Photograph by Joshua Haunschild
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Faux Mount Rushmore, Wall, South Dakota

Photograph by Joshua Haunschild

See the Quirky Marks Humans Leave on National Parks

These offbeat pictures examine the complex—but often necessary—relationship between people and wilderness in the modern era.

National parks are having a moment. With the National Parks Service's hundredth anniversary this year, the parks have been the focus of national media campaigns, news coverage, presidential visits, and social media strategies encouraging you to #FindYourPark. Often, and rightly so, the depiction of parks is adventure-filled and awe-inspiring. But Joshua Haunschild’s photos of national parks, monuments, and nature parks are not quite like that.

“I believe in creating images that are quizzical and express the ineffable,” he says. Haunschild’s pictures are quietly odd. He seeks out the quirky junctures where human activity meets the natural world—including restrooms right along with mountain ranges. All of his images show signs of a human presence, but few of them feature actual human beings, as if you showed up right after all the crowds had gone.

“Throughout this project I have taken images with and without people,” he says, “but [I] almost always find the images sans people convey a stronger message about our use of public lands. If a person is in the shot they too often become the focal point. This project is unabashedly about the land and our use of it. I want to show the human footprint.”

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North Shore, Salton Sea, California

Inspired by paintings from the Hudson River school and their romanticized view of our relationship to the natural world, Haunschild visited more than 20 national parks, national monuments, and nature parks to examine our modern interactions with the land. The resulting photos are cheekily deadpan.

“I consider myself a hybrid between classical landscape photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan and Ansel Adams and the 1970s road-trip photographers like Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld,” says Haunschild, who works with a digital medium format camera.

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Agathla Peak, Monument Valley, Arizona

Traveling from park to park in his 2007 FJ Cruiser (which is still going strong with over 100,000 miles logged), and spending night after night camping under a big sky, Haunschild has come to a slightly less romantic, but more pragmatic conclusion about our national parks:

“Ansel Adams said, ‘There is no use fooling ourselves that nature with a slick highway running though it is no longer wild …’ I think that our footprint in the parks is a necessary evil that allows hundreds of millions of tourists access to one of America's greatest assets, while trying to maintain an atmosphere of conservation and respect. However, news reports of people putting wildlife in their cars, vandalizing boulders to create 'art', and a blatant disregard for laws has always been a problem, and I'm afraid always will be. Although I can't find fault with the NPS when they're facing $12 billion in debt for just maintenance on top of record numbers of attendance. We as a society need to decide how far our footprint should be implanted on the land.”

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Badlands National Park, South Dakota

See more of Joshua Haunschild's work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

Becky Harlan is an associate photo editor for National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.