Lori Carey Photography

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Mormon Row: The Most Photographed Barn in the World and The Trouble with Iconic Photos

T.A. Moulton Barn, Mormon Row Historic District, Grand Teton National Park
T.A. Moulton Barn, Mormon Row Historic District, Grand Teton National Park

I had no intention of visiting Mormon Row when I recently visited Grand Teton National Park. After seeing hundreds, maybe thousands of photos of the T.A. Moulton Barn, known as "The Most Photographed Barn in the World" it had become little more than a cliche to me. A photographer friend who knows I purposely avoid chasing iconic trophy shots jokingly said he would smack me if I took a photo of the barn. But after unpacking and getting settled in to our first campsite in Wyoming, we found ourselves with a few hours to kill before we were to meet a friend for dinner. Bill suggested we head over to Mormon Row since it was nearby and he figured I would want to photograph it because it is so well known! It sounded like a good way to kill some time, and since I didn't originally intend to photograph the barn I didn't care that it was midday.

If you've seen photos of the T.A. Moulton Barn (above), you'd be forgiven for thinking there is just the one barn. It is rare to see any photos of any of the other structures along the Mormon Row Historic District, and I was pleasantly surprised to see an extensive spread of preserved homesteads. Mormon Row is the site of the town previously known as Grovont. My high school French was enough to realize that it is pronounced the same as Gros Ventre, the French name for the A'aninin or Atsina Native American tribe, as well as the name of the nearby campground, the Gros Ventre Wilderness, Gros Ventre River, and many other locations in the area. Curiosity got the better of me and when I returned home I did some research into the name. I learned that when the town applied for a post office, they were told that Gros Ventre was too difficult to spell and pronounce. Wanting to keep the name as close as possible to the original, they decided to use the phonetic spelling of the original pronunciation and settled on Grovont. Mormon settlers began arriving here from Idaho in the 1890s, and the town eventually consisted of 27 homesteads, many of which are still standing.

Bunkhouse at John Moulton Homestead, Mormon Row Historic District, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Bunkhouse at John Moulton Homestead, Mormon Row Historic District, Grand Teton National Park


I visited on a Saturday, so it was easy to spot the famous barn from a distance by the large crowd of cars and people. We pulled into the parking area across from the T.A. Moulton Barn and I gave myself some time to get a feel for the place while I patiently waited for my turn at a chance to grab the obligatory photo. I watched car after car pull up, quickly grab a photo or a selfie in front of the barn, and then jump back in the car. Because photos of the barn were the only images they had seen, they had the mistaken assumption that it was the thing worth their time at this historic site. Very few people took the time to understand or care why the National Park Service felt these homesteads were worth preserving and to see any of the other numerous buildings. They were just there to check off the box and be able to show friends that they visited "the most photographed barn in the world". I see this behavior so often in the National Parks that I started calling it Check Box Tourism, where people do little more than race around grabbing quick selfies to prove that they were there. Saddest of all is that even the two "serious" (meaning using a dSLR on a tripod) photographers I spotted were fixated on shooting nothing except the famous barn, each spending at least a half hour photographing nothing but the barn from relatively the same position. As there were no dramatic changes of light or weather worth waiting for, I struggled to understand their fixation.

The Pink House at the John Moulton Homestead, Mormon Row, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
The Pink House at the John Moulton Homestead, Mormon Row, Grand Teton National Park



I took a fairly ordinary documentary image of the most photographed barn in the world. If I wanted an iconic trophy photo I wouldn't be here at midday on an ordinary summer day, using a wide angle lens. Instead I would suggest use a telephoto lens to make the Teton Range loom large, and going at sunrise to get beautiful light on the mountains when you can line up elbow to elbow while jostling for the opportunity to take the same photo as everyone else. As it was, I decided I'd have a better chance with a wide angle lens that would allow me to get closer to the barn and hopefully have less of a problem with people walking into frame. There was one other photographer with a "real" camera who was working a different angle, also using a wide angle probably for the same reason.


