Home Archived April 13, 2016

Panoramic Photographs of Glacier National Park and Surrounding Area


Panoramic Photo header image

Contents: Links to the Images:
About this web page Image map of photograph locations
What are these photos? Text list of photographs
How were they taken? Virtual Tour: What was it like to be at a fire lookout in 1935?
How are they used today?
How can I interpret them?

About this web page

This web site is a resource for individuals looking for pictures of Glacier National Park and the surrounding area. The set of photographs from which this site was derived provides fascinating insights into National Park Service management philosophy in the 1930s as well as an excellent resource for identifying conditions in Glacier National Park during the same time period. Those interested in historical aspects of the park, vegetation, geomorphology, landscape dynamics, and photography should find these pages useful. Brief descriptions of how these photographs (and photographs in general) are used in the USGS - Glacier Field Station Climate Change Research Program are being added as time permits. Please let us know if you have suggestions for improvement of these pages using the address given at the bottom.

What are these photos?

The photograph at the top of this page, from Cosley Ridge (also referred to as Bear Mountain Point), is an example of a panoramic photograph taken from a fire lookout in Glacier National Park. Three photos were taken from each lookout, individual photos covering 120° of the horizon. The azimuth headings for these photographs can be seen along the top. Other details provided along the bottom of each print, from left to right, include - date the photograph was taken, photographers initials (LMM or L Moe), film type (I.R. = infrared, PAN = panchromatic), photo number, photo-point location, and
land-owner at the lookout. A level line was etched into the print and can be seen along the sides at the small notches in the photographs.

These photographs of Glacier National Park were taken in 1935 (a few are from 1937).
While we have been able to locate very little National Park Service documentation as to precisely why the photographs were taken, the US Forest Service began a similar project a few years earlier. This Forest Service project established an efficient fire detection system and is the subject of Albert Arnst’s book, We Climbed the Highest Mountains (1985). Other uses of these photographs suggested by Mr. Arnst include: preliminary location of roads and trails, comparison of changes in vegetation cover types, and visual reference for management and administrative purposes. More than sixty years later, it is quite clear that they have served these purposes well.

How were they taken?

The camera used (an Osborne photo-recording transit) was designed by W. B. Osborne, a Forest Service employee, for fire protection purposes and was custom made. It combined the features of an engineering surveyor’s transit with photographic capabilities. Mr. Osborne also designed other fire detection aids still in use today, such as the Osborne fire finder to help pinpoint forest fire locations. Each camera weighed approximately 75 lbs., often carried on the photographers back up to the lookout. The film was stationary while the lens rotated 120° from right to left for each frame, providing a fixed focal length across the width of the film. Two types of Eastman Kodak film were used: panchromatic (sensitive to light of all colors in the visible spectrum) & infrared (electromagnetic wavelengths longer than the visible spectrum, 0.7mm to ~3mm). Filters used with panchromatic film included a K2 (Wratten No. 8) and #12 deep amber (minus blue member of the cyan-magenta-yellow set of subtractive primaries); while filters used with infrared film included A-red (Wratten No. 25) and F-red (Wratten No. 29). The negatives (and contact prints) are of very high quality film and photography (although the negatives are nitrate based and require careful handling & storage), measuring approximately 5½"x13½". The sun’s position dictated when each photograph could be taken, with the 180°-300° arc photo taken about 9am, the 300°-60° arc photo about noon, and the 60°-180° arc photo about 3pm. The camera was positioned along the catwalk of the lookout when possible, but it was sometimes necessary to climb towers, roofs, and trees to take photographs.

Carrying over 75lbs of camera plus personal gear up to fire lookouts throughout the park was a demanding task. Mules can be seen in several of the photographs and were used to help the photographer transport equipment. The hundreds of photographs taken by Mr. Moe provide excellent documentation of what National Park Service sites looked like in the 1930s. The National Park Service announced the completion of this project in a newsletter excerpted below.

      Chief Forester Coffman announces completion of a 4-year project for obtaining panoramic photographs from the 200 existing and proposed forest fire lookouts throughout
the entire Federal Park System.

