Every year, millions of people descend on America’s National Parks, which exist in the collective imagination as untouched natural havens offering stunning vistas and plentiful wildlife. That image did not just find its way into the minds of Americans on its own: much of it is informed by posters created for the National Parks in the 1930s to help boost tourism.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued the executive order to establish the Works Project Administration in 1935, it was with the intention to help get Americans back to work in the wake of the Great Depression and improve infrastructure around the country.
One of the tenets of the WPA was to build infrastructure to support the National Parks Service, still relatively young at the time of the Depression. In order to increase awareness, the Federal Art Project conscripted artists to create silk-screened posters to attract tourism.
The artists were only able to complete 14 posters before the project was suspended as World War II began, but the colorful, simple graphics depicting the most scenic parts of the parks became wildly popular.
Only few of the original posters were known to have survived—that is, until a former park ranger named Doug Leen happened upon one headed for the dump at Grand Teton National Park. From then on, the self-proclaimed “Ranger of the Lost Art” has been on a mission to find and restore as many originals as possible. Now, about 40 are in the collection of the Library of Congress, National Park Archives, and in rare cases, private collections.
Now, a new book featuring contemporary National Park posters designed in homage to their WPA forebears is available from the “Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series.”
The book features updated interpretations of the classic poster style, highlighting the natural beauty of Yellowstone, Zion, and others, plus information about each park illustrated. (It is worth noting that the book does not engage with some of the thornier political questions surrounding the National Parks, or address the fact that they were taken from Native tribes.) For a preview—and a visual treat—see pictures from below.
The Art of the National Parks by Fifty-Nine Parks