The Timeless Beauty of Wilderness: Mark Burns on his Photo Exhibition, The National Parks Project

by Mark Burns

If you were to ask most Americans to name significant historical occurrences of 1864, most answers would probably involve the Civil War. But in fact it was in that same year that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant protecting the land that formally became Yosemite National Park in 1890. This action by President Lincoln was truly historic as it laid the groundwork to begin a movement in America toward protecting natural places for the enjoyment of the people. Eight years later in 1872, legislation by congress and President Ulysses S. Grant created Yellowstone National Park, thus becoming the world’s first national park. By 1916, America had established several dozen national parks and national monuments. The National Park Service was created to manage these public lands.

Mark Burns - Grand Teton National Park. Photograph by Craig Robbins.

Mark Burns – Grand Teton National Park. Photograph by Craig Robbins.

Prior to and throughout these events, explorers, scientists, painters and photographers worked in these western territories, many with the goal of preserving these special places of awe-inspiring natural beauty for generations to come. Arguably, it was the reaction and response to early paintings and photographs that had some of the biggest impact on the public and the politicians back east who helped draft legislation to ultimately preserve these amazing natural places. For me, as a photographer and artist, this was profound. I decided in 2010 that I wanted to photograph each of America’s 59 national parks as a tribute to those early painters and photographers whose work helped to protect many of these special places for generations to come. So I began ‘The National Parks Photography Project’.

Rialto Beach Seastacks. Mark Burns.

Rialto Beach Seastacks. Photograph by Mark Burns.

As a fine art photographer, I’ve always loved working in the black-and-white medium, and for this project, I felt it was a perfect fit. A contemporary yet timeless presentation of images, one of each of America’s 59 national parks in black and white would be my bridge back to the past century.

For five years, I traveled across America photographing the parks. My life on the road became one governed more by the environment than by people and modern demands. Much planning went into my trip scheduling as I was always chasing weather, guided in large part by the cycles of nature and the angles of the sun and moon.

Roaring Fork Branch. Mark Burns.

Roaring Fork Branch. Photograph by Mark Burns.

By the time the project photography was completed in October 2015, I had driven my Toyota FJ Cruiser to every national park in the Lower 48 at least once, and multiple times to many of them. The eight national parks in Alaska presented unique transportation challenges, most only accessible by bush plane, float plane or boat. For five weeks each summer in 2014 and 2015, I based myself in Anchorage, Alaska, flying out with bush pilots to remote areas for the photography. Getting to the parks in Hawaii, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands was relatively straight forward via commercial airlines.

Watchtower Evening. Mark Burns.

Watchtower Evening. Photograph by Mark Burns.

People are always asking me, “What is your favorite park?” That’s really difficult for me to answer. I have so many special memories from so many of them. With that said, I love the classic western parks — Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton — all truly beautiful places befitting of the title of ‘national park’. The immense feeling of true wilderness that I experienced in Alaska was a bit different. I will never forget the pristine ice blue water of the Ambler River near its headwaters in Gates of the Arctic National Park, or the vast solitude of Denali. I left these places with the belief that wilderness is vital and important… just for the sake of being wilderness.

Yosemite Valley - Tunnel View. Mark Burns.

Yosemite Valley – Tunnel View. Photograph by Mark Burns.

I’m also frequently asked about wildlife encounters, and most often about bears. In my experience, it was moose that occasionally were a minor problem. Moose are large, unpredictable animals. Bull moose chased me off trails a few times, and once in Grand Teton National Park just before sunrise, a cow moose with her young calf popped out of the trees within about 10 yards of me. She rolled her ears back, glared, snorted and stomped. I remember standing there in the pre-dawn light behind my camera and tripod trying to be completely non-threatening. I was lucky, after about a minute she turned and headed away with her calf following.

Bass Harbor Lighthouse - Study #1. Mark Burns.

Bass Harbor Lighthouse – Study #1. Photograph by Mark Burns.

