Katie Hargrave & Meredith Lynn: Exposing the Insidious Camouflage of Bad Outdoorsmen

By May 31, 2023
figure facing away from the camera that is covered in artificial leaves
Katie Hargrave & Meredith Lynn, Alone film still, 2022. Image courtesy of the artists.

Credited with an integral role in both the creation of the National Park System and the establishment of the Sierra Club, John Muir is a pillar of the US Conservation movement. In 1867, shortly before he embarked on the expedition through the American South that would be chronicled in his posthumously published A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916), Muir suffered an injury to his right eye while working in a carriage shop1. This physical blindness was temporary, but Muir remained unable to perceive his own impact on the very land he claimed to see so clearly. Muir’s trek, which was captured in his writing, was also commemorated with a trail in Tennessee. Muir’s own silhouette, a bearded figure with a cap, is used along the Muir Trail to mark its winding path.

In their work Stick or Snake, collaborators Katie Hargrave (TN) and Meredith Lynn (FL) dismantle replications of the Muir Trail’s signage to expose the insidious nature of celebrating Muir on the landscape that he so fervently critiqued and disrespected. By twisting poles reminiscent of trail markers into serpentine shapes, the artists render these guides useless. The markers have fallen flaccid, no longer showing the way. Is a sanctioned trail a path for connecting with the outdoors, or a dangerous erasure of historical nuance? The deflated poles and scrambled signs are laughable, pitiful even. With a playful touch, Hargrave and Lynn aim to unveil the camouflage, which is a deception, trick of the eye, or a reframing of narrative to hide someone or something’s true nature. Looking at the historical narrative and contemporary celebration of Muir, Hargrave and Lynn expose the flawed understanding of this “hero” of the frontier.

Sculpture in white gallery space made of twisted, tangled metal signage.
Katie Hargrave & Meredith Lynn, Stick or Snake, 2022. Image courtesy of the artists. Photograph by John Dooley.

Hargrave and Lynn’s collaborative practice interrogates a particular camouflaging that occurs in the histories of the conservation and preservation movements. Under the scrutiny of Hargrave and Lynn, revered wilderness legends such as Muir are exposed as “bad outdoorsmen.” These “bad outdoorsmen” are characterized not only by their inability to face nature’s challenges, but by their delusion that they can blend into the landscape, sit outside it, or observe it, rather than become a part of it. Using clever wordplay, collaged text and images, and reflective surfaces, Hargrave and Lynn bring the historical and contemporary realities of public land into sharp focus.

Visit the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University and spend the day a world away!

The legacies of these “bad outdoorsmen” have perpetuated a settler-colonialist mindset. The US government mandates reservations that push indigenous people into the margins and “public land” that is only welcoming to certain publics. These bad outdoorsmen were blind to the fact that their presence impacted their surroundings. Their attempted camouflage in nature has extended into a camouflaging in historical narrative.

These bad outdoorsmen were blind to the fact that their presence impacted their surroundings. Their attempted camouflage in nature has extended into a camouflaging in historical narrative.

In Developed, Developing the artists source images from archives, advertisements for outdoor gear, and social media posts from tourists to display the nuances of experiencing “public land.” The work’s title references both campsites (a developed campsite denotes a higher level of infrastructure) as well as the photographic process. As noted by the Knoxville Museum of Art, where the work was on view for the 2023 Tennessee Triennial, “Hargrave and Lynn explore the ways in which photography, normally associated with the conservation of lands, can be misused in ways that support exploitation and commercialization.”2 Examples of conservation photography include William Henry Jackson’s series of sublime landscape photographs, which captured the attention of Congress and are credited with pushing legislators to designate Yellowstone as a National Park in 1872.3 Compare these images alongside campaigns for outdoor gear retailers from the mid-twentieth century through today, which show explorers climbing the next peak while taking a sip from their new, branded water bottle or adjusting the straps on their pristine backpack. What these photographs share is a narrative about the outdoors— that it is vast and empty and ready for the taking, that it is separate from and more extraordinary than our daily lives. This story is appealing, but it lacks the nuance and honesty: public land is the aftermath of Indigenous genocide. The same retailer we buy our gear from may be contributing to the demolition of the very land we want to enjoy. In Developed, Developing the artists take their collaged images and compose them in the shape of a tent’s shadow. Atop the images, they’ve pitched a clear tent. By placing the see-through tent on the configured images, the artists visualize the impacts of the stories we tell about the outdoors.

