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BOOKS Brandon Hayes turns his camera toward U.S. parks
by Jake Ekdahl

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Brandon Hayes is a professional photographer who specializes in nature photography.

He and his husband, Sean Santos, plan to travel to and photograph all 59 U.S. national parks. ( Their trips are documented on . )

Windy City Times: What is the main inspiration for your work?

Brandon Hayes: That's a really good question. Certainly, the biggest inspiration for my work is being out in nature in the national parks. These landscapes are saved because we've decided as a nation that we want to protect and hold in esteem this amazing heritage. … Definitely being out in these spaces, you know, seeing Denali [National Park in Alaska], looking into the Grand Canyon. These are inspiring things. Just visually I'm inspired by these spaces. But in addition to that, when we're out there I'm inspired by seeing flowers, trees plants, the way the light plays across. It's sort of capturing that living, dynamic place in nature, too.

WCT: Walk me through your creative process. Do you typically have an idea and then go out and pursue it, or do you just go to a place and let the ideas come to you?

BH: I definitely let the ideas come to me. And so, when we go, we sort of have an idea of what we want to do there. And so we approach them, first and foremost, as this exploration; this odyssey, we've given ourselves 16 years to visit all 59 national parks. … It isn't so much going out and trying to capture the perfect image. It's very much documenting and capturing what we're seeing.

WCT: Do you have a favorite park?

BH: When I'm asked this question, I usually say Big Bend, in Texas. We went for my birthday, and its in November—which really limits the number of parks you can go to, but Big Bend was one of them. And I thought I'd like it, but I fell in love with that park. Because it has desert, it has mountains… It's just a magical, magical park.

WCT: Do you have a favorite plant or animal to photograph?

BH: That's a really good question. … I actually really like coyotes. There's a really great book, called Coyote America, that came out last year by Western historian Dan Flores, and he refers to them as "little Western song dogs" and I find that romantic. And so, I actually just printed four images for a client and its four coyote images, and I call them "sweet little Western song dogs." Yeah, I really like coyotes, actually!

WCT: So where did the idea for As They Are come from?

BH: So, the initial idea, way back when I was a youth—I think I was 12—my aunt took me to the Grand Canyon with my cousins. And I grew up in Detroit, so going out west was always really fun and exciting. It was just amazing. And the following year we went to Yosemite. And I had this book, Reader's Digest book of the national parks—full color, photographs and all that— and I would stare at them and I thought to myself, you know, as a [youth] someday I will go to all the national parks.

Later, my then parter [and current husband] Sean and I went to a friend's wedding in Akron, Ohio. We were there in Akron, in our hotel room, and we were looking out northwest of Akron and there was all this green. And I said to Sean "that has to be Cuyahoga Valley Park, just that sweep of green with all those trees." And he was very much game to try to visit all the national parks.

WCT: You guys [have visited] 23 of 59 national parks. Do you know what 24 is going to be?

BH: [Laughs] we do not. So last year, we hit eight because it was the 100th anniversary of the [National] Parks Service. And I [thought] "Let's catch up" because I had been to four national parks before we started this and Sean had been to one and, so last year, we calibrated.

I went back with Sean to the parks I had been to when I was a kid, and then we went to Dry Tortugas National Park which he had been to back when he was in college and then picked up some other ones along the way. I would say that probably the next big trip we want to do, possibly this fall, would be to fly into Portland and do the three national parks [around there], so Crater Lake, Lassen Volcanic and Redwood, and then we'd fly out of San Francisco.

WCT: I heard that the frames for your photographs are sustainably produced from bamboo and rubber trees. How important is produce and selling environmentally friendly products for you?

BH: It's hugely important. I mean, the photographs that I make, the art that I'm doing; they are inspired by and capture nature. And so to travel to these places and then to put the work together in ways that kind of ignore sustainability would seem like a betrayal of the process.

WCT: Some of your pictures look like they're taken from really high up. Are you and Sean pretty experienced climbers/outdoorsmen?

BH: Some of the images are certainly from hiking up. I do have a fear of heights, so a lot of the stuff that's up high is trails that we've gone to as opposed to actually rock climbing. Sean has a background in rock climbing, but I don't think I could handle that … and some of it is from an airplane flying over.

WCT: Do you think you might ever expand this project and go abroad? Are there any international locations you'd really like to see?

BH: That's a good question. Sean got me this gift: the National Geographic guide to the National Parks in Canada. And I said "Well, let's do the U.S. first." But I think definitely I could see us going to the Canadian national parks, because it's exploring more of North America, and then also the Mexican national parks, too.

WCT: What draws you to nature photography?

BH: I think that the thing that I like about capturing nature and about this project is twofold. I've got this friend who is this really talented street photographer; his portraits of people in Chicago are just extraordinarily good. And that's just not my thing; I think I'm too shy to do that. You know, you can take a picture of a tree, or a mountain, or a coyote, or an elk, and the elk either acknowledges you or it doesn't.

But I also like the idea that these landscapes are also transient. You know, the rocky mountains won't always be there, and certainly when we went to Alaska, these glaciers are actively retreating in front of you. And also, I'm fascinated by … this idea that the national parks are meant to protected in perpetuity, but that the parks themselves change.

WCT: When you're traveling to these parks, I imagine you and Sean have come across some pretty interesting places and people. Are there any that come to mind?

BH: Definitely. There's this couple in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. They were both retired and her husband had [multiple sclerosis], and they had sold their house and were traveling around as much as they possibly could while they were mobile enough for him to still do this. … She knew that eventually they would come back and probably go into assisted living or something and that would be their life. But, for the moment, their life was traveling and seeing these amazing places. They were a really amazing couple to meet.

See .

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