National park posters preserve an era
By DIANE DANIEL
Doug Leen calls himself the "ranger of the lost art." His mission: to find, restore and reproduce vintage National Park Service posters.
Lee started the work in 1973, when he came across a circa-1939 poster of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, where he had worked as a seasonal ranger. The poster series was produced by the Federal Art Project (1935-43), part of the Works Progress Administration, or WPA.
The WPA original work is known today mostly through murals that have survived on the walls of post offices and schools around the country, but nearly 35,000 poster designs were made, according to Leen, who says "99 percent have been lost forever."
The posters, about 50 of each design, were created by the government to promote education, theater, health, safety and travel. After his first discovery in the Teton park, Leen, 55, struck gold at the National Park Service archives in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. There he found black-and-white negatives of 13 WPA posters of national parks such as Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Mount Rainier.
If you've been to a National Park gift store in the past few years, chances are you have seen his postcards, note cards and silkscreen poster reproductions. (They also are sold at book and gift stores and on Leen's Web site.)
The eye-catching illustrations, in unusual shades of purple, pink, green and orange, "are a snapshot in time," Leen said. "With the baby boomers maturing, a lot of people wax nostalgic for the National Parks and what they looked like in the old days.
"The original images are in the public domain, but I took the copyright on restoration and colorization," said Leen, who began the $150,000 restoration project as a hobby and turned it into Ranger Doug's Enterprises, based in Seattle.
With only the black-and-white negatives but not the original palettes to go by, Leen attempted to recreate the original colors by studying the era's typography, graphics and color selection. Later, when other posters were found (there are now four originals known), his color selections turned out to be strikingly close, he said in a telephone interview from Haines, Alaska. (Leen worked the past winter and spring as a traveling dentist in the back country.)
His home base, though, is Port Townsend, Wash., where he lives on a tugboat.
"When I first started selling them, it was really difficult. It took a lot to get them into the park bookstores. But once people realize what they are, they just snap them up," Leen said.
"The average tourists still go for the rubber tomahawks and turkey-feather headdresses," he said. 'I got so fed up with the low quality of merchandise. It really degrades the National Park system and what it's for. If you think back to the '30s, to the strength and the designs of the roads and all these buildings, well, we need to get back on track."
Leen said he has set up a foundation to give money to the parks and other conservation efforts, and that he also has raised money for the parks by selling limited-edition recreations of posters. These are also used for marketing for environmental groups. The National Parks Conservation Association, for instance, has given out 500 posters to members of Congress, to promote the cause of preserving the parks.
"I was looking at an article about Joe Kennedy in Time magazine, and there was one of my Glacier (National Park) posters on his wall," Leen said. "It's flattering.
"We do a lot of fund-raising with the images. Even though I own the rights, I consider them public domain. I'll probably donate them all to the Park Service when I go to the great national park in the sky."
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Leen's WPA National Park posters on 80-pound paper cost $30; packs of 16 postcards or eight notecards are $12. To order, call toll-free 1-888-972-7678 or visit http://www.dougleen.com/rangerdoug/index.html.
Diane Daniel is a Boston-based freelance writer.
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