Park Place: Out West

Image of Park Place: Out West
Release Date: 
November 22, 2022
George F Thompson Publishing
Reviewed by: 

There’s an old canard in the world of poetry that X.J. Kennedy—the now nonagenarian poet whose work is marked by a light touch—never got to be the poet laureate because he was also, well, funny. The artistic photography space, which often mirrors the world of poetry more closely than any other art form, often suffers the same problem, rewarding almost always the perpetually glum and ignoring those who dabble in life’s joys.

This is particularly true of street photography, whose practitioners often fancy themselves the petty larcenists of the art world, hunting down alleys for perfect moments to put into their own pockets forever, a success made particularly sweet in the elevation of the mundane—few of us have marquee lives, but that doesn’t mean those stories can’t and shouldn’t be told.

But in Park Place: Out West Heberlein does something against the grain: he takes America’s greatest success, its most serious totem, its very best idea . . . and pokes a little fun. Exploring over decades—and often with his family—the great American National Parks, Heberlein casts an eye through vacation photos not on the vacation but the vacationer; turning and turning in a widening gyre over the West, he turns his falcon-eye not to the marvel of the land but the humans that mar it.

On display here are, yes, glaciers and hills and mountains and geysers, but more importantly the litter that now top them in our effort to conserve. Opening the book with the original mission statement of the National Park Service—that the parks are meant to leave the land unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations—Heberlein instead revisits that thought a century later: Yes, the land is here, and yes, it is being enjoyed. But is it unimpaired?

It is not the National Parks of the bison or the elk, of the wildflowers or the sequoias. His is the national park of the Nike T-shirts, the well-worn sneakers, the unstented roads that vein through what was once virgin land. It’s the cliff with a sign that reads DANGEROUS CLIFF. It’s the traffic circle and the camper van. Perfect terrain is tattooed with Heberlein’s own shadow; videographers and photographers take pictures of mountains and valleys that nobody will ever bother to watch or see, the Badlands rendered into a bin in the basement.

It is, perhaps, one of the most enjoyable books of American nature photography ever made—poking fun at its viewer and its creator alike, and asking a question: Was this all worth it? This land is your land, this land is my land, but the sound of swallows has been replaced by Jason Aldean, brushfires by campground Sternos.

That Heberlein has reverence for these landscapes is no secret; you can feel that he’s poking a little fun at people not much different than he, and that he appreciates the nuance in all of the situations. Stunningly printed, and with great attention to toning, it at times feels like somebody gave Ansel Adams a Xanax. But in doing it so finely, it lends weight and statement here in its subversion: Yes, our national parks are made of brilliant greens and yellows and blues and reds, yet our relationship with them, unlike the photographs found in this book, is not black and white.