My Relationship With Shenandoah National Park – A Photographer’s View

This post comes from Duane Polcou, one of the 2017 Artist in Residence in Shenandoah National Park. The Trust is proud to support this program, and looks to expand it in 2018 with your help.

My Relationship With Shenandoah National Park – A Photographer’s View

By Duane Picolou

Big Meadows, Duane Picolou

Growing up in New Jersey, lets’s just say Wilderness was not at my doorstep. The Garden State has its’ share of natural places, to be sure. The Delaware Water Gap NRA, Great Swamp NWR, Island Beach State Park to name a few. As lovely as these places are, true solitude and wildness is but a temporary illusion. Even in the most remote sections of these pockets of nature, the sound of traffic and the presence of human development is always just a short distance away.

By 1972, when I was 14, I had ventured on camping trips with my family in the amazing desert Southwest of the United States. I had experienced vastness and big skies and red rock, and returned to the East utterly convinced that to get that feeling, that awesome middle of nowhere feeling, I needed to take a big trip West of the Mississippi. There simply isn’t anywhere here in the East than can compare, I thought. Boy, was I ever wrong.

My Dad and Mom convinced us kids to take one last family camping trip, this time to a place called Shenandoah National Park. It was close. About a six hour drive to Front Royal from Bound Brook, NJ (at least in those days it was six hours). It had mountains. John Denver sang about the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River. It seemed like an interesting place, but not an overly exciting place. I had just begun photography in earnest, and the visual magnets for someone so young and inexperienced were things that had obvious appeal. A refined sense of vision and an appreciation of subtlety just did not exist yet.

But…something happened to me on that trip to Shenandoah in the summer of 1972.

Pine Cones, Duane Polcou

My father and I walked the Whiteoak Canyon loop and I started to look closely at everything. I took pictures of things most tourists would pass by without a single nod. And among it all, I found myself enjoying this place as much as anywhere else I had ever been. Thus began a lifelong love of Shenandoah National Park.

It would take about 15 years before I really began to understand and pursue the process and art of Black and White photography with a 4×5 view camera. From that point forth, Shenandoah National Park became a very welcome and exiting destination. A place to explore visually. The skyline drive and all of the viewpoints are unique in that there is something to see in every direction. You can look up at the peaks, down into the valley, through the trees into the woods during a rainstorm. There are rocks and streams and meadows and trees creating such an abundance of visual diversity that it is almost overwhelming. If you just take the time to look.

That is the fun and joy of this place. Once you make the conscious decision to travel slowly and thoughtfully through the park, with an open mind, a fallen tree becomes as photogenic as morning clouds down in the valley. A fern or a pine cone can create as beautiful a composition as a grand waterfall. The things within this place are endless, really, and no one will ever see it all, let alone photograph it all.

But that in itself is the wonderful pursuit; the always present invitation to come back and see more.