Jennifer Emerling is a freelance visual storyteller based in Los Angeles, CA, specializing in travel and editorial photography. A modern day explorer, she is enchanted by small town life and the American West, which serves as her constant muse. Jennifer’s calling card is her saturated, otherworldly perspective. She highlights the uniquely American experience that’s both familiar and slippery in all of its wonderfully exaggerated folklore and whimsy. Her ongoing project, “See America First!” retraces road trips from her childhood and illustrates the present-day identity of tourism in the American West.
Hi Jennifer! You travel a lot for work, what is the most remote place you visited to shoot a project?
Hello! Thanks for including me on your blog. The most remote place I have visited for a project is Ushuaia, Argentina – also called “The Southernmost City in the World.” It’s more commonly known as the port city from where Antarctica cruises depart from, but I traveled there because I was curious about what life was like living at the end of the world. I’ve always been fascinated by how people live in remote places, so that’s usually what drives my travel plans each year. I’m dying to visit the Yukon, Greenland, Norway, and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, to name a few.
Do you remember the moment you knew you wanted to be a photographer and why?
I remember going on a college tour and hearing someone define what a photojournalist does for a living and having an instant gut reaction of “that’s ME!” Photography had always been a part of my life – I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t hungry for adventure, artistically driven, and seeking to understand the relationship of humans and their environment. Up until that point I had felt lost and directionless, but in that moment I knew what kind of photographer I was: someone who works in the field (not in a studio), travels, connects with new people, and tells stories. My career has evolved from a purely photojournalistic approach, though I have always maintained that foundation in my travel and personal work.
Tell us about your series “See America First”. It is about the American landscape but at the same time a very personal project for you…
“See America First!” began the summer of 2013. It was initially inspired by road trips my father took me on every summer, which were far and away my happiest childhood memories. My dad is well traveled, and from an early age he instilled in me a belief that the American West is the most beautiful place in the world. As a grown adult, I have since become a disciple of that belief and have centered all of my work on creating a photographic time capsule of the region. “See America First!” was also inspired by the original marketing campaign from the early 20th century of the same name – I wanted this project to explore the tourism identity of America in the 21st century and bring a new contemporary voice to one of the defining characteristics of our country.
“Photography had always been a part of my life”
Are you patriotic?
I think I could be considered a patriot in that I champion the beauty of America. Americans are incredibly lucky to have access to a diverse and vast network of National Parks – which is unlike any other country in the world. So many people I know have never been to Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon, and yet I regularly meet foreign travelers who love America because it’s so easy to get around. My hope is to that by sharing these unique attractions, more people will hear the call of pavement beneath their wheels and hit the road in search of their own adventure in the American West.
What camera did you use for this project?
I’ve been using a Canon 5D Mark III for the entirety of this project. I’ve taken a few polaroids here and there, but I’ve really come to embrace the digital age of photography and have found a way to make the crisp, clean, highly saturated output of the photos work in my favor.
Is it still ongoing? Are you looking to develop it more?
It’s definitely ongoing. There’s so much left I want to photograph, so I’m planning to spend time in Montana and Yellowstone again this summer. I’m hoping to develop it into a book, an interactive website, and an art show. I’ve also been shooting super 8 film while on the road, so I’m excited to start editing that soon, too!
Is there an artist or photographer that influenced your work more than others?
Aaron Huey’s “Walk Across America” is, in my opinion, one of the defining bodies of work on the subject of Americana – I often cite him as the biggest influence of my work. I’m also a lifelong subscriber of National Geographic Magazine; most of their photographers were my earliest influences, and that level of storytelling is usually what’s in the forefront of my mind when I’m working on projects. Other influences include: Lauren Greenfield, Danny Wilcox Frazier, Sam Abell, Stephanie Sinclair, Landon Nordeman, David Walter Banks, Alec Soth, and Corey Arnold.
About your project “The Two Mile High City”, what led you to wanting to shoot the series?
“The Two Mile High City” came about because I needed a destination to photograph for my travel photography class in college. One day, I was bouncing off ideas with my dad on the phone and he suggested Leadville – a town I had never heard of before. The selling point for me was that it’s the highest incorporated city in America, and I felt that the uniqueness of that paired with the mining history had rich story potential. What I found was a colorful community that was struggling to form its identity and thrive again in a post-mining economy. Leadville has been able to hold onto its Old West charm, but in the era of the “New West” it often has to fight against becoming another overdeveloped, highly commercialized ski town. I personally believe we need preserve towns like Leadville and not let them fall the way of ghost towns. Thankfully, huge events like the Leadville 100 invest in the community every year, which help keeps them on the map.
How much time did you spend in Leadville?
I originally spent two weeks in Leadville the summer of 2008, then returned again for three months in the winter of 2009/2010. Whenever I’m in the Rockies I always go out of my way to stop by – I miss it dearly!
Was it hard to gain the trust of the community while you were there to photograph?
On my second day in Leadville, I lucked out and met a young boy named Sam who was playing in a neighborhood park. He was incredibly eloquent, funny, and smart for his age so we just happened to hit it off. His parents ended up befriending me that day as well, and they became my biggest ambassadors during my time in Leadville. They let me stay with them and connected me with everyone in town – all of whom were extremely open and inviting. Leadville is a very special place, and the people who live there want to share it with others, so gaining their trust and building relationships was very easy for me.
What’s next for you?
I’m heading to Florida in February to start work on a sister project to “See America First!” about the unusual tourist attractions in Florida, and then in March I’m visiting South America for a month because I’ve always wanted to see the Atacama Desert (the driest desert in the world) and the Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt flat). This spring I’ll be opening a print shop, and I’ll be hitting the road again this summer to continue working on my projects.