Women Crush Wednesday: Jennifer Emerling
Jennifer Emerling is a visual storyteller specializing in travel and editorial photography. She graduated from Brooks Institute with a B.A. in Visual Journalism and has had her work featured in publications such as American Photo Magazine. Ever since Jennifer was a child, she has been transfixed by the many landscapes and cultures she’s witnessed in her travels of the American West. Her current project, See America First!, stems from this fascination. In See America First!, Jennifer explores the current relationship and identity of tourism with the American West by retracing her childhood road trips.
Interview by Thomas Battistelli
What draws you to constant traveling?
I travel because I often feel called to go somewhere. There’s this overwhelming urgency that comes over me to see a place, and until I can travel there I’m completely obsessed with it. I need to go experience it to get it out of my system (although, even after the experience the obsession will linger, so I make plans to return). I started See America First! about 5 years ago because I felt called to retrace the road trips from my childhood. I’ve always carried with me a fascination about the culture and the natural landscapes throughout the West, and as an adult, I’ve become increasingly curious about the way the tourism industry intertwines with and evolved around Westward expansion and settlement. No other country I’ve been to has built their tourism identity quite like we have, and this inspired me to seek answers to questions like: What does it mean to be a Westerner? What are the visual touchstones of culture in the American West? What makes something iconic? How do we, as travelers, transform our awe and wonder into a relationship with the land? If we listen to the land, will this make us better at listening to each other?
I think of See America First! as a way to explore these curiosities, and help define the culture of the American West using my voice as a visual storyteller. The project was named after a call to action my father embodies, as well as a marketing campaign created by the Great Northern Railway while the national parks were being formed. What is interesting to me about this early 20th century campaign is that they used iconic landmarks of Europe as comparative touchstones to inspire Americans to travel to places like the Glacier Park (“America’s Switzerland”), and now, in the 21st Century, our American tourist identity is so well defined and unique that it attracts people from all over the world to see. European treasures are usually things owned by the wealthy, which directly contrasts American treasures—magnificent landscapes and historical sites that belong to all of us.
Who/what do you take with you to the open road?
I almost always travel by myself with my Subaru, a tent, and my camera. Traveling solo is key because it allows me clear my head, think about new ideas and meet people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. It also allows me to be totally flexible and stop whenever I feel that I need to explore a place longer, or when I stumble upon something that surprises me. Being on the road is where I come alive and feel the most creative + free.
What is the most magical/bizarre destination in America?
I’ve always been fondest of Yellowstone, which was once called “The New Wonderland” by another railroad company. I’m easily entranced by all the wonders there. The dramatic geyser steam that happens only during the early hours of the morning. The rainbow colors that emit from the Grand Prismatic Spring and the otherworldly travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. You can see grizzly bears that just walk through the hills in the golden sunset hours, and the mass gathering of travelers every 90 minutes to watch Old Faithful Geyser become larger than life. There’s numerous other places I have fallen under the spell of and return to often for their magical vistas. White Sands National Monument in New Mexico has the world’s largest gypsum dunefield, Badlands National Park in South Dakota gives you a mystical feeling of walking on the ocean floor, Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah surrounds you with Seussical-like rocks, and then in Northern New Mexico during monsoon season the empyreal sky dances with electricity across the land of enchantment.
There’s also something to be said about the delightful and joyous man-made destinations, too, for their magic comes alive in the handmade and heartcrafted details from the people who built them. I get really excited to visit places like Wall Drug in South Dakota, the Wigwam Village in Arizona, Carhenge in Nebraska, Trees of Mystery in Northern California, and Bedrock City in Arizona—the latter of which could have a future as an underground punk rock music venue! According to the dream of one employee I met there, anyway.
Was there a particular story you found fascinating?
The stories I often find the most fascinating are the ones where I feel a personal connection to them. I recently found a photograph of my grandmother standing in front of the same iceberg-filled lake in Glacier National Park that I also hiked to last summer, taken the same year I was born. The longer I work on this project, the more I find myself walking in the footsteps of ancestral memory that I wasn’t even aware of. It’s been very profound for me to document the memories of strangers while on their family vacations, only to find that the photos I take unintentionally mirror my own family photos from 20 or 30 years ago. This further confirms to me that these landscapes are memory palaces. I wasn’t fully aware of this when I started working on See America First!, but now I realize that’s what I was called to all along.
What is America/n to you?
America is geographically laced with stories waiting to be unlocked, shared, and remembered. We are land-rich, and to be American is to inherit the transformative beauty of these places, and then pass down that inheritance with precious care and grace. I tend to look at America with an optimistic long-view, while also not ignoring the dark shadows along the edges.
1. How would you describe your creative process in one word?
2. If you could teach one, one-hour class on anything, what would it be?
To be completely honest, I’m not sure I would be qualified to teach anything right now because I’m currently very focused on absorbing knowledge from others. I would love to take one-hour classes from all of the women interviewed in this series.
3. What was the last book you read or film you saw that inspired you?
Book: “The Hour of Land” by Terry Tempest Williams, because I love the way she weaves her role as a naturalist + activist with her own personal storytelling to give readers tools that help us better understand the history and future of our parks. I return to this book often for inspiration.
Film: “Lady Bird” by Greta Gerwig, because her cinematic love letter to the Central Valley in California (where I also grew up) has inspired me to finish my own.
4. What is the most played song in your iTunes Library?
It just depends on the week. This week it’s “97 Tears” by The Revelons, but my most played song of all time is probably “This Must Be The Place” by Talking Heads or “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey.
5. How do you take your coffee?
Black, in my Roswell New Mexico diner mug.