Roger Minick, Woman with Scarf at Inspiration Point, Yosemite National Park

The majesty of Yosemite National Park—with Roger Minick and the woman with the scarf.

Roger Minick, Woman with Scarf at Inspiration Point, Yosemite National Park (Sightseer series), 1980, dye coupler print, 38.1 x 43.18 cm (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) © Roger Minick, a Seeing America video

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:06] We’re in the LACMA Study Center for Photography and Works on Paper, looking at a really witty photograph by the photographer Roger Minick, “Woman with Scarf at Inspiration Point, Yosemite National Park.”

Elizabeth Gerber: [0:22] Part of the reason people love this image is with a quick take, you understand what’s going on. At the same time, the photograph gives a nod to the role that photography has played in the history of America’s national parks.

Dr. Harris: [0:34] Photographers like William Henry Jackson, Carleton Watkins, in addition to the painters that we think about, like Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, played a pivotal role in helping Americans understand the American West and create an image of the American West.

Elizabeth: [0:51] Some of Watkins’ photographs were circulated in Congress and were instrumental in Yosemite being set aside as land in what has become the national park system. You then fast forward to a photographer like Ansel Adams, who has made these places, in some ways, the icons that they are in the public imagination.

[1:12] And so that filter, that lens of photography is one way that we understand our national parks and perpetuate the iconic status of these spaces.

Dr. Harris: [1:21] It’s no wonder that if you visit these places today, you go to some place like Inspiration Point, and you take out your camera and you snap the picture just like everybody else, but it’s your picture and you were there.

Elizabeth: [1:33] The more time you spend with the image, you notice that her scarf has Yosemite Falls on it, one of the major destinations when you’re in Yosemite Valley. Here at Inspiration Point, to the left she’s looking at Half Dome and to the right she’s looking at Bridal Veil Falls, not Yosemite Falls.

[1:52] And so I think you get that understanding of the circulation of imagery and the commodification that comes with tourism.

Dr. Harris: [2:00] What’s especially wonderful, I think, too about this photograph is that she’s got her back to us. You do enter into her place and imagine what it must be to see this almost transcendent landscape in front of you. But at the same time, you’re drawn into the present world of tourism, and reproductions, and souvenirs, and those two things coexist in this image.

Elizabeth: [2:26] In some ways, I think this picture brings up for us, what is humanity’s role in these exceptional landscapes of our national parks? It also brings up the question, what is the inspiration that we get from nature here at Inspiration Point?

Dr. Harris: [2:44] We often think about photography as snapping a picture, but there’s so much intentionality and thought here. We actually have some quotes by Minick that help to explain what he was thinking and doing when he created this “Sightseer” series.

“[2:59] Previously, I tended to look on sightseers with disdain. I’ve never considered them a ‘subject’ I would want to photograph seriously. But something about what I was witnessing made me realize, here was a fascinating cross-section of people engaging in a uniquely American activity, and it was something that I now suddenly very much wanted to photograph.”

[3:20] It does make us think, what do we expect to get out of these views? For 19th-century American painters, it was this view of the sublime, the sense of the power and grandeur of the American landscape, which is still very much present, but also somewhat diminished if there are buses, and parking lots, and souvenir shops.

[3:44] What happens to that experience? Is it fulfilling, or maybe it’s just a lot easier to get to and see and experience? There’s something wonderful about that, too.

Elizabeth: [3:54] I think Minick, in photographing this series over multiple years, came to wonder about these very questions of the ubiquity of tourism, the easily accessible aspect. What was the role of this journey that people would take, and then the snapshot that they would also take?

[4:12] He writes, “In the end, I came to believe that there was something more meaningful going on — something stronger and more compelling, something that seemed almost woven into the fabric of the American psyche.

“[4:25] I would witness this most dramatically when I watched first-timers arrive at a particularly spectacular overlook and see their expressions become instantly awestruck at this, their first sightseeing of some iconic beauty, or curiosity, or wonder.

“[4:36] I began to compare what I was seeing to the religious pilgrimages of the Middle East and Asia, where the pilgrims are not just making a trip to make a trip or simply to return home with some tangible piece of evidence that they were there — the snapshot — they have instead come seeking something deeper beyond themselves, and are finding it in this moment of visitation.

“[4:55] For as with all pilgrimages, they have made the journey. They have arrived, and are now experiencing the quickening sense of recognition and affirmation, that universal sense of a shared past and present, and, with any luck, a shared future.”

[5:08] [music]

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Key points

  • Art played an important role in educating and encouraging the preservation of natural lands through the National Parks Service and have helped make places like Inspiration Point iconic landmarks. Roger Minick’s Woman with Scarf builds on a legacy of American photographs of majestic landscapes while also grounding this work in present-day tourism.
  • With her back to the viewer, this woman is part of a tradition of landscape painting that encourages viewers to imagine themselves before a sublime vista. As we appreciate the beauty of Inspiration Point, however, we are also drawn to her souvenir scarf and are reminded of the commodification that comes with tourism.
  • Minick believes that, even with modern conveniences and commercialization, the process of sightseeing remains meaningful and powerful. Watching people journey to famous landmarks, he reports a transformation that takes place as they arrive, not unlike a religious pilgrimage.

More to think about

Roger Minick’s quote about his photograph compares the sightseers at national parks to pilgrims, who experience a profound set of emotions, including a “universal sense of a shared past and present, and, with any luck, a shared future.” Have you visited a place that felt like a pilgrimage? Where did you go and why?

Today, more than ever, we document our lives with snapshots. Do you think that taking photographs helps people experience places and events, or does it keep them from being in the moment and experiencing the range of deeper emotions Minick refers to?

Cite this page as: Elizabeth Gerber, LACMA and Dr. Beth Harris, "Roger Minick, Woman with Scarf at Inspiration Point, Yosemite National Park," in Smarthistory, December 3, 2019, accessed July 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/minick-woman-with-scarf-yosemite/.