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Pictures & Perceptions of a National Park: Zion's Forgotten Past
by Alex Clinton
WRIT 1122: Rhetoric and Academic Writing
Professor Casey Rountree
If I were to show you a picture of myself, as I look right now in my dorm room, what would be your perception of me? The desk lamp is making a bright circle in an otherwise dark room, there is a slumbering roommate on one bed, and I sit at the desk, hunched over a piece of paper, a pencil in hand. Would you see a hard-working, diligent student laboring at her desk in the late hours of the night? Would you take in my sweat pants, ragged hoodie, and messy hair and think that I was a lazy student paying the price of procrastination? Could you think both? Which image is true? Rather, is one perception truer than the other? If I were to write an autobiography of my freshman year of college, and I included the photo of me in my dorm room, what impact would it have on the story? It partially depends on how I tell the story, I suppose.
Forget that picture I just described; pretend it never existed. Instead, imagine if I filled this supposed autobiography with pictures where I am having fun with my friends, studying intently in a room filled with sunlight, jauntily walking to class on a beautiful day—all while I am impeccably dressed and groomed; I always look happy. Other than reminding you of a college admissions catalog, what would your impression of me be now? Does the lack of photographic evidence make nights like the one shown in the first photograph non-existent? Even if I told you about such a night in great detail and with precision, would the lack of an actual image affect your retention of the story or the influence the story had on your perception of me?
Ever since humans first painted the side of a rock, images have been used to relate stories, to communicate ideas or occurrences more directly than words could alone. Over time, humans developed several means of representing our messages—you’re viewing one right now, in fact. After all, what are letters but shapes that represent certain sounds and are grouped together to represent objects or ideas? If I write the word “goat,” chances are that a picture pops into your head of a four-legged animal with fur and horns, not the letters g, o, a, and t.
In all their forms and shapes, whether they’re actual pictures or just words on a page, images have a huge impact on a story. The presence or absence of images can change someone’s perception of a tale. This person might minimize or downplay aspects of the story that do not have images supporting them, particularly in the case of historical writing. If we don’t have an image of a person, place, or a thing—be it painted or photographed or etched in stone—how do we know what that person or location or object looked like? There may be written records, but how can we know that the author has actually seen whomever or whatever is being described? What if the author’s eyesight is terrible, and instead they are relying on other’s accounts, which may have been embellished? We interpret the world around us through our perceptions and observances, and there is an unspoken need to know for sure whether our mental images are correct or not. While it is true that paintings and photos can be tampered with, they are still trusted—whether they should be or not. In terms of modern readers, who have grown up surrounded by images of all sorts, pictures—photographs especially—provide validity to a factual story; they help to establish its ethos.
For example, many locations in the western United States that would later become National Parks didn’t start attracting tourists until they had been seen and pictured—either by paint or camera—by white settlers or travelers. Places like Yosemite in California, Crater Lake in Oregon, or Zion in Utah all began in this manner. Before seeing images of these areas, the public was not interested in traveling to them. Until they were shown physical evidence of these incredible wonders, people thought that the stories they’d heard were embellished or even made up. Visuals changed the public’s perspective of such regions from neutral (or even negative) to curious and positive.
Zion National Park is a good example of the impact that images can have on a place. Officially designated as Zion National Park in 1919, the park is a major attraction for the region, drawing almost three million people to southwestern Utah in 2013. Images of the geological wonderland of Zion Canyon are—with few exceptions—the only images associated with the park, despite the fact that the canyon makes up only a small portion of the park’s 229 square miles. These images, and the scenery shown in them, are what have made Zion National Park the world-wide attraction that it is today. They’ve shaped the history of the park ever since Euro-Americans settled in the region in the mid-1800s, and they continue to influence the public’s perception of the park by placing a subtle emphasis on the park’s natural beauty and geologic history rather than its anthropologic history.
The following photographs from the National Park Service’s webpage for Zion National Park present a specific image of the park to potential visitors. Out of the hundreds that have been taken of the park, why these photos?
