Letchworth State Park, previously known as the Glen Iris Estate, was made public in 1906 in an effort to show the preserved nature of the land to the community so they could experience and appreciate the beauty that Letchworth himself cultivated. We have seen this 14,000-acre tract of land inspire travel narratives, poetry and photographs. We also have seen it attract those who admire the stunning views of nature and wildlife it has to offer, capturing some of the most beautiful ones on postcards and stereopticons to share with others. While these modes of expression and communication were the dominant mediums of their time, our methods and techniques for representing the picturesque continue to evolve—and the meaning of nature along with it.
In 2013, the term “selfie” was announced as the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year, having become so ubiquitous that the decision was made with “little if any argument” among staff. From its (possibly Australian) origins on social media sites early in the millenium, the word spread rapidly alongside smartphone usage and applications like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. Today, it’s likely that many of the photographs taken at Letchworth will be selfies with natural scenery in the background—occasionally with the aid of a so-called selfie stick. The practice of taking pictures of oneself and and then sharing them via social platforms on which others can view, comment, like, and even share them again is becoming normal. New York Times writer Jenna Wortham suggests that, more than simple narcissism, selfies follow in a tradition of self-portraits whose pictorial image is more vividly remembered than text and helps locate us in the world: “Rather than dismissing the trend as a side effect of digital culture or a sad form of exhibitionism, maybe we’re better off seeing selfies for what they are at their best—a kind of visual diary, a way to mark our short existence and hold it up to others as proof that we were here.”
As a “way to mark” our life-narratives and the location of their individual moments, digital photographs are geotagged using satellite-enabled global positioning systems (GPS). A selfie taken on a smartphone by default includes a geotagged location; in fact, privacy concerns have arisen from unwitting social postings that extend even to animals: poachers use the information of tourist safari photographs to track endangered species (Pasick). But geotagged photographs are just one aspect of a much wider technological revolution, for research scientists tagging endangered animals are encountering the same problem (Actman). The difficult thing to grasp is how the geocoding of virtually any information—photographs, videos, the archival documents in OpenValley, a body in space—changes our relation to the world.
Besides the practice of creating and sharing selfies on social media, another distinctive use of GPS has changed how visitors experience Letchworth State Park: the culture of geocaching. Sometimes described as treasure hunting, it is a recreational activity where one uses a GPS device (or smartphone app) to find weatherproof containers, or caches, at locations throughout the world. Each cache holds a log book and often various trinkets for participants to trade and collect. At Letchworth, which allows geocaches to be placed so long as they follow certain guidelines, they often are located at certain points in the park deemed interesting or holding a particular beauty; the illustration at left shows a 2017 Geocaching.com map of the Middle and Lower Falls area. Many of Kodak’s twenty “picture spots” have a geocache located nearby. But just as often geocaches take people slightly off of the beaten path through puzzle or multi-cache adventures, and the etiquette is to place—and to re-place—geocaches so that they’re not visible to “Muggles.”
This allusion to the non-wizards of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of novels tells something important: in a world so thoroughly traveled, described, mapped, and photographed—so seemingly without discovery or mystery—GPS users employ the technology to create parallel worlds known only to their community...think of Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station in the Harry Potter books. The modern linkage of picturesque physical and virtual spaces is seen in geocaching applications like Wherigo (“What if you could take video games outdoors?”) or the Pokémon Go fad during 2016. And yet, as most geocachers know, their underground hobby dates back to 1850s Devon, England and the invention of “Letterboxing,” when hikers left notes and then eventually stamped symbols in notebooks hidden for others to find. The waypoints people follow and leave today at Letchworth Park still are a way of saying I Was Here.
—Actman, Jani. “Tracking Wildlife for Science Could Actually Help Poachers.” National Geographic 10 Mar. 2017.
—New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. “Guidance Document: Geocaching in State Parks and Historic Sites.” 2013.
—Oxford Dictionaries. “The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013 is ‘selfie’”.
—Pasick, Adam. “Geotagged Safari Photos Could Lead Poachers Right to Endangered Rhinos.” Quartz 5 May 2014.
—Wortham, Jenna. “My Selfie, Myself.” The New York Times 19 Oct. 2013, SR1. Web version available at New York Times.