"What was the barn like before it was photographed?" he said. "What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can't answer these questions because we've read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can't get outside the aura. We're part of the aura. We're here, we're now." White Noise, Don DeLillo


Although White Noise was written more than thirty years ago (and about a different "most photographed barn in the world"), DeLillo's words ring truer than ever today. Just as in White Noise, nobody sees the barn any more; it has become impossible to see the barn. To paraphrase a comment I recently read about the current state of landscape photography, it's as if no one feels any connection to this land, this place. It has become only something to photograph.

We lose all understanding and respect for the barn (insert nature, man, animals, whatever we're shooting) when the experience becomes *only* about taking the photo. Recently on a Twitter thread a photographer said "it's pretty often that the photo of the thing makes you happier than the thing" and I think that is a sad way for an outdoor/landscape/nature photographer to view the world.


The cloudy day gave beautiful soft light with no harsh shadows, something I don't often get at home with our clear blue skies and hard sunlight, so I was happy to spend some time photographing more of the buildings. I didn't mind that there was no dramatic weather like snow or fog because I personally prefer a more subtle style and the soft light was perfect (for me) for shooting the buildings. It was my first time attempting any kind of serious shooting since my diagnosis last year, and I was just incredibly happy to work on getting back in the groove. Once I moved away from the T.A. Moulton barn I practically had the place to myself.

When I visit old homesteads I like to imagine how it felt to live in a remote and harsh but incredibly beautiful place. I want to capture a sense of place, not romanticize it. For me it was about the sense of isolation. Farming here was not easy. The high desert soil was sandy and rocky, and the winters were harsh. Irrigation ditches had to be dug by hand and during the winters the water in the ditches would freeze, so the families would need to travel to the Gros Ventre River to get water for their homes. There was no electric power until the 1950's, by which time many of the homesteads had been sold to the National Park Service. At one time there was a church and school here, but the church has been moved to the nearby town of Wilson. In 1997, Mormon Row was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Several homesteads were still occupied into the 1980s before they were transferred to the park, and significant preservation work didn't begin until 2013. One homestead is still privately owned and occupied, although it was listed for sale last year. It is a one-acre parcel with a 2652 sq. ft. 8 bedroom 4 bathroom house, barn, and several outbuildings including tourist cabins, completely surrounded by National Park land and was listed at $5 million. The good news is it was recently announced that an anonymous donor has enabled the Grand Teton National Park Foundation to purchase the property for an undisclosed sum and donate it to the park.

I wandered down the road to the John Moulton homestead, where I got excited about the soft light on the Pink House shown above. There was a line of cottonwood trees along the side of the property that I felt was important to the setting, and I eventually settled on a composition that included one of the trees and the path leading up to the house, along with Grand Teton, Mt. Owen, and the Teton Glacier in the frame.

John Moulton Barn, Mormon Row, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
John Moulton Barn, Mormon Row, Grand Teton National Park

When I approached the John Moulton barn I came across another photographer who asked me if I realized that it was the most photographed barn in the world. At first I thought maybe I had been mistaken in thinking the other barn was the T.A. Moulton barn, but a quick check assured me I was correct. "I'm fairly certain you are looking for that barn down the road," I said as I pointed to the T.A. Moulton barn. "No, the ranger told me it is this barn," she insisted. Neither can really be faulted for making the mistake, the John Moulton barn is often referred to as the Second Most Photographed Barn in the World because so many people mistake it for the T.A. Moulton barn, and even the GTNP Foundation mistakenly included a photo of the John Moulton barn in a newsletter article about restoration work taking place on the T.A. Moulton barn, and later had to apologize after it was pointed out by readers. Unfortunately for this woman, her desire to photograph only the famous barn meant that she never did take the time to visit the actual famous barn. She took her photos of the "wrong" barn and went on her way and will surely add to the collection of mistakenly captioned photos. (Here's a hint - the John Moulton barn has a fence directly in front of the barn.)

