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UConn professor discovers more to Yellowstone Park

By Molly Miller
On January 28, 2014

Having spent nearly five years studying and documenting Yellowstone through the lens of her digital camera, associate professor of photography Janet Pritchard has discovered that there is much more to the national park than meets the eye.

Pritchard's interest in the park and its photographic history began when she stumbled upon a postcard at a paper antique show in Hartford over 10 years ago. "I bought this postcard on a lark," she said. 

The postcard is from between 1910 to 1916, a time period that Pritchard said is considered the golden age of picture postcards. Pritchard was drawn to a box of Wyoming picture postcards because of her personal ties to the state; she went to camp there, worked at a ranch, skied and taught outdoor education.

In June 2008, she began researching Yellowstone's photographic history, spending much of her time at the American Antiquarian Society in Worchester, Mass.

where she studied other artistic takes on the park.

Her work on "Yellowstone Dreams: An American Love Story" continued through a sabbatical in fall 2008, time off from teaching in spring 2009 and a Humanities Institute fellowship for the 2009-2010 academic year.

"When I started the project, nature, culture and history were the three lenses," she said. Her product, which will take at least a few more years to complete, will be released in three different formats: a limited edition portfolio, a book and a web version.

The portfolio will be sold in a three-volume set, and each volume is organized around a specific interest.

The first of these volumes will be "Views from Wonderland," which will include photographs of people within the park viewing the park. Some of these focus on the visitors themselves as prominent subjects of the landscape. One such composition features the backs of tourists in the foreground, and Old Faithful in the background.

While many of her photographs were taken in the national park itself, some were taken at research centers or museums. The second volume of the portfolio is titled "Cultural Memory" and includes a photograph of a woman looking at an 1873 Thomas Moran painting of Yellowstone while sitting in a gallery in the Smithsonian Institution. Another photograph in this collection was taken at the Antiquarian Society and features a live stream of Old Faithful on Pritchard's laptop with a portfolio of Moran's watercolors in the background.

"I never expected to make ('Cultural Memory')," said Pritchard, who added that part of the project came from spending 40 hours a week for several weeks in a reading room. "Chance favors the prepared mind."

Pritchard calls the third volume, "Road Trip," more subjective and deals with some of her more personal and reflective moments in the process. The volume includes a photograph of a charred tree and Pritchard's hand covered in the soot that was taken near the beginning of the process. She realized that all of the trees around her, which looked exactly the same, were legacies of a 1988 wildfire. 

"What I was seeing was what had grown back," she said.

When she was beginning her work in the field, she cited writer Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" as one of her initial concerns. 

"Who am I to think I can insert myself into this history," she asked.

The wide scope of themes contained in Yellowstone played a part in Pritchard's decision to separate her work into three volumes.

"National parks are pretty interesting," she said. "They have a lot of history, a lot of controversy."

There is also a wide variety of people who inhabit the Yellowstone at any given time. "There are people who dedicate their life to the park, people who go once in a lifetime, and those who only dream about going," said Pritchard. "I was trying to find a way to bring together all of those experiences. That's part of why I would like to finish it in different forms."

Pritchard hopes that the limited edition portfolio will be purchased by museums, archives and wealthy collectors, but says that the book is for more of a general audience.

Each volume of the portfolio will be packaged in a flat, tan lap-sized box. The inside cover of each portfolio will feature a different map of the park.

"The park is an incredibly complex place and most people don't understand that," said Pritchard. "We are a nation of such intense regional differences and yet we don't understand that as a culture."

Pritchard used a digital single-lens reflex camera, a handheld device which she says allows her to be like a fly on the wall.

"I never expected to work that way," she said. "I realized I wanted to photograph people and situations that change rapidly. I wanted to capture people doing what they do. I'm not a nature photographer, I'm not a wildlife photographer, I'm a landscape photographer. I'm not out there with a $6,000 lens trying to get a close up of an animal. What interests me is landscapes as the intersection of nature and culture."

Pritchard is hoping to make two more trips to Yellowstone next year. This May, she will be setting her sights and her lens on the nearly 2,000-year-old Hadrian's Wall in England. Some of the photographs she has already taken of the wall have been given modified color schemes to appear older, a clear contrast to the work she has done on Yellowstone.

"Although I'm very interested in the history, I'm more interested in the park now as it continues to evolve," she said.

Pritchard will be hosting a lunchtime discussion through the honors program in April for students interested in learning more about her work in Yellowstone.

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