The Works Projects Administration (WPA), originally the Works Progress Administration, was the largest and most ambitious agency in FDR's New Deal. The WPA appropriated 6.7 percent of the country's GDP in 1935-$4.9 billion-to hire millions of unemployed people for public works projects. WPA workers constructed buildings. They built roads and bridges across the nation. The agency also became a patron of the arts, hiring writers, musicians, painters, actors and directors for large scale artistic productions and programs.
And they made posters. Lots of posters.
The WPA's Federal Art Project hired unemployed artists to make paintings, murals, sculptures, graphic art, photography, theater sets, museum scenes, arts and crafts, and two million silkscreened posters. (Most are lost. The locations of only about 2,000, or 0.1 percent of those printed, are known today.) Those two million posters promoted education, the arts, public health, travel, and some served as war propaganda. But a small fraction-14 of some 35,000 designs-became some of the most iconic posters ever created: the National Parks posters. Glacier. Yosemite. Mount Rainer. Grand Teton. These famous parks and more had gorgeous designs celebrating their grandeur.
From 1935 to 1943, an estimated 1,400 National Parks posters were printed to celebrate the formation of the NPS back in 1916-100 years ago. Today, just 41 posters are accounted for, and two of the original 14 designs-Wind Cave and Great Smoky Mountain-have been lost completely, existing now only as black-and-white photos of the original posters.
"These posters had disappeared into history," says Doug Leen, better known as Ranger Doug, a former park ranger of 7 years at Grand Teton, a nature photographer, a silkscreen artist, and the self-styled 'Ranger of the Lost Art.' "For 50 years they were gone, totally gone."
For the small collection of authentic WPA posters we do have, America owes a debt to people like Ranger Doug who have spent years tracking them down and preserving them. Most of the classic National Parks posters you've seen were probably imitations created by Doug to mimic the originals or original works he himself created for the parks that didn't get WPA posters before World War II, when the posters faded out of import and disappeared into boxes and desk drawers.
"In 1971, I found an original," says Ranger Doug. "I fished one of Grand Teton out of a pickup truck that was going to the dump."
Of the 41 originals that still exist, some are badly damaged or ripped. Eight of the known 13 WPA posters of Bandelier were cut up and used as file dividers in an NPS office. Some are tucked away in private collections-sold to mysterious buyers whose identities auction houses will not divulge, as is the case with the one known original WPA poster of Yosemite. (The poster sold for $4,600 in 2006, and it would easily fetch more than double that price now).
"I have a collection of six of these," Ranger Doug says, referring to original WPA prints. "It's the largest collection. The Library of Congress has five. The rest are scattered within the National Parks and they're in private hands. Yosemite is in private hands-it's unknown by anyone else except the owner."
There are almost certainly more of these treasured posters buried in NPS archives or slowly fading away in cabin attics, waiting to be discovered. Ranger Doug is offering a $5,000 reward to anyone who can supply him with an original copy of Wind Cave National Park or Great Smokey Mountain, the two missing from the 14 original designs, or a Yosemite original that's not stuck in someone's private collection. After he uses them for reproduction work, he plans to donate the posters to the Library of Congress, as he has done with others in the past.
Ranger Doug's own posters are so similar to the WPA's originals that he has run into copyright issues when people use his images for commercial goods like mugs and t-shirts, mistaking Doug's designs for 80-year-old images in the public domain. In fact, only the posters on the Library of Congress's website are in the public domain, and those designs account for less than half of the original designs.
The Ranger of the Lost Art isn't the only one who makes WPA-style National Parks posters-Robert B. Decker also creates his own designs-but Ranger Doug is the only one who meticulously imitates the silkscreening process used in the 1930s and 40s.
"In the silkscreen form, they are vibrant," Ranger Doug says. "A lot of people are printing these on little on-demand printers now. Printers have become so cheap, these giclée printers and their ink jets and whatnot, but you know, in a couple years they fade and they look horrible and people send them back to me to figure out where they went wrong."
Doug's recreations and imitations have become so iconic in their own right, that NASA has commissioned a series of space tourism posters, really in Ranger Doug's style more so than the original WPA prints.
And now, to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, here are all the WPA National Park and Monument posters in the public domain, as well as Ranger Doug's contemporary creations, which you can purchase here. Enjoy.
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