As America celebrates the Centennial Anniversary of the National Park Service, we reflect back on the rich history of our national parks. But it’s also a time to look forward toward the next 100 years. Today our national park system faces much different issues than it did in 1916. Modern transportation and infrastructure make it easier than ever to visit our parks. It has been said that America’s national parks are being “Loved to Death”. In some areas, encroaching cities, towns and industry are presenting haze issues, and global warming is contributing to melting glaciers. Protecting and preserving these natural places during the next 100 years is vital and will present a multitude of unique challenges. After spending much time in the parks, I have my own opinions. I feel that potentially ‘easy’ accessibility should be limited meaning that if you want to get to a remote corner of a park you may need to hike some distance and/or backpack. I also feel that in some cases the parks should be viewed as natural ecosystems more so than just man-made boundaries on a map. The parks should represent the best of our natural world.

Mark_Burns_Olympic_NP_Photo_by_CRAIG_ROBBINS

Mark Burns – Olympic National Park. Photograph by Craig Robbins.

Today, for me, with ‘The National Parks Photography Project’ completed, I’m honored to have this collection of photographs traveling to various museums to be displayed for people to see.

It is my hope that the photographs will instill an awareness of America’s national parks in the viewers. Nothing is more rewarding than someone approaching me in a gallery and sharing that after seeing the exhibit, that someone is heading out to a park to explore and enjoy. In today’s digital world of minute-by-minute news and information, our national parks are a vital resource now more than ever. Our national parks can be recreational, they can be classrooms in nature, and they can be restorative places that are good for the soul.

During this Centennial Anniversary year, the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation have launched the marketing campaign titled #FindYourPark. I couldn’t agree more!

Editor’s Note: Mark Burns is the photographer of the upcoming Special Exhibition, The National Parks Photography Project, open June 17 to Sept. 28. Exhibition is free with purchase of general admission.

After touring Burns’s exquisite photographs, watch National Parks Adventure 3D at the Wortham Giant Screen Theater.

Hear Burns’s take on the wilderness for yourself at his Distinguished Lecture, “The National Parks — America’s Cathedrals of Nature,” Tuesday, June 21 at 6:30 p.m.

Making Geometric Images with a Smart Phone and a Teleidoscope

In 1817, Scottish inventor and optical scientist Sir David Brewster invented a tube with opposing mirrors running through it and beads of colored glass in one end. He called it the “kaleidoscope,” a word whose Greek roots mean “beautiful shape viewer,” which most of us have peered through and hooted in awe at around kindergarten age. It’s a simple design that capitalizes on a trick of light to incredible effects. Three mirrors arranged in a triangle reflect the light entering one end of the scope down the tube and across to each other. By the time it reaches your eye, it has reflected so many times it creates the effect of a precise geometric pattern that infinitely changes.

David-Brewster

Sir David Brewster.

Back in the nineteenth century, when optics were a new thing, this wasn’t just awe-inspiring for children; even adults were impressed. But Sir Brewster neglected to patent his kaleidoscope, and others copied the new technology and began manufacturing it as a child’s toy, likely costing him millions in potential income and in reputation. Good thing he had other inventions to lean on.

Sir Brewster is responsible for inventing the first portable 3D viewing device, which he called the “lenticular stereoscope.” He built the first binocular camera, the lighthouse illuminator, the polyzonal lens, and two types of polarimeters, a scientific instrument used to measure the angle of rotation caused by passing light through an optically active substance. This last device is used in the chemical industry to test the properties of new substances.

Jburnside3

John Lyon Burnside, III.

In 1972, the kaleidoscope’s potential was pushed a step further. John Lyon Burnside, III and Harry Hay patented a version of the geometry-creating tube that scrapped the bits of colored glass and replaced it with a spherical lens, allowing the viewer to point the viewing tube at any object in nature to see it reduplicated across the mirrors in the same way. They dubbed it the “teleidoscope.”

MirrorKit

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we sell both kaleidoscopes and teleidoscopes in the Museum Store. As a lover of photography, nature and geometric patterns, I experimented with this teleidoscope and my iPhone and captured some amazing images in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, and other locations around the museum. Some things work better than others, but for the most part, everything looks incredible through one of these bad boys.

Here’s how you do it, in photo steps. (You can get this awesome notebook at the Museum Store, as well.)

MirrorProcess

Grab a cool thing to take a photo of (or just go outside), and bring your teleidoscope and your smart phone or digital camera.