The first photograph tells a story of Zion Canyon and the park it represents (see Figure 1). In this image, viewers look down Zion Canyon, towards the entrance of the park. We see the incredible rock formations and scenery that are characteristic of this park, including two of the major landmarks. The large rock wall centered in the photograph is called the Great White Throne, one of the dominant scenes in the park. Straight across from it, in the center along the right-hand edge of the photograph, is the peak called Angels Landing, which is also a familiar sight to those who have been to the park. Though it seems small compared to the monolith across the canyon, Angels Landing rises 1,500 feet above the canyon floor and is reached by a series of challenging switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles. Between the two formations lies the canyon floor, with the Virgin River winding its way off into the distance. From this vantage, it is easy to miss the road that follows the river, and it is impossible to spot the visitor center, parking lots, and campgrounds. This image tells the story of a pristine wilderness, one waiting to be explored and appreciated. It says to the viewer, “Look at this magnificence. Don’t you want to experience it in person?”
Figure 1 © National Parks Service
Along with other images on the website, this scenic photograph was chosen to positively influence the opinion of potential visitors to Zion. The stories the pictures tell of the park emphasize its unique and natural beauty while downplaying those parts that are less flattering. An example would be images of the park’s campgrounds on the website; they show pictures that highlight the surrounding scenery, rather than ones that show how little privacy exists between the individual campsites. By choosing and displaying certain images to potential visitors, the park influences their perceptions.
This second photo is unlike the others; it does not tell a story on its own (see Figure 2). It is available on the park’s webpage about the history of the area. Its caption simply reads “Southern Paiutes,” telling the viewer only about the general group to which these people belonged. The caption provides no indication of what they’re doing, or even where or when the photograph was taken. In the image, a group of Native Americans are shown gathered together, with six or seven people sitting on the ground and a crowd watching them. One person seems to be pointing to another person across the gap, or possibly at the ground in between them. There are children and adults watching, and everyone appears to be wearing traditional clothing, though it is hard to tell for some of the figures.
Figure 2 © National Parks Service
These are all observable facts, but how do they come together to make a story? How does the fact that the content of this photograph is a group of people (instead of scenery) change the kind of story it tells? As viewers, we aren’t given any context for this photograph, so we have no way of knowing if it was staged or natural; is this an activity that the group would be doing if no photographer was present? Who was the photographer? It is possible that the answers to these questions are not known, but that only adds to the incompleteness of this photo’s story.
This image accompanies a brief summary of the history of the people who continue to live in the area of Zion Canyon, from the Anasazi and Fremont tribes in the distant past to the Mormon settlers that arrived in the mid-1800s. The summary notes that the Paiutes arrived after the Anasazi and Fremont people left and that they lived in the region at least through the 1700s. This is the last mention of a Native American presence in Zion for the remainder of the article; there is no indication if the Paiutes inhabited the area when the Mormons arrived or if there was conflict or cooperation over land between the groups. The article gives the impression that Euro-American settlers found the Zion Canyon area uninhabited and moved in without displacing anyone else. However, a different source states that the Paiutes were still living in the area when the Mormons arrived, though it also neglects to mention what happened when the groups interacted. How does skipping over this conflict potentially influence the perception of would-be visitors to the park? Why are certain points of Zion’s past emphasized and others downplayed? An exhibit that I saw at the Zion Human History Museum on a past trip to the park seems to confirm the second source, and it also provides more details about this period in Zion’s past.
As I remember it, the museum exhibit describes the conflict that occurred between the white settlers and the Paiutes and how the Paiute’s way of life was changed by the arrival of the Mormons. The exhibit explains there were skirmishes and that, eventually, the Paiutes were pushed out of Zion Canyon—allowing it to be settled by Mormon frontiersmen. But why is it so difficult to find detailed information—including images—on this part of Zion’s history outside of the park? Several hours of online research were essentially fruitless. Almost all of the articles that I found, including those on the park’s main website, gloss over this blemish on Zion’s past. In a way it makes sense; after all, in a park whose name means “Heaven on Earth,” why would anyone want to tell potential visitors that there were times when it was closer to hell? Other unpleasant parts of the park’s history, such as the struggles the white settlers went through—including dealing with massive floods, poor soil, and extended droughts—are mentioned, but are also not emphasized. This unpleasant section of Zion’s past has been downplayed to avoid it becoming a part of the park’s reputation.
