Interview: QT Luong and His "Treasured Lands" Book

Introduction

This interview is part one in our series of discussions with authors of impressive and inspirational photography books. Today, most people view the vast majority of photographs at tiny sizes on small screens. At least for me, there is something numbing and unfulfilling about scrolling through photos on an app like Instagram. On the other hand, sitting down with a beautifully printed book allows a reader to immerse themselves in a photographer’s curated body of work. We are able to see photographs exactly as a photographer intended for them to be seen and at a size that allows the viewer to appreciate details and nuance. It feels easier to linger over a book and consider a collection of photographs as a whole. I also find it inspiring to think about the dedication, time, and perseverance it takes for a photographer to conceive of an expansive project and see it through.

About QT Luong & Treasured Lands

Today’s interview is with QT (Tuan) Luong, the author of Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks. Without physically seeing the Treasured Lands book for yourself, it is difficult to characterize how much of an accomplishment it is to visit all of these places, photograph them well and in diverse ways, write about each park, and pull everything together into a coherent narrative and visual celebration of America’s Best Idea. 

Treasured Lands is a truly impressive and inspirational representation of a life’s work (the book is 456 pages long, with more than 130,000 words and 500 photographs). The book contains a helpful narrative section on each park, covering information about the area's ecosystems, geology, seasons, a map, and notes about each photograph. The photographs themselves go far beyond the typical icons featured in many photography books. Instead, QT sets out to share a more nuanced view of each place, displaying a diversity of views from across each park. I especially appreciate that the book includes both expansive grand landscapes and smaller scenes, an approach that helps showcase a fuller picture of each of the places featured in the book.

If you appreciate America’s public lands and nature photography, this book surely deserves a place in your collection, both because of the visual inspiration and because it offers a treasure trove of information that could be helpful in expanding your own photographic pursuits. We keep this book in a prominent place in our own home and both continually come back to it to enjoy the photographs and seek out new places to explore on our own.

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QT was born in Paris, France to Vietnamese parents and originally trained as a scientist. QT eventually made his way to California, settling in the San Francisco Bay Area in part due to its proximity to Yosemite National Park. In the 1980s, QT’s life was transformed by wilderness experiences, first as a climber, then mountain guide, and eventually as a nature photographer. In 2013, QT became the first person to photograph all 59 national parks, a project that eventually evolved into the creation and publication of Treasured Lands. Treasured Lands has won six national book awards and is a critically acclaimed best seller. QT lives in San Jose, California with his wife, two children, chickens and a Chihuahua. 

Question: After writing our own ebooks, it is hard to imagine the amount of work that went into creating Treasured Lands (from afar, including the word “odyssey” in the title seems fitting…). At what point in your photographic journey did you conceive of this project, how did it evolve, and how long did it take to complete? 

The diversity of nature in the national parks is what inspired that photographic journey. When I started it in 1993, my initial goal was to make a few representative large format photographs in each of the national parks.  Back then, I didn’t think I could even come close to David Muench’s accomplishment, and even in the late 1990s, I had no serious plans to monetize my photography. So the idea for a book didn’t come before the early 2000s.  Stan Jorstad had published in 1997 a book with the then 54 parks. I noticed that it featured at most a few images per park, like the David Muench books. At that time, I had seen enough of the parks to know that this was not sufficient to do justice to the diversity found within each of them.

I envisioned a more comprehensive book that would give a more complete depiction of them. My goal shifted to try to photograph each of the corners of each park. I also realized that the book could be much more useful, especially to photographers, if instead of just images, it also provided practical and detailed information about the location of each of the images. The first image in the book is from 1993, the last one from 2015, so the book represents 22 years of photography. I had accumulated notes for more than twenty years, but I started writing in earnest only at the start of 2015.

 Gorge Creek falls in summer, North Cascades National Park Service Complex. Washington, USA.

Question: With Treasured Lands, you have published four photography books. What lessons and advice do you have to share about the experience of publishing and marketing a photography book? 

Making a photography book requires a different skill set than photography, and this could be the subject of a lengthy book by itself. Although other photographers had told me that my initial design was fine, art director Iain Morris created something that was so much better. Except maybe for the simplest projects, working with book professionals, in particular a designer experienced with photography books, can make a huge difference. 

