NATIONAL PARKS EMINENT PHOTOGRAPHER
FRANK LEE RUGGLES
Text copyright © 2017 by Frank Lee Ruggles
Photographs copyright © 2017 by Frank Lee Ruggles
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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
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
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
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
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