The perception of Zion encouraged by the website and other marketing tools is one of awe for its beautiful landscape and an appreciation of the amenities of the park. (For example, there is an entire page about the bus system.) The park is not renowned for the Native American history on the land, as the Grand Canyon or Four Corners regions are, and so their presence in Zion is neither denied nor fêted. A factor that has helped this subtle repression of history is that there are very few (if any) images depicting this troubled time. Even in the exhibit at the museum there are very few photographs; most of the images are artists’ renditions made for the exhibit. Of course, this could have a perfectly mundane and reasonable explanation: there weren’t any cameras or photographers around. Given the time period and the ruggedness of the territory and its inhabitants (both white and Native American), it’s not a stretch to conclude that bulky cameras were few and far between, and that people in the middle of a war over land aren’t likely to stop and take photographs.
Our perceptions of a place can be shaped by the images we relate to it. Conversely, they can be equally influenced by the absence of images, such as the case of unpleasant sections of Zion’s past being obscured. The lack of photographs from this time makes it easier to gloss over, because there isn’t a plethora of countermanding evidence for people to see. A prime example of this is the second picture in this essay. While it is paired with an article that describes the history of the people of the park, it’s not said if the Southern Paiutes ever lived in the canyon or if they were in any way related to the area. It’s possible that those details about the photograph are unknown. However, let us assume we know that the group of American Indians seen in the photo were living, or had lived, in Zion. Since we do not know when the photograph was taken, we cannot say whether it shows the group during a time of conflict, after the group had been pushed out of their land, or after a resolution had been reached. This photograph shows a peaceful image of the Southern Paiutes; they are gathered around a smaller group and are dressed sensibly, with clean, groomed hair. There are children present, and body language is relaxed yet curious. Overall, this photograph still reinforces the perception of Zion National Park as a place of peace.
It should be made clear, however, that I am not suggesting a malicious repression of Native American presence in Zion National Park by its administrators or by the Park Service. On the contrary, without the exhibit in their own museum, this essay would have never been born. I’m simply interested in examining how the images and stories they’ve chosen to tell online neglect to emphasize this specific part of Zion’s history, and how this has ramifications on perceptions of the park. There may even be good intentions behind these actions; for example, the locations of petroglyphs in the park are kept mostly secret to save them from defacement. The mandatory bus system that has its own webpage was the first of its kind in the lower 48 states and has seriously helped reduce traffic, noise levels, and air pollution in the park. In terms of base practicality, it only make sense for the bus system to have its own page, because visitors then have easy access to necessary information.
Images tell stories. The photographs we choose to display and the manner in which we present them help shape the story we want others to know. We can further influence the tale by withholding images—ones that show a part of the story we don’t want to share. This can be seen in the case of Zion: what few images exist of the troubled times in its history are not widely publicized because their stories don’t support the desired impression of the park. The absence of exhibited images of an incident obviously does not prevent or eliminate its occurrence, but that absence can result in an altered perception of the locus of that event. Like the photograph of the messy girl in the dark dorm room, the details of Native American history in Zion are easy to downplay because there is a lack of visual proof. Whether of person or place, images inform our awareness, knowledge, and understanding.
A note from the author
This paper was written for my WRIT 1122 class, which focused on the relationship between images and stories. When we got to pick our own topic, I chose to take a historical approach. I was particularly inspired by an article we read in class that examined the works of a famous photographer from the World War II era and analyzed how the composition, framing, and captioning of the photographs changed the effect they had on their audience. This article made me think of Zion National Park and the little-known history of the Native Americans who used to live there. At first I had considered writing about the history of the National Park System because of its rich history that is closely tied to images; I ultimately focused on a specific park—Zion—because I have been there multiple times. Additionally, thanks to a visit to the museum in Zion Canyon, I knew of this troubled time in the area’s history, and I became fascinated with how the images on the park’s website were used to encourage a very specific perception of the park. I think Zion is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and so writing this paper was not only a chance to analyze how images, and the lack thereof, can affect perception, but also an opportunity to spend tons of time thinking about and looking at pictures of this amazing place.
About the author
Alex—a sophomore from Henderson, Nevada—is majoring in environmental studies and minoring in business. She loves to read, get outdoors, and travel; she’s been lucky enough to visit amazing places like the Grand Canyon and Mt. Saint Helens. Alex also has a black belt in Tae-Kwon Do. One of her favorite DU memories is an afternoon of simply walking around the campus and surrounding neighborhoods the fall of her freshman year; it was a beautiful crisp day, and the leaves had changed color but hadn’t fallen yet. She strongly believes in protecting the environment, as well as in equal rights and fair treatment for everyone. While she still doesn’t have a clue what she wants to be when she grows up, she hopes to make a difference.
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