MirrorProcess2

Hold the viewing end of the teleidoscope against the lens of your smart phone or digital camera. Make sure it’s tight and that there’s no light leaking around the edges. It takes some practice, but you’ll learn quickly.

MirrorProcess3

Align your shot and snap it when you see a pattern you like. The edges will appear darker than the center. This is yet another property of light as it bounces around inside the scope.

And here are some of the images I made, cropped down to a square, eliminating the dark edges. What do you think?

MirrorCBCRoof

Roof of the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

MirrorCorpseFlower

Mandrake the Corpse Flower.

MirrorMineralBrown

Andelusite.

MirrorMineralGreen

Green fluorite and white barite.

MirrorOrchid

Pink phalaenopsis orchid.

MirrorOrchidMantis

Orchid mantis.

MirrorOwl

Owl butterfly.

MirrorRicePaper

Rice paper butterfly.

MirrorSandstoneConcretion

Sandstone concretion.

MirrorShell

Spondylus shell.

MirrorSmallOrchid

Orchid.

MirrorSquid

Giant squid model.

MirrorYellowOrchid

Orchid.

MirrorZebraLongwing

Zebra longwing butterfly.

Everything looks better through a teleidoscope! So buy one or make your own, and post your images on our social media. Your images look even better with Instagram filters! Don’t forget to tag us with #hmns and @hmns. We’d love to see what you come up with.

MirrorInsta

Earlier photo through Instagram’s Juno filter, with a few other adjustments I’ll keep secret. ;)

Aperture and Amber: Our Amber Secrets Pixel Party Recap

After-hours at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on April 10, we hosted one of our exclusive Pixel Parties — where we open select exhibits just for photographers (both amateur and professional). This time around, we gave photographers access to the Morian Hall of Paleontology and Amber Secrets: Feathers from the Age of Dinosaurs. Here’s a small sampling of what they gave us in return:

Michael Palmer, https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikedaddy/25767535184/in/pool-hmns/

Michael Palmer

Michael-Palmer

Michael Palmer

Sergio Garcia Rill, http://sgarciarill.zenfolio.com/hmns_amber

Sergio Garcia Rill

Sandy Grimm, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sulla55/26345218786/in/pool-hmns/

Sandy Grimm

Dwayne Fortier, https://www.flickr.com/photos/fortier_photography/25778251933/in/pool-hmns/

Dwayne Fortier

Randall Pugh, https://www.flickr.com/photos/uffdah777/26086547700/in/pool-hmns/

Randall Pugh

Arie Moghaddam, https://www.flickr.com/photos/coogie/25774417994/in/pool-hmns/

Arie Moghaddam

Randall Pugh, https://www.flickr.com/photos/uffdah777/26293102051/in/pool-hmns/

Randall Pugh

Ivan Moreno, https://www.flickr.com/photos/37chess/26322021871/in/pool-hmns/

Ivan Moreno

Ivan Moreno, https://www.flickr.com/photos/37chess/25783405474/in/pool-hmns/

Ivan Moreno

Arie Moghaddam, https://www.flickr.com/photos/coogie/25774411244/in/pool-hmns/

Arie Moghaddam

Randall Pugh

sandy

sulla55

Swords and Shutterbugs: Our Samurai Pixel Party Recap

After-hours at the Museum on March 1, we hosted one of our exclusive Pixel Parties — where we open select exhibits just for photographers (both amateur and professional). For our first event of 2015, we gave photographers access to Samurai: The Way of the Warrior.

And here’s a small sampling of what they gave us in return:

B. Tse photography

B. Tse photography

B. Tse photography

B. Tse photography

scscphotography

scscphotography

Roberto Valerio

Roberto Valerio

Alfred J Fortier

Alfred J Fortier

Nicholas Foster

Nicholas Foster

James Woody

James Woody

Alfred J Fortier

Alfred J Fortier

Arie's Photography

Arie’s Photography

sulla55

sulla55

Reed's Photography

Reed’s Photography

Bethany Tiner

Bethany Tiner

Dwayne Fortier

Dwayne Fortier

Randall Pugh

Randall Pugh

We couldn’t fit all the wonderful photos into this blog post. To see even more photos from this event, please visit our HNNS Flickr Group page.