Reed Moulton Homestead, Mormon Row, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Reed Moulton Homestead, Mormon Row, Grand Teton National Park

Still further down the road, 7/10 of a mile north of the famous barn, was the Reed Moulton homestead. Not a single person, besides us, was apparently interested in making that short walk on a beautiful mild day. I began to wonder - if every building on Mormon Row were torn down except the TA Moulton barn, would anyone notice or even care?

Reed Moulton Homestead, Mormon Row Historic District, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Reed Moulton Homestead, Mormon Row Historic District, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

I found the architecture of the Reed Moulton barn, which was originally built by Thomas Murphy, much more interesting than the other two more famous barns, if only because it was so different. This barn is hardly ever photographed, not only because it is so far down the road from the T.A. Moulton barn but also because there is only one angle that will allow the photographer to get Grand Teton peak in the frame. I chose a completely different composition that included Mt. Moran and the house. At the time I was thinking only to photograph "the homestead" while capturing the remoteness, but in hindsight I wish that I had spent more time with just the barn. I was hard pressed to find even a dozen photos with a google search of this beautiful barn when I returned home. In my defense (as if there could be any) it was my first day doing any type of activity at altitude, and after driving 1,000+ miles straight through the previous day, not to mention dealing with the physical effects of Stage IV cancer, I was pretty tired and I still had to walk 7/10 of a mile back to my Jeep so I decided to pack it in. That's also my excuse for not realizing that there were more buildings to the south of the T.A. Moulton barn. I missed the entire Andy Chambers ranch and homestead, which I didn't realize until after I viewed the photo I had taken of the interpretive sign (a trick I learned to make identifications easier once back home) but I figure that gives me good reason for another visit to this incredibly beautiful National Park.

It was easier in the days before social media to avoid the "stand here, shoot this" mentality, and photographers are just now beginning the realize the negative impacts that the over-sharing of photos of iconic locations can cause. Many have written about the physical damage that is being caused to much-loved places as hordes descend on fragile locations and I'm glad that I visited places like Horseshoe Bend in Arizona and the Racetrack in Death Valley when they were still relatively unknown and I had the places to myself. But it's more than just physical damage and over-crowding, the images we choose to take and share affect the way people perceive our world, for good and bad. If we profess to truly care about the world as outdoor photographers and vow to be good stewards (and not just use it to our advantage to make money or gain followers and likes) we have a responsibility to put some thought into what and how we share, beyond the desire to get "likes". Often, what we leave out of the story is just as important as what we include.

Reed Moulton Homestead in black and white, Mormon Row Historic District, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Reed Moulton Homestead, Mormon Row

Our National Parks are more than just beautiful natural landscapes, they also preserve our history and culture. According to the NPS, nearly 70% of our National Parks tell stories of our amazing history, prehistory, and cultural diversity. It saddens me that most people miss the point of the preservation efforts at Mormon Row, a wonderful example of the linear villages established by the Mormons in the West, thinking only the T.A. Moulton barn is worthy of their attention and for only long enough to grab the perfect photo or selfie. Much of the fault lies with photographers who think only trophy photos of the famous barn are worth taking and worth sharing on social media for the likes, perpetuating the myth. Although my example here concerns historical structures, it's no different in places like Alabama Hills, where the majority of photographers only visit the two best-known and most-photographed arches - Mobius and Lathe - where everyone lines up to take exactly the same photo, not realizing or even perhaps caring that there are hundreds of other arches to be discovered in the area, some of which also are suitable for framing Mt. Whitney if you feel the need. Again I wonder, if the other arches were to suddenly disappear, would anyone notice or care? Are most people just paying lip service or "virtue signaling" when they claim to care about these places? The very fact that so many people have been dying while taking selfies at iconic locations recently - usually by falling off a cliff - shows that they aren't even paying attention to the land. It's just a prop.

