you.


Publishers Note: I purchased this book with a slipcase.  QT’s work is exceptional and I look forward to having this book on my coffee table.


QT Luong
September 2016

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QT Luong is a full-time photographer from California, known for being the first to photograph all 59 US National Parks - in large format. Ken Burns featured him in "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" (2009). His photographs, published in dozens of countries around the world, have been the subject several magazine profiles, solo gallery and museum exhibits. He the author and photographer of "Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey through America's National Parks" (treasuredlandsbook.com), a large format book where photographs of the 59 US National Parks are augmented with detailed photography locations notes from which this series of articles is drawn.

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