When Rob Decker’s daughter got married five years ago, his life changed in more ways than one.
Yes, his family was doubling in size, but what Rob hadn’t realized was that by agreeing to handle the design work for the big day — namely, creating the save-the-date cards, table numbers, and a poster for all of the guests to sign — the 50-year-old photographer and graphic artist was charting a course toward one of the biggest and most important personal projects of his life.
A fan of the artistic style popularized by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the ’30s and ’40s, Rob modeled his work for the wedding on those colorfully nostalgic prints and developed a method for digitally transforming composite HDR photographs into retro-inspired works of graphic art. The results were beautiful, and although he was slightly torn about stealing any of the spotlight from his daughter on her special day, Rob became overwhelmed by the encouragement he received to pursue this style of work.
When it came time to decide on another subject to apply his WPA-reminiscent medium to, he didn’t need to think twice — the Colorado local chose the U.S. National Park System.
Saying that Rob Decker is a fan of national parks is like saying Julia Child occasionally enjoyed French cooking — it doesn’t capture the special place he holds in his heart for them. He visited his first national park, Yosemite, when he was just six years old, and only two years later, he embarked on a 10,000-mile cross-country journey to photograph the awe-inspiring landscapes of the various parks along his route. Back then, the parks were different, much simpler. They were still busy, but not as crowded as they are today, when visitors often have to contend with long lines, a lack of available parking, and a multi-billion dollar backlog of maintenance projects. You didn’t even need a reservation for a campsite — he and his family could just find a site and pitch a tent.
His love of the parks developed over those first few journeys, but his true passion for exploring and photographing them was solidified in 1979 when, at just 19 years old, he had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park. As they traversed the surreal countryside of the Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada High Country, the famed landscape photographer and environmentalist taught Rob about lighting, composition, and exposure — specifically, the techniques of the Zone System. Most importantly, however, he taught him about the concept of pre-visualization, the idea of formulating in your mind’s eye the image you desire before you even press the shutter. That technique would prove essential throughout Rob’s career.
Although the national parks have evolved over the past four decades, Rob recognizes that their core spirit — the sense of wonder they instill in all who explore their bounds — remains the same. In his mind, the parks truly are America’s best idea, preserving the country’s most breathtaking landscapes for the enjoyment of all and providing unparalleled insight into the vibrant natural history of our nation. In a society that’s increasingly dominated by technology, on a planet under the constant threat of climate change, and under an administration that does not appear interested in preserving our public lands, he believes that it’s more important now than ever that we inspire the next generation of national parks supporters.
And that’s precisely what his National Parks Poster Project aims to do. The mission is straightforward: Rob plans to visit all 60 national parks and create WPA-style posters that capture the single, iconic image representative of each one. In Arches, for example, he chose the unmistakable profile of Delicate Arch, and in Rocky Mountain National Park, he opted for a picturesque view of the Continental Divide. The WPA itself had embarked on a similar mission back in the ’30s, but because there were only 26 national parks in that era, and because the WPA’s artists had only completed posters for 14 by the time the administration was dissolved, Rob sees his role as simply picking up where they left off. And with 43 parks under his belt, he’s well on his way to producing a complete collection.
To directly support the parks he’s immortalizing in his work, Rob donates 10 percent of his profits to pro-National Parks organizations. This includes organizations such as the National Park Foundation and Eastern National, as well as park-specific organizations like Yellowstone Forever and the Yosemite Conservancy. When possible, he also earmarks his donations to go toward educational programs. Last year, for example, his donation to the Western National Parks Association helped 250 children complete the Junior Ranger program.
Overall, however, Rob hopes that the contributions of the project are not just financial, but cultural. By harnessing the nostalgic power of the eye-popping WPA imagery, he aims to instill in the general populace the same awe for our public lands that consumed him from such a young age. He wants people to be encouraged to get out and explore and to take advantage of these amazing places we’re blessed to have such wide-ranging access to. From where he stands, these lands that have been passed down from generation to generation are a gift, and we should be committed to ensuring that they’re as enchanting tomorrow as they are today.
As Ansel Adams taught Rob, in order to capture an image you must first visualize it. And with his poster project, Rob is doing just that — visualizing the iconic images that make up our nation’s parks and preserving their cultural legacy for future generations to enjoy.
To learn more about the National Parks Poster Project and support America’s best idea, click here.
Header image by Britain Peters