Q&A: Photographer Brian Kelley on New Book, PARKS
Over 300 pieces of park maps, brochures, and printed materials creates a visual archive for outdoor enthusiasts and design nerds alike
A 1964 Grand Canyon National Park brochure was the first piece photographer Brian Kelley purchased, marking the beginning of a multi-year hunt to piece together a visual history of the United States National Parks. The culmination of this search is Parks, a new hardcover book published by Standards Manual—the second collaboration between the two New York-based entities.
Featuring over 300 pieces of national parks brochures, maps, and general ephemera spanning over 100 years, the minimalist book showcases a nearly a century of anonymous art, cartography, graphic design, and printed materials. These everyday, oft-overlooked materials act as entry points for exploration of the larger topic—and when viewed as a whole, tell a unique story about both the individual places they reference and the time in which they were created.
As a publication dedicated to the intersection of good design and the great outdoors, Parks feels like it was created specifically for us. And, as luck would have it, Kelley is close pals with a few of the Field Mag crew, so we got in touch to dig a bit deeper into this new project.
What is your personal connection to national parks, your relationship to the outdoors?
I grew up with my dad taking us on camping trips all the time as a kid. But when I moved to NYC for college back in 2006 I probably went 10 years without going to a national or state park. In 2016 though, I bought a used car and drove across country with a friend and spent a lot of time in the Pacific Northwest.
Olympic National Park was the first time I saw really big trees, the ones you can’t really comprehend. I became hooked after that and since then have started a life long personal project focused on big trees called Gathering Growth, in which I document America’s Champion Trees—the largest of their species—to inspire and inform the public on the necessities of forest preservation and the importance of trees in our everyday lives.
What fascinates you most about the national parks, in regards to what you’ve found and featured in this book.
The scale of the National Parks Service is something that fascinates me. There are so many areas that the NPS manages, between Parks, Monuments, Historic Sites, Seashore, and more. You only every hear of the big ones though. I hope this book can bring to the light some of the unknown.
Do you have one favorite item in the book? A brochure, map, or archival image?
My favorite collection is the 1916 National Parks Portfolio, a collection of brochures of the first National Parks to be created. Each one has a black and white photograph on its cover. The photographs seem like a distant past. A National Park that we may never know as they did back in 1916.
Is there any linear nature to the objects you’ve unearthed, be it design identity, copywriting style, color, etc?
The book is in chronological order of brochure/map release date. Not every single brochure ever made is in the book... that’s basically impossible. But between Jesse and Hamish [of Standards Manual] and I we picked out the best and worst designs to represent the growth of the NPS.
In what era did the national parks have the best design and visual identity?
Between the late 60s and 70s was the best.
Literally, how did you find all this ephemera. Did you haul it all back to NYC to photograph in your studio?
I love eBay :) I think I found 85-90% on eBay. Just digging and trying different keywords over the last year and half. With these types of projects it just takes time. It’s all dependent on when people post these things for sale. Sometimes you get lucky and someone has put up their dad’s collection of travel maps—that’s when you get a good haul.
This is your second book with Standards Manual, following New York City Transit Authority: Objects. Do you see connections or parallels between the two projects?
I have an obsession with collecting objects that once all together represent a lot more than the individuals. And giving life to something that others might look over. Similar to the tree project I’m working on now. And with Standards Manual, I think they have a similar outlook when it comes to design. Showing their audience design collections has way more impact than just one piece. Hopefully we’ll do more in the future.
Anything else you want to touch on? Any timely takeaways or relevant realizations?
Go visit National Parks, but leave them cleaner than how you found it.