I wish I could convince photographers to put aside any preconceived notions of the images they believe they are "supposed" to take, and instead allow themselves to find the images that speak to their heart. Instead of studying the photos of those who have visited before you, enter a space with an open mind and let discovery be part of your creative process. Maybe sharing an iconic photo of an iconic location will generate more Wows and likes on social media, but the images you find on your own will be more authentic, and just maybe you can show the world that there is more out there to see and care about.

I know that some pros will jump in to say that the iconic images sell better and that's why they concentrate on them. While that's understandable, I'll also note that many of my images I license are photos of places that very few other photographers think to visit and photograph. There's a lot to be said for having something unique to offer. At a minimum, even if you desire to trophy hunt, after you get the photo stick around for a while and see what else there is to see instead of packing up after bagging your shot.

I won't kid myself into thinking that one person's thoughts do anything to change the current mindset about trophy hunting in iconic locations. The best I can do is promise you that I will always try my best to bring my own unique vision and stories about these places.












7 comments:

  1. As I was reading this I kept thinking of that quote from "White Noise" and the Vermont barn it references. I laughed when I saw it in your piece as it fits so perfectly. It seems shooting icon posts are in vogue this week as Alex has one and so does Thomas Heaton (YouTube on Mesa Arch) and myself in a blog about Alex and Heaton writing about shooting icons. It becomes a very circular discussion and everyone complains about some aspect of it but then illustrates it by showing the icon they've visited, myself included. I'm glad you showed more than what is normally presented as I've never been there and I'm also glad to see you've written on more than the barn itself. There's a lot of great history here that needs more than a picture of a barn to bring it to life. Thanks for that.

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    1. Joe it's so good to hear from you! I haven't seen you around much on social media lately and have been wondering if you were okay, but I haven't been doing a good job of keeping up with it myself so perhaps my timing has been off.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I had been staring at this blog post for about seven weeks trying to refine my thoughts and I think seeing those other posts helped motivate me to finally hit the Publish button. Glad you appreciated the White Noise quote, it really did seem quite fitting to what I saw. After seeing hundreds of photos of the barn I was truly surprised to see how extensive Mormon Row really is with more than a mile of homesteads and ranches. I had absolutely no idea. There are so many stories to tell about this place and it's a shame that so many people miss the point. I hope you get to visit one day because that area of Wyoming is spectacular and you'd have a great time photographing it.

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    2. I'm still around. I left most SM and rely on RSS feeds of those who still know how to write and photograph. I'll drop in on Twitter once a week or so but I rarely visit FB anymore and have pulled all but one place-keeper photo from IG. Flickr is where it's at, Lori! Nobody believes me but it's a nice, quiet spot for photography. It's true :-)
      Here's my post on White Noise: https://www.jwsmithphoto.com/blog/2016/6/white-noise?customize=3

      Take care.

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    3. Now that I know where to find you I'll have to brush up on using RSS feeds again since I got used to relying on seeing links posted on social media, but I think you now have one more subscriber (do you have an e-mail subscribe?). Time for me to find a new RSS Reader. I've always enjoyed your photography and reading your thoughts and am so happy to see that you are still shooting and writing. Many photographers have been spending less time on social media lately and putting the emphasis back on blogs again which I think is a great thing.

      I've never been into Flickr for some reason; I've used it for inspiration in the past - mainly to learn off camera flash technique from the Strobist group when it was going strong - but the thought of having to play the game on yet another social media site is too much for me right now. I think I got burned out after putting so much energy into G+ for a few years and developing a large following only to have it all crash. I have personal friends and family on FB, photographer friends on Twitter, and I'm good with that.

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    4. Thanks for the nice comments! I use Feeder.co (https://feeder.co/), it's free unless you want the premium package which I don't as this does as much as I need.
      Unfortunately, Zenfolio is not a very good blogging platform as it won't nest comments/replies or do much else so I doubt I can do mailing lists but I'll check and add you if I can. I'm constantly thinking of moving to Squarespace or some more modern platform, but, it's considerable work and I'd rather be doing something else. I found that the less I use SM the more I'll write with purpose rather than short quips or abbreviated sentences.

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