For my first book, I did nothing but hand out image files.  On the other hand, for Treasured Lands, I was in control of all aspects. I envisioned the concept for the book, wrote the text, and participated in the final image selection and book design. Looking at my successive titles, I think increased involvement resulted in better books. You have to know what you are doing, and what you are trying to do, it cannot be someone else’s vision.

It is easy to underestimate the amount of work that goes into making a book, and even more how hard-won every sale is. With photography books, this is compounded by the high production costs and limited sales. Once time is taken into account, most photography book projects hardly turn any significant profit. You do them because because unlike other media, they are a permanent record, a lasting legacy. These days, the marketing will fall squarely on your shoulders, so you better have a good plan to reach your audience.

 Sequoias in winter snow storm, Grant Grove. Kings Canyon National Park, California, USA.

Question: This next question comes from our own ethical struggles related to publishing location guides. Treasured Lands is a visual celebration of America’s national parks and is certain to inspire people to visit the majestic places you share in the book, especially since you include helpful information for each park. On the other hand, many of these places are facing massive pressure from increased visitation. How do you think about this dynamic of inspiring people to visit some places that cannot handle current visitation levels? 

The environmentalist Kenneth Brower, the son of David Brower, wrote: “Wilderness is spoiled not by love but by greed. The only thing that has ever saved wilderness, a single acre of it, is a constituency." It is something that was understood by the National Park Service, from Stephen Mather’s efforts to make the parks into tourist attractions, to the 2016 “Find Your Park” campaign. Only people who have seen those places will care enough to fight for them. Others may feel that crowds have ruined their park experience, but it pleases me to see that people are loving their national parks, especially since I can always find ways to escape the crowds for myself – in the book, I recall a solitary experience at Old Faithful. 

The National Park Service has been addressing the issue of protecting the areas that cannot support massive visitation by establishing quotas and permits. For other areas, the visitation pressure often results from too many people wanting to visit the same small areas at the same time, and one possible solution is to try to help spread visitation. Most other books about the national parks concentrate exclusively on the most 30 popular or so and feature only iconic sights. Treasured Lands gives equal coverage to each park, even the lesser known and visited, and encourages exploration by featuring lesser known locations even in known parks.

 Stream in fall, Smith Springs. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas, USA.

Question: With the scope of a project like Treasured Lands, I am sure there were some ups and downs at all stages of the project – the photography, writing, design/layout, publishing, and marketing. From following you on social media, it seems like you came out of the project with a high level of motivation to continue exploring and creating photographs related to the project. How did you stay motivated and continually cultivate your creativity throughout such a massive project? 

Primarily, I am passionate about the national parks. Such a project required a lot of time, persistence, and resources. If you are not passionate about the subject matter of your project, you are not going to find the energy to constantly work on it. 

If you always do the same thing, it can become repetitive, but in the course of the project, I was constantly open to change, learning and adapting. While my outdoor proficiency was rooted in mountaineering, I had to learn the skills dictated by each park’s terrain, from scuba diving to kayaking to canyoneering. My photography craft also evolved from large format film photography to digital photography, and I added many techniques such as night, underwater, high-magnification, or time-lapse photography. I reformulated the goals of the project several times, even the choice of my subjects has evolved in unlikely ways. And this is just the photographic aspect of the project, I learned so much about book publishing.

The more expertise one acquires, the more one realizes how much more there is to know. Writing the book only sharpened my awareness of how many experiences there are to be had, corners to explore, and photographs to be made. Looking at the work of past and present photographers make me realize how much room there is for improvement in my own photography. 

 Ferns and flowers in spring. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, USA.

Question: With more than twenty years of experience as a nature photographer and experience with expansive photography-related endeavors, what advice can you offer to photographers who are interested in embarking on a personal project? 

To have something interesting to say about a subject, you need a thorough understanding of it and often, this means proper research. But even though you cannot know if you have something new to say if you also don’t study the work of the photographers who came before you. I am surprised that so few younger photographers look at photography books or are familiar with the history of the medium. 

It is essential that the project mean something to you. If you care enough, there is a chance that your audience will.  Photography is about life. Maybe ask yourself what do you love outside of photography?  The reason for undertaking the project has to be clear enough that you are able to communicate why you want to do it.  Having a framework, a road map, rather than just reacting to what you see will save a lot of time. This could be as simple as a list of the subjects you want to photograph for your project. 

You can learn more about this project and purchase Treasured Lands directly from QT Luong here. You can also purchase the book on Amazon.com