A Love Letter to America

Inspired by childhood road trips with her father, Jennifer Emerling decided to make a photo story that celebrates the beauty of the American West and explores what makes it so irresistible to tourists.

© Jennifer Emerling, from the series, See America First!

“Making this work has been one of the most creatively satisfying projects I’ve ever taken on and also one of the great challenges of my career,” says Jennifer Emerling of her wonderfully vibrant on-going series, See America First!, which presents a contemporary view of tourism in the American West. Emerling started working on the series in 2013 and has travelled to many of America’s most impressive national parks including Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Death Valley National Park, among other places. At each location, which could be a park or some other beauty spot frequented by tourists, she photographs the travellers she meets.

“My approach has been very similar to that of a street photographer,” she explains. “I spend hours hanging out at scenic vistas (particularly ones with iconic and instantly recognisable symbols of the West), and on the side of highways waiting for interesting people to appear for a portrait or to engage in a candid moment… It can take a long time to find a naturally occurring moment not centered round a selfie stick, although sometimes even that can be humorous and interesting.”

© Jennifer Emerling, from the series, See America First!

As a child, Emerling often went travelling with her father and says the happy memories she has of those summer road trips inspired her to make the work. “By retracing the road trips from my childhood I could develop my voice as an artist, which was especially meaningful given that my first memory of ever using a camera happened on a road trip to a national park,” she says.

Emerling also took inspiration from the original marketing campaign, dating back to the early 20th century, designed to promote America’s National Parks, which were at the time in their infancy. “Ads were launched combating the idea that beautiful places only existed in foreign countries. Glacier National Park, for example, was promoted as ‘America’s Switzerland’. The campaign See America First created a national tourism identity and defined the culture of traveling in the American West. My project picks up where the original campaign left off.”

© Jennifer Emerling, from the series, See America First!

What is especially striking about Emerling’s work is her bold use of colour and light, which, she says, “is intended to reflect my saturated, otherworldly perspective, to convey the feeling of joy, and engage the senses in a playful, child-like way. I believe colour amplifies the uniquely American experience that’s both familiar and slippery in all of its wonderfully exaggerated folklore and whimsy." She shoots primarily on a 35mm fixed lens because it forces her to get close to her subjects, says Emerling, and it encourages her to think carefully about how she fills the frame. Intent on layering her images with visual clues “that tie into the identity of the West”, she also draws inspiration from colour postcards of the 1950's and 1960's, while her use of wide angles and low perspectives are “a nod to my childhood self, revisiting those places as an adult.”

Her aim is for the series to provide “a visual tapestry” that serves to inspire unity at a time of great uncertainty and division among the American people. “My hope is that creating imagery that celebrates our common ground will shine a light on a positive aspect of our democracy,” says Emerling. “See America First! is my love letter to America, and my attempt at creating a visual conduit for empathy, which I believe is the best agent for change.”

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Jennifer Emerling is a freelance visual storyteller specialising in travel and editorial photography. To learn more about Jennifer's work, visit her PHmuseum profile.

Gemma Padley is a freelance writer and editor on photography, based in the UK.

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