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Observation Points

The Visual Poetics of National Parks


Thomas Patin, Editor

Observation Points

A new understanding of visual rhetoric offers unique insights into issues of representation and identity

By examining how rhetoric—particularly visual rhetoric—shapes our views of nature and the “natural” place of humans, Observation Points offers insights into questions of representation, including the formation of national identity. The collected essays cover a wide array of subjects, including park architecture, landscape painting, public ceremonies, and techniques of display, advancing a provocative new visual genealogy of representation.

National parks are the places that present ideas of nature to Americans: Zion, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone bring to mind quintessential and awe-inspiring wilderness. By examining how rhetoric—particularly visual rhetoric—has worked to shape our views of nature and the “natural” place of humans, Observation Points offers insights into questions of representation, including the formation of national identity.

As Thomas Patin reveals, the term “nature” is artificial and unstable, in need of constant maintenance and reconstruction. The process of stabilizing its representation, he notes, is unavoidably political. America’s national parks and monuments show how visual rhetoric operates to naturalize and stabilize representations of the environment. As contributors demonstrate, visual rhetoric is often transparent, structuring experience while remaining hidden in plain sight. Scenic overlooks and turnouts frame views for tourists. Visitor centers, with their display cases and photographs and orientation films, provide their own points of view—literally and figuratively. Guidebooks, brochures, and other publications present still other ways of seeing. At the same time, images of America’s “natural” world have long been employed for nationalist and capitalist ends, linking expansionism with American greatness and the “natural” triumph of European Americans over Native Americans.

The essays collected here cover a wide array of subjects, including park architecture, landscape painting, public ceremonies, and techniques of display. Contributors are from an equally broad range of disciplines—art history, geography, museum studies, political science, American studies, and many other fields. Together they advance a provocative new visual genealogy of representation.

Contributors: Robert M. Bednar, Southwestern U, Georgetown, Texas; Teresa Bergman, U of the Pacific; Albert Boime, UCLA; William Chaloupka, Colorado State U; Gregory Clark, Brigham Young U; Stephen Germic, Rocky Mountain College; Gareth John, St. Cloud State U, Minnesota; Mark Neumann, Northern Arizona U; Peter Peters, Maastricht U; Cindy Spurlock, Appalachian State U; David A. Tschida, U of Wisconsin, Eau Claire; Sabine Wilke, U of Washington.

Observation Points

Thomas Patin is professor of art history and director of the School of Art at Northern Arizona University. He is author of Discipline and Varnish: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, and Counter-Memory in the Museum.

Observation Points


Introduction: Naturalizing Rhetoric
Thomas Patin

1. Being Here, Looking There: Mediating Vistas in the National Parks
of the Contemporary American West
Robert M. Bednar

2. Remembering Zion: Architectural Encounters in a National Park
Gregory Clark

3. Roadside Wilderness: U.S. National Park Design in the 1950s and 1960s
Peter Peters

4. Critical Vehicles Crash the Scene: Spectacular Nature and Popular Spectacle at the
Grand Canyon
Mark Neumann

5. How German Is the American West? The Legacy of Caspar David Friedrich’s
Visual Poetics in American Landscape Painting
Sabine Wilke

6. Yellowstone National Park in Metaphor: Place and Actor Representations
in Visitor Publications
David A. Tschida

7. Image/Text/Geography: Yellowstone and the Spatial Rhetoric of Landscape
Gareth John

8. Can Patriotism Be Carved in Stone? A Critical Analysis of Mount Rushmore’s
Orientation Films
Teresa Bergman

9. Thinking like a Mountain: Mount Rushmore’s Gaze
William Chaloupka

10. George Catlin’s Wilderness Utopia
Albert Boime

11. Memorials and Mourning: Recovering Native Resistance in and to the Monuments
of the Nation
Stephen Germic

12. America’s Best Idea: Environmental Public Memory and the Rhetoric of
Conservation Civics
Cindy Spurlock

13. America in Ruins: Parks, Poetics, and Politics
Thomas Patin


Observation Points

UMP blog - Planning a summer or Memorial Day weekend trip? These beautiful, significant national destinations are primed to spark the intellectually curious adventurer in you.

If you’re planning a trip to national parks and monuments this summer, Observation Points (more info below) might offer you some ideas on what to see and why. The book covers various techniques through which the National Park Service presents, displays, or exhibits the “natural resources” that are contained within parks and monuments.

Visitor centers and overlooks use displays, interactive didactic materials, and photographs to present information to visitors. Along with scenic overlooks and viewing towers, visitor centers are technologies of display, using landscapes as naturalizing media that shape the relationship of visitors to park environments. Some of the more compelling visitor centers are
Point Supreme at Cedar Breaks National Monument; Mount Rushmore National Memorial; and the new center at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. A state-of-the-art visitor and research center is also being built at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, slated for completion in October.

Read the full article.