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The New West: Retracing William Henry Jackson: Boner’s book is a visual marvel

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CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

I had been waiting months for Bradly Boner’s book to arrive, after making a contribution to his successful Kickstarter campaign a while back. When “Yellowstone National Park: Through the Lens of Time,” finally landed in our living room recently, I was more than pleasantly surprised.

The book has spurred a lot of thinking about the rate of change in Greater Yellowstone’s landscapes; not so much about natural landmarks that weather the elements well and are the primary objects of Boner’s fascination; rather, change associated with how record numbers of people now are swarming the national parks during high tourist season, inundating front-country areas both inside and outside of Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and being accompanied by a rapidly expanding exurban footprint as people move here from other regions.

On March 10, I gave a talk on what the future could look like in Greater Yellowstone 25 and 50 years hence, based on data from demographers. It was delivered at the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative’s 2017 wildlife symposium that was well attended and held at the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts.

While the pace and scale of landscape transformation occurring in Greater Yellowstone’s human-built environment are among the swiftest in rural America, and likely to rapidly accelerate—with climate change potentially spurring even more inward migration—Boner’s book is a stunning reminder of what’s at stake.

Boner, a staffer at the Jackson Hole News & Guide, follows in a long line of photographers who have distinguished themselves in Greater Yellowstone. Beginning with pioneering shooters like Civil War veteran William Henry Jackson in 1871, photography has played an important role in advancing conservation of the region, sometimes making visible things that often go unseen or unappreciated.

Together with the romantic and exaggerated paintings of Thomas Moran, Jackson’s images helped convince Congress to set aside Yellowstone as the first national park in the world in March of 1872.

Like Boner and Jackson, many photographers have descended upon the ecosystem, including Ansel Adams and an esteemed fold of mostly nature-oriented lens people.

I could offer a list of notable camera artisans, especially were it to include recent transplants doing work for National Geographic and photojournalists who have served on the staffs of local newspapers.

Among them all, however, Boner deserves high praise for innovatively reinterpreting scenes courted by a personal hero. The idea behind his project was simple: revisit locations where W.H. Jackson made many of his historic photographs, take comparison shots and allow the contrasts between then and now to serve as muses for reflection.

As the eminent historian Robert Righter, a part-time resident of Moose, Wyoming, notes in his foreword, the book highlights the difference between how landmarks are faring outside protected areas like the national parks versus those found within them.

“Jackson’s record scenes along the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley in 1871 give an idea of a pristine country. One hundred and forty years later, buildings and roads—the artifices of human occupation—dot the landscape, intruding on our sense of the bucolic. But we are quick to note that Paradise Valley is not inside the boundaries of the park,” Righter writes.

He then adds, “By contrast, there appears to be minimal change in a great deal of the photographs taken within Yellowstone’s borders. This will be a happy revelation, for we environmental historians are, in the main, declensionists—believing that the world is ‘going to hell in a handbasket’ and humans are the reason. Some of the Jackson/Boner comparisons tell us that change is not endemic and that a ‘climax’ ecology is possible as long as we humans keep out of the way.”

Boner notes that the book contains all but one of the 109 8-by-10 photographs Jackson produced in Paradise Valley, Montana, and Yellowstone in 1871.

Not only is Boner a damned fine photographer, it turns out he’s a decent writer and storyteller, who treats us to how photography came to Yellowstone and why and how he retraced Jackson’s path. The sweetest visual rewards come with Jackson’s black and white nature portraits, made via the collodian wet-plate process, placed side by side against Boner’s own color counterpoints.

As intriguing as the seeming impermanence of mountains, waterfalls and canyons, Yellowstone’s famed geyser fields and travertine terraces have shape-shifted over the last century, some going dormant and in other places the life forces of the Yellowstone geologic hotspot giving rise to new features.

Boner’s account is a rich contribution to the canon of Yellowstone books that deserve a place in your library and makes for a handsome addition to the coffee table. He deserves our congratulations and praise.

Todd Wilkinson is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the West for more than 30 years and his column the New West has been widely read in the Greater Yellowstone region for nearly as long. He writes his column every week, and it’s published on on EBS off weeks. You can also read his latest book, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” a story about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly 399 featuring photographs by Thomas Mangelsen.

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