The grandeur of America’s national parks so inspired QT Luong, he quit a career in computer science, and embarked on a decades-long project to photograph all 59 parks, from Acadia National Park to Zion.
Like Ansel Adams before him, Luong has lugged his heavy large-format camera to some of the wildest and most scenic spots in the country, at times carrying a 70-pound backpack, scaling cliffs or kayaking through frigid waters.
And long before Ken Burns featured him in “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” in 2009, as the first person to have photographed all the parks in large format, Luong has been sharing his finely detailed photographs on his Web site.
With photography, Luong tells us, he aims to “convey my feelings of wonder and passion, to inspire people to go and seek the experiences that I had.”
In Acadia, he finds wonder not in the immensity of the scenery, as in Yosemite, his sentimental favorite. Rather, Luong writes us in an e-mail, “I always find the compactness of the park remarkable, that you can find such a variety of landscapes in such a small area.”
Among his favorite landscapes from the variety that is Acadia: The pink granite along Ocean Drive; the fall colors on top of Cadillac; the rugged coastline of Isle au Haut; and sunset skies over Jordan Pond, as seen from the top of North Bubble.
The park’s beauty lends itself well to large-format photographs because they “have such fine resolution that the prints show details that are usually lost to the human eye,” says Luong. “Acadia’s landscapes have a tremendous amount of texture, down to the single leaf, which are best revealed by this approach.”
Adventures in Acadia
Luong has photographed Acadia in the rain and fog, gone without dinner while trying to get to Isle au Haut, lost four days of pictures through a technical glitch, and experienced the beauty and solitude of Schoodic Peninsula, all of which he’s blogged about. While Acadia is one of the farthest parks from his home in San Jose, Luong has visited four times, the first time in 1997, most recently in 2011.
Rather than be frustrated by bad weather or small-town restaurants that close early off-season, Luong always seems to find a silver lining, and even a deeper meaning, as he writes in his blog.
On his 2009 visit to Acadia in the rain, Luong has this to say:
“The interesting thing with landscape photography is that with changes in light, seasons, and weather, you are never seeing the same scene twice. Some would not have been pleased that it rained most of the time during their two-day visit, but I welcomed the change. The rain made the pebbles on a beach glisten. Leaves look more saturated with colors. The fog created mood in landscape images of Jordan Pond. I could hear tourists stepping out of their car on Cadillac Mountain expressing their disappointment over the limited visibility. I would have been disappointed myself if this had been my first visit. Although trying to keep the lens dry was a challenge, since I had already seen the expensive views, I was excited to photograph in different conditions, and try to make the most of what nature had handed me.”
“I saw only two places where one can stay in Stonington, both right on the harbor and facing each other. After completing my sunset shot, I found out that one of them, Boyce’s Motel, was full (despite being a March weekday), while to contact the owner of the other one, the Inn on the Harbor, I had to walk down the street to use a payphone, since there was no cell signal. It was fortunate I had a few quarters, because all of the few businesses in the village were closed, which also meant that I would have to skip dinner, since I didn’t bring food with me, assuming wrongly that I’d find an open restaurant somewhere. Corea is even smaller. The lack of convenience was more than compensated for by the quietness and authentic character of the villages, a trade-off that I’d take every time.”
Luong has a way not only with pictures, but also with words.
And when he finally did make it to Isle au Haut, the adventures didn’t stop there. Because it was March, the mailboat only let passengers off at Town Landing. He had to cover more than 15 miles in a day, running at times, to make it down to the most scenic views, and return to catch the last mailboat back to Stonington.
His rewards, as he blogs about: Absolute solitude, not one other person the whole day on Isle au Haut, and one of his all-time favorite photos of Acadia, taken on the Goat Trail.
Treasured Lands, the book and exhibit
Acadia and the other national parks will be featured in an upcoming book, “Treasured Lands,” that Luong will be publishing by late 2015 or early 2016, in time for the National Park Service’s centennial (and also Acadia’s centennial).
“This will be the most comprehensive pictorial book about the 59 US national parks. It will be not only beautiful, but informative as well, including location notes that help readers find the most beautiful spots at the best possible times of the day and year,” Luong writes us by e-mail, in response to our interest in writing a blog post about him and Acadia.
He’s also looking for a venue to host his traveling exhibit of large-format photographs of the parks, also entitled “Treasured Lands.” It had a more than two-year run at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, MA, ending in 2012. (Wouldn’t it be great if there was suitable exhibit space in or near Acadia, at the same time he’s on his book tour, at around the time of the centennial?)
While best known for his national parks photographs and his appearance in Burns’ documentary, Luong has tens of thousands of other images he’s taken around the world on his Web site, www.terragalleria.com, and has been published widely in more than 30 countries. He also leads photo tours, with the next one to Vietnam in December.
Of his Acadia shots, sunrise at Otter Point graces the home page for Acadia National Park on National Parks Traveler, a comprehensive national parks news site, for which Luong is a contributing photographer.
The Bass Harbor Head Light with moon reflecting in the ocean was selected for the History Channel 2012 calendar. It is also one of the most popular purchases or downloads from his Web site.
Another popular purchase or download, of white birch bark and autumn leaves, headlines an essay Luong wrote about photographing Acadia for The Luminous Landscape, a Web site about the art and technique of photography. It’s the same photograph that tops this blog post.
In fact, Luong describes Acadia as having “some of the most beautiful fall foliage on the East Coast,” when asked to list his top 20 national parks by an online fitness publication, The Active Times.
How Luong became a fine-art photographer
Born in Paris of Vietnamese parents, Luong had an early interest in art and photography, having won a photo contest (and a camera) when he was about 12. But it wasn’t until he was in graduate school in the French Riviera and able to hike in the Alps almost every weekend, that he realized the draw of the mountains, and how he wanted to share the wonder and the passion.
“This was such a new world for me that I wanted to bring some of the beauty back with me and show to others,” as Luong writes on his Web site, in a section answering questions that students often ask him about how he became a full-time photographer.
When he came to California for his career in computer science, he was originally somewhat disappointed in the climbing compared with the Alps, he writes on an old mountaineering page he has archived on the Web. But he grew to love Yosemite and other of America’s national parks, and he dreamed up the project of photographing all the parks in large format and eventually went full-time.
A self-taught photographer, Luong learned from studying other photographers’ works, by visiting galleries and museums and collecting more than 1,000 books of photography. For instance, from studying Ansel Adams, Luong writes on his Web site, “I learned…that the landscape is not a fixed subject but something as transient as the light that makes it visible.”
Luong knows not everyone with a passion for the parks would do what he did, quit a career in computer science. “Full-time photography has many rewards, but requires sacrifices which may not be for everybody,” he tells us.
But what everyone can do “to enhance their lives is to get outside, and take a nature walk. In a world where too many artificial sensory inputs are available, this simple experience makes us feel more connected to the world,” Luong says.
“The national parks are a great place for that, as by design they protect some of the best scenery in this country, while making it easily accessible,” Luong says. “Despite their protected status, the national parks face many challenges, but people will not care for them if they have not experienced the places for themselves first.”
For that reason, he says: “Go out and visit a national park.”
Links to some of QT Luong’s more than 200 photos of Acadia National Park, by area:
Great Head and Sand Beach
Isle au Haut