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ruggs

CHASING

LIGHT

NATIONAL PARKS EMINENT PHOTOGRAPHER

FRANK LEE RUGGLES


Text copyright © 2017 by Frank Lee Ruggles

Photographs copyright © 2017 by Frank Lee Ruggles

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any

form, or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, without the prior written

permission of the publisher.

Designed by Keith Sherrer, Product Crew, Franklin, TN, USA

Manufactured in China

First Printing, 2017

Library of Congress Control Number: 2017933579

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WHAT I BELIEVE

If I can create a body of work that is beautiful and compelling, perhaps the people I meet

will be inspired to join me in helping to save these beautiful national parks and natural places.

Indeed, as you f lip through the pages of my life’s work, my eyes turn to you.

Will you be so inspired? And will you take a stand to preserve our parks?

FRANK LEE RUGGLES

COVER MESA ARCH, CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK, UT

INSIDE ALSTROM POINT, LAKE POWELL NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, AZ

PREVIOUS JACKSON LAKE, GRAND TETON NATIONAL MONUMENT


Introduction 7

IN 1871, WILLIAM HENRY JACKSON descended into a remote valley in the wilds of Wyoming

to photograph the wonder and geologic beauty of Yellowstone Basin. In the aftermath of the Civil

War, soldiers on both sides of the conflict steered west, sending home stories of the great geysers

and waterfalls they saw on their journeys. Surely, the East Coasters thought, these were tall tales as

far-fetched as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. But Jackson’s photos proved otherwise, the geysers and

wondrous spaces were real. And what a marvel they were.

Images truly have the power to move hearts and minds. Jackson’s photographs became a national

sensation and were hung in parlors around the country. Sensing a tidal shift in public opinion,

Congress stepped up with a radical notion: to preserve Yellowstone for all time by creating the first

ever national park. Yellowstone, they believed, was a national treasure that deserved to be kept for

future generations. Today, over 300 million of us each year travel to the over 400 national parks and

monuments to gape in wonder at the natural spectacle of our country.

There are things we believe in.

Holding onto the open door of a C130 looking down on a dark jungle hiding who-knows-what, your

parachute hooked to a wire, about to be flung into the night sky, you start asking yourself what you

believe in. Like surviving the night, for sure. Like helping the guy in front of you. And the guy

behind. And maybe bigger things, like protecting our country and the earth we stand on.

I was a paratrooper with the legendary 82nd Airborne; enlisted out of high school,

promoted to Sergeant in just two years, planning a lifetime of service to my country.

And then a training accident nearly cost me my left arm and stole away my future.

The VA performed three miracle surgeries; I kept the limb though I’d never be “combat” reliable again.

I resigned from the military with honor…but few prospects.

At your lowest point, you ask yourself: What do you believe in?

LEFT JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK UNDER THE MILKY WAY AND MOON


8 Introduction

Introduction 9

I was homeless for a time. I took what jobs I could. I searched for my path. My future wife, Lisa,

introduced me to my first camera and I began to discover wide-open spaces and the thrill of

photography. I took a job at a One Hour Photo and hung my images on the wall. In time, I shared my

work in galleries and gave hiking tours in the parks. I moved to DC and took work as the exclusive

photographic printer for the Secretary of State and for other federal agencies.

I got the phone call while hiking the George Washington National Forest, the one that changed my

life. The National Park Service asked me to join them as Eminent Photographer. My hero, Ansel

Adams, had once been Eminent Photographer and just a handful of others in the history of this

country; this was the role of a lifetime. During my four-year assignment, the NPS sent me to over

a hundred destinations to photograph highlights of the parks. During my tenure, I photographed

over 80,000 images for the Park Service Historic Photograph Collection, creating their first digital

archive (and doubling the 40,000 images from all-time leader George Alexander Grant, the first Chief

Photographer for the Parks whose project spanned an astonishing 40 years.)

But magic hour came at twilight. Each evening as my assignment for the NPS came

to a close, I’d put down my federally owned camera, picked up my own and headed

off to chase light until the sun went down.

What a grand adventure it’s been… I’ve traveled to all 50 United States, hiking over 15,000 miles,

venturing off the grid, disappearing into pristine wilderness for days at a time, capturing the unseen

wonder of America with nothing but 42 lbs. of camera gear on my back. I’ve forged rivers, scaled cliffs

and slept under the stars with just a poncho wrapped around me. I’ve stood atop George Washington’s

head on Mt. Rushmore and held Lincoln’s death mask in my hands.

On one trip to Denali National Park, I hopped off a short cliff into a stream, unaware of the hidden

cave below…or the 8 ft. grizzly resting inside of it. When I splashed into the water, the bear reared up

on his hind legs, just as surprised as me. I backed away, singing a little song to soothe him, “Please,

ABOVE BROWN BEAR, KATMAI NATIONAL PARK, AK


Introduction 11

Mr. Bear, don’t eat me.” The bear fell to his paws and ambled away down the river. For the next two

hours, I followed the grizzly, photographing him in his element, amidst the majesty of the Alaskan

wilderness.

I once spent three days on a solo trek photographing the stark beauty of Death

Valley. One night, I went to sleep after a fine dinner of beef jerky and woke up to

find a coyote sniffing inside my mouth… curious, I guess, if I had any leftovers!

You’ll find these photographs in the pages that follow.

This book is a testament to the beauty and wonder of our national parks. It is also the story of my

life told in images. I hope it conveys how profoundly the parks have affected me. I am at home in our

nation’s parks and only truly happy when I have their dirt beneath my boots. After all, we’re only 5,000

years removed from living in caves. I believe it’s in our genetic code to need fresh air and walk the

land and feel a part of it. I can only guess that it’s my 50 years of loving this earth that has made me the

conservation photographer I am today.

In the years since my assignment as Eminent Photographer, I’ve become an advocate for our national

parks. I lecture and exhibit my works around the country, taking my message from grade schools

and universities to art galleries and museums, sharing stories of what I’ve seen, pleading my case for

conservation and (as W.H. Jackson demonstrated nearly 150 years ago) hoping there’s power in my

images to change the world.

ABOVE SUMMER STORM, CANYON DE CHELLY NATIONAL MONUMENT, UT

NEXT HORSESHOE BEND,GLEN CANYON, AZ

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