Book Review: Thirtyfour Campgrounds

Thirtyfour Campgrounds by Martin Hogue
The MIT Press, 2016
Hardcover, 266 pages

It's summer, which means – deer ticks be damned – it's time to get outdoors. For many, getting outside equates with camping, which in the United States most likely means heading to one of the thousands of campgrounds run by KOA (Kampgrounds of America) or some other private or government operator. Catered to people with as little as a car and a tent or as much as an RV with all its trimmings, campgrounds are places that most people take for granted; they provide a number of home-like amenities but also act as starting points for venturing into more untamed nature via hiking, fishing, and other activities. As depicted in Martin Hogue's clinically artistic Thirtyfour Campgrounds, they are places of potential, of "civilization" interfacing with "nature" so people can get away from the former and explore the latter.

One of the most telling photographs in the introduction to Hogue's book is Bruce Davidson's "The Trip West. Camp Ground no. 4.", taken in Yosemite National Park in 1966. Eight people (a family? four couples?) sit in lawn chairs facing the camera, with a backdrop of cars and campers extending their conveniences (grill, scooter, high chair, Ritz crackers, televisions) deep into the rest of the campground. It's evident that nature is not a setting for new activities; it is merely a backdrop for the same old domesticated activities. Considering how much our lives – now fifty years later – are spent indoors, part of me likes this idea, that being outdoors in any guise is healthier for us than being indoors. But the rest of me sees the obvious philosophical quandary here: Shouldn't nature be a place to escape from our commodified existence? Or have our lives become so intertwined with our belongings that our belongings must extend into nature as far as possible via campgrounds and other settings?

[Bruce Davidson, USA. 1966. The Trip West. Camp Ground no.4. Yosemite National Park. © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos]

Most of Hogue's book resembles the cover, which depicts Duck Creek (Utah), one of the 34 campgrounds documented through photographs of individual campsites from and In the case of Duck Creek there are 58 campsites, while other campgrounds have more – as many as 501 campsites at Cheney State Park in Kansas. Given that the nearly 6,500 photos in the book are culled from online resources that serve to give campers a sense of what each campsite offers, there is a consistency – mind-numbing at times – within each campground. Branched Oak State Recreational Area (Nebraska), for instance, just shows one patch of asphalt driveway after another, while Seawall in Maine's Acadia National Park is littered with colorful tents and some RVs – but, oddly, no humans. Although I can't imagine anybody outside of the author examining each photo in Thirtyfour Campgrounds one by one, the differences between one campground and the next are obvious from just a quick scan of the book.

Before delving into the presentation of the campgrounds, which recalls Ed Ruscha's Thirtyfour Parking Lots in name and the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher in format, Hogue lays out his analysis through diagrams, photographs, and texts that touch upon the history of the campground and the geography of camping. These give the campground photographs that follow a strong theoretical footing, while the admitted influence of Ruscha and the Bechers lend the project its artistic bent. Ruscha's documentation of parking lots is particularly relevant, considering that campsites are basically parking spaces that campers use for a few days. That Walmart opened up its parking lots to RVs in 2001 (a fact mentioned by Hogue more than once), it's clear that campgrounds are the story of automobiles colliding with the American landscape. With wireless access standard at most campsites, we're now witnessing the collision of communications technology with campgrounds. While this might mean campers don't need to haul as much stuff as in decades past, it also means we leave even less of our daily lives behind when we get out into nature – or what's left of it.