A clear plastic two-person tent on top of large scale images that mimic a shadow on the ground and wall.
Katie Hargrave & Meredith Lynn, Developed, Developing, 2022. Image courtesy of the artists. Photograph by Kelsie Conley.

In Cataloging, Hargrave and Lynn pull particularly onerous quotes from John Muir’s Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916) and layer them onto idyllic outdoor gear advertisements. On September 5, 1867, Muir wrote of Kentucky, “No bird or flower or friendly tree above me this morning; only squalid garret rubbish and dust.”4 Hargrave and Lynn take the first half of this complaint and inscribe it on a reproduction of what appears to be an advertisement for a tent. This tent is an amalgam of images from publicly sourced photographs.

A faux poster image of a man next to a tent looking at a mountainous vista. The text says "No bird or flower or friendly tree above me."
Katie Hargrave & Meredith Lynn, Cataloging: Frostline Above Me, 2022. Image courtesy of the artists. Photograph by John Dooley.

These advertisements and the public photos create a mythos that there can be an authentic connection to the outdoors through products, but the comfort and ease that they provide do the opposite. The manufacture of these products is ultimately aimed at making a profit, and the ease of use they create mediates an experience of nature. A reflective overlay on the text forces viewers to see themselves in Muir’s words, while also witnessing the narrative grandeur of the outdoors sold to us. The artists regularly employ mirrors, for Hargrave and Lynn, reflective surfaces are a tool for unveiling.

Hargrave and Lynn continue to examine their own relationship to “public land” through an audition tape for the reality TV series Alone. Each episode begins with a quote from a conservationist, often Muir. The artists gathered stills from the episodes starting with Muir quotes, cut the images into a leaf-like camouflage pattern, and sewed them onto full body suits. Hargrave and Lynn have fashioned these articles after traditional ghillie suits, which are designed to disguise the wearer into the background. Hargrave and Lynn’s coverings simulate their surroundings, but present a new, almost ostentatious, physicality to the work. Unlike tents, the suits remain activated as they ripple along with Hargrave and Lynn’s movements and catch the air. The suits are slightly humorous. They make the artists appear to flap about on their walks, but the ghillie suit’s texture is charming, and at times beautiful. Donning their ghillie suits, the artists film themselves discussing their merits as potential contestants on Alone. Ultimately, this in process work will coalesce into a four-channel video installation, with one monitor featuring direct-to-camera storytelling, alongside three additional monitors cycling B-roll of the outdoors, including footage of the ghillie suits capturing the wind. 

A figure wearing glasses faces the camera. An additional figure is obscured in the background. Both are wearing hoods covered in artifical flowers.
Katie Hargrave & Meredith Lynn, Alone film still, 2022. Image courtesy of the artists.

Hargrave and Lynn celebrate their failed attempts at camouflage. They find both humor and nuanced critique of themselves as they venture outdoors, following (in an out of step way) along the same path of the “heroes” that came before. What distinguishes Hargrave and Lynn’s failures from those of their forefathers is that they accept the folly of invisibility in the outdoors; they allow themselves to be seen.

[1]John Muir and William Frederic Badè, “Introduction,” A thousand-mile walk to the Gulf. Boston and New York, Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1916. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/16023580/.

[2] Knoxville Museum of Art, “Photo of Developed, Developing by Katie Hargrave and Meredith Lynn,” Instagram, February 8, 2023, accessed May 15, 2023,  https://www.instagram.com/p/CoaVJMpu9xj/.

[3] “William Henry Jackson (U.S. National Park Service),” National Parks Service, accessed May 17, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/people/william-henry-jackson.htm.

[4]John Muir and William Frederic Badè, “Chapter 1” A thousand-mile walk to the Gulf. Boston and New York, Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1916. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/16023580/.

Related Stories