When F.D.R. established the Works Progress Administration, the country was very deep into the depression. As part of his “New Deal”, he knew that key was to put America back to work, and 8 million Americans went to work for the WPA. Under the WPA the division of the Federal Arts Project was established. The FAP is mostly remembered for it’s murals, hundreds of which were painted on walls in schools, hospitals, airports, post offices and courthouses. There were also more than 2 million posters produced.
With clean, simple lines, layered in color, black-and-white details and, of course, the sans-serif fonts, the WPA posters were the modern merging of cubism and geometric abstraction.
On August 26, 1938, the National Park Service poster program was launched by Dorr Yeager, assistant chief of the Museum Division of the Western Museum Laboratories in Berkeley, California, using WPA artists. 14 parks subscribed to the offer. It’s unknown just how many of these posters were printed, some runs could have been as small as 50 to 100, and the WPA/FAP stopped production in 1941.
For 35 years, these posters completely disappeared into history, until 1973 when a Grand Teton poster was saved from a trash pile.
It was this poster that piqued the curiosity of seasonal park ranger Doug Leen, (also known as Ranger Doug).
The young park ranger was on clean-up duty, clearing out an old horse stall at Beaver Creek, when he noticed the poster hanging by a nail on a crossbeam. He rescued it, took it home, and the poster hung in Doug’s Seattle home for 20 years before the director of the Grand Teton Natural History Association called, looking for a poster idea to commemorate the renovation and relocation of the Jenny Lake Museum. Leen had the perfect image and faithfully reproduced the poster, printing 600 copies for that event. It was then that he contacted Tom Durant, who managed the print and photograph collection at the National Park Service archives in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Durant located 13 black-and-white photographs of National Park posters and gave them to Leen. These negatives and the single Grand Teton poster, then the only one known to survive, were the templates used for Doug’s reconstruction of this set.
Ranger Doug’s Enterprises was born, reproducing original posters and designing new park images in the style of the FAP poster artists..
With the re-publication efforts underway, originals slowly began to emerge back into the public domain. It took another five years for two Mount Rainier posters to surface in a garage near Seattle, rescued in a similar fashion from under a park log cabin. A year later, another Mount Rainier poster turned up in an original frame. When taken apart to clean the glass, it was discovered that three posters were “sandwiched” together—the center one in pristine condition. These original colors were used for a limited edition for Mount Rainier’s Centennial, celebrated in 1999, and the other two were donated back to the National Park Service.
National Parks started searching their archive’s flat files with Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest both finding originals stashed away.
The Petrified Forest National Monument poster boasted a full nine colors!
In 2003 Bandelier National Monument discovered 13 posters in a file drawer—some cut up and used as cardboard file dividers! In 2004 a Los Angeles art collector stumbled upon the largest single find: nine original park posters in a print shop. The nine posters were sold through the Swann Gallery in New York for $38,500. Just a few years ago, a third Grand Teton poster surfaced as cardboard in a plant press in White Sands, New Mexico. Today, only 36 originals have been found and only one copy is known to exist for Yosemite, Zion, Lassen, Glacier, Fort Marion, and Petrified Forest. The three posters that remain unaccounted for are Wind Cave, Great Smoky Mountains, and Yellowstone Falls.
According to Doug, the original park posters were printed in very limited quantities, perhaps as few as 50, and were not for sale, but created to entice people to visit the parks. “As a result, most posters did not survive,” Doug said.
He’s documented only 36 survivors to date.
With the popularity of the original park posters creating a demand, many other parks today have commissioned Doug to make contemporary images “in the style of” the WPA posters. He uses the same silk screening process that the original FAP artists used. He even mixes the colors himself.
This truly American poster style continues to inspire artists working today.
Check the Ranger Doug website for even more history, and of course, to purchase your own copies of these beautiful prints.
Oh yeah, and Doug wants me to remind you that a percentage of all sales goes directly back to our national parks.