History Has Forgotten One of America’s Most Prolific Landscape Photographers
by Clara Chaisson
“The Park Service needs me,” George Alexander Grant wrote in 1923 to Horace Albright, then superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. Grant had his heart set on becoming a photographer for the National Park Service (NPS), but his confidence belied his circumstances: His national park experience totaled just one summer, and he had only begun teaching himself how to use a camera a year prior. Most importantly, the position did not exist.
None of that, though, stopped Grant from eventually becoming NPS’s first official photographer. He shot landscapes and documented park activities for the service for 25 years. During that time, he covered 140,000 miles, snapping more than 30,000 images, many of which have been seen by millions of Americans.
Despite his prolific portfolio and the public visibility of his work, Grant is not a name that comes to mind when one thinks of early American landscape photographers. Because Grant worked for the government, his works were government property. Thus his skillful images were credited simply: National Park Service.
Grant’s story is laid out — along with 170 of his best shots — by Ren and Helen Davis in Landscapes for the People, published last September. The Davises, who have also written a number of guidebooks, stumbled across Grant’s work while digging through the NPS Historic Photograph Collection.
The Davises make the case that Grant is an “unknown elder” of American landscape photography who deserves recognition — however belated — for his contribution to the field. Plus, his personal story is just as inspiring as his photography.
Born in Milton, Pennsylvania, in 1891, George Alexander Grant got his first taste of the West in his mid-twenties, while stationed at Fort D.A. Russell in Cheyenne, Wyoming, during World War I. It was love at first sight. The open spaces, scenic landscapes, and dramatic mountains made an unshakeable impression on the native easterner. When discharged at the war’s end in 1918, he went back East determined to return.
For four years, Grant longed for the outdoor life of a park ranger. “I am sick and tired of inside work, of factories, and of industrial communities in general…you’ll realize the truth of my being very desirous of locating out there permanently.” So began a series of increasingly imploring letters to James McBride, the chief ranger at Yellowstone, and later, his successor, Samuel Woodring. In January 1922, Grant signed a letter with a nudging, “news of my appointment would be very welcome.”
Superintendent Albright, who liked that Grant had been in the military and done a stint in Wyoming, finally offered him a summer position as a Yellowstone ranger that paid $80 per month (a little more than $1,000 by today’s standards). Unfazed by the significant pay cut and temporary nature of the job, Grant quit the mill where he had been working and eagerly headed West in June.
That summer, the 31-year-old discovered his second great love: photography. He took pictures wherever he went, his eye and technical abilities steadily improving with each passing month. At the end of the summer, Albright offered him a full-time ranger position. It was the gig Grant had been dreaming of for years, but a horseback-riding accident late in the season had shaken his confidence in his backcountry skills. He regretfully turned down the offer, hoping instead to hone his camera abilities until the NPS could afford to employ a photographer.
Albright, who liked what he’d seen of Grant’s photography (even though a picture Grant took of him sharing a plate of pancakes with black bear cubs wound up in the New York Times, earning him a stern reprimand from the NPS director), encouraged him to continue developing his craft and keep in touch.
Seven years passed before the NPS was ready to hire a photographer. Luckily, Grant kept his promise, taking a photography course in New York City and eventually teaching photography at Penn State.
As soon as Grant got word from Albright that a NPS photography position was in the works, he quit his job in 1927, bought a new camera, and started making his way to California, where he would be stationed if the position got approval from the service’s higher-ups. Along the way, he visited parks like Yosemite and Sequoia and took pictures, offering his would-be employers the use of his images free of charge until he was officially hired. Grant made it explicitly clear that his interest in the work had nothing to do with money or acclaim.
Still, there was no job for him. He spent a year or so freelancing until Ansel Hall, NPS’s chief naturalist, received outside funding for a photography position. Grant was officially hired on April 8, 1929. After the world’s longest application process, he proved himself immediately and was promoted to chief photographer in 1931.
Grant’s early NPS career coincided with a time of dramatic growth for the service. President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1933 that transferred historic sites and national monuments to the NPS, significantly expanding the park system and greatly diversifying Grant’s assignments. Along with landscapes, he catalogued artifacts, portraits, and conservation work. Photographing everyday Americans enjoying the parks was especially central to his work — both to popularize the idea that the parks belong to all of us and to document the importance of preserving public lands.
Alas, Grant’s career came to an end in 1954 for the same reason it took so long to get started: lack of funding. But the contribution he’d made to the NPS’s mission was priceless. His photographs were published in magazines, newspapers, textbooks, and guidebooks, displayed in museum exhibits, and framed in government offices. He is one of ten on the NPS’s list of “Eminent Photographers,” and today his images are helping researchers assess the impact that climate change and visitation are having on the parks.
Even so, his legacy continues to be overshadowed by his more renowned contemporaries. When, for the first time since the 1980s, the NPS advertised an opening for an official photographer last winter, the listing made national news as “the job once held by Ansel Adams” in the 1940s. In fact, it was the job once held by George Grant. (Milwaukee native Jarob Ortiz was the lucky hire — he started in the position just last week. Happy photographing!)
So, as we celebrate the 100-year history of the NPS, take a moment to appreciate one man’s dedication to our country’s natural wonders and his role in bringing them closer to all Americans. George Grant was right, after all: The National Park Service did need him.
Originally published at www.nrdc.org/onearth on August 31, 2016.