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On a chilly morning in November, 1903, Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir awoke near the top of Glacier point, high above the Yosemite Valley, shook the snow from their blankets, and embarked on an 11-mile hike that Roosevelt was soon describing as “the most wonderful day of my life.” The two men posed for a photograph that eventually reached millions of people through the distribution of stereographs by the hugely successful company of Underwood and Underwood and in many later publications, including National Geographic. The image, with Yosemite falls prominently in the background, shows Roosevelt dressed for hunting, Muir for the classroom, gazing at the camera as if to prove the existence of the spectacle behind them.
Muir had deliberately postponed, at the last minute, a planned journey to Asia to accompany Roosevelt on a three-day camping trip and sought the president’s support for the preservation of the stands of gigantic redwoods around Yosemite. Around the campfire, he did not hesitate to ask Roosevelt why he continued to hunt animals, a childlike pursuit in Muir’s eyes. Nor did Roosevelt shrink from pointing out that Muir knew plenty about trees and mountains but did not recognize the songs of birds in the area that he himself knew intimately. The two men became strong allies in the conservation of wilderness areas as national parks, forests, and monuments: Muir’s preservation efforts, legendary in themselves, perfectly matched Roosevelt’s desire to promote his own sense of the West, imbued with glories of the hunt and exploits of explorers and cowboys.
The popular reception of these early photographs by the public was in part due to the daring nature of the photographers themselves. The development of photography could not have had a more dynamic subject than the settlement of the American West by easterners rushing for gold and seeking renewal after the losses of the Civil War. The people who understood the power of photography quickly grasped the significance of easily reproduced images. As the Philadelphia Independent newspaper reported in 1904 about Theodore roosevelt: “While talking, the camera of his mind is busy taking photographs” (Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, 1979). The statement says much about Roosevelt’s tireless engine of self-promotion but also about the acceptance of photography as a medium in his time. In a little more than 50 years, photography had become so pervasive that it served not only as a documentary method but also as a metaphor for human memory. The American West had already become a standard by which to measure human endeavors—and the public has remained hungry for images of the West to this day.
This book gathers the best images of the West published by National Geographic over its 125-year history, and also reveals some surprises from the National Geographic Image Collection. Many of the images will be instantly recognizable for their subjects; others less so. Arrayed together, they tell a story about imagination, spectacle, adventure, and surpassing beauty, together with startling views into the daily struggles of people and animals in a vast and often intimidating territory.