     The photographic work, done by Junior Forester Moe, entailed many hardships not only in packing the necessary equipment weighing upwards of 100 pounds to lookout points, but also in climbing trees, poles, temporary towers, or roofs of lookouts with the equipment and facing the extreme winds that occur so frequently at high elevations.

Park Service Bulletin, June 1938, pg. 6

Some more technical details.…

The images available at this web site were scanned from the original prints (described above). As these prints are more than 60 years old, there were often imperfections and faded regions. No attempt was made to modify these characteristics in the digital versions. They were originally scanned at 300 dots per inch, and then reformatted to a more suitable data size for display on this web site (72 dpi).

How are they used today?

There are many uses for these photographs still today. Several examples are given below.

  • Assisting lookouts & park managers to accurately locate forest fires: It is a tribute to the skill of the individuals who initiated the work which produced these photographs that their product is still valuable today.
  • Identifying vegetation patterns: visible in the photograph below are distinct patterns in the vegetation along the ridge to the left of the lake. These patterns were created by a history of forest fires periodically burning a patchwork area of forest, prompting new growth. Click on the image to see this in more detail.

apgr244ir 72935t.jpg (6164 bytes)

  • Identifying landscape features: after the Half Moon fire burned through the town of Belton (West Glacier) in 1929, dead trees (slash) were bulldozed into strips and burned.  The regular linear patterns in the photograph below were created by burning of these piles. These patterns are still visible through the dense lodgepole forest that exists today (2000). Click on the image to see this in more detail.

Slash pile patternsT.jpg (14118 bytes)

  • Repeat photography: By taking an identical photograph (from the same point and in the same direction) after a period of years, change can be observed. In both 1935 & in 1956, an Osborne photo-recording transit was used to take photographs from the Desert Mountain Lookout. By comparing the photographs (taken 21 years apart), changes in the landscape can be seen. Click on the image to see this in more detail.

repeat photoT.jpg

    For more information on what a glacier is and how they work, visit the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC)
    educational web page on glaciers and Rice University’s web page GLACIER on Antarctica and the role of glaciers in global systems.

How can I interpret them?

By working to explain what, why, how, & where we see things (or don't see them) we can learn a great deal about the subjects of these photographs.

  • Compare INFRARED to PANCHROMATIC film types:  most of the lookout locations contain pairs of photographs, using both infrared film and panchromatic film. Panchromatic film is a normal black-and-white film which you can buy in the store and is what your grandparents used. Infrared (IR) film absorbs different wavelengths of energy than panchromatic film. On infrared film, healthy deciduous vegetation is typically very light(nearly white), while healthy coniferous vegetation reflects less IR radiation and appears in gray tones. Dead or senescent vegetation appears black. On IR film, water is very dark and smooth in contrast with the surrounding land – moist soils also appear in dark tones, while dry soils appear in lighter tones. Click on the image for more details.

ir_vs_panT.jpg (18207 bytes)

  • See the high-quality 'HAND-TINTED' images: Hand-tinting is a very detailed, labor intensive process. To make these 'colored' images, a black-and-white print (either panchromatic or infrared) was 'painted' using oil paints in painstaking detail. Individual trees, shrubs, grass, rocks, and sky were colored according to the artists interpretation. The detail in some of the images suggests that the painting may have been done on-location, with realistic rock texture and color contrasts. Although coloring choices by the artist can be drastically different from the time the photograph was taken, in the example below the alpine meadow vegetation is a mix of light brown and green - most likely a realistic depiction for the timing of the photograph, as the picture was taken on August 22nd. There are also apparent inconsistencies in the coloring of features, such as rock cliffs on Mt. Edwards tinted green. Other images show the signs of ageing and wear – smudged paint and faded underlying photographic images, as well as purple and yellow cirque basins. Sites with hand-tinted images are labeled as tinted in the web page text list of photographs.

mbrn273ir_t_T.jpg (56193 bytes)

  • Look for evidence of fire. Why do fire patterns appear the way they do?
  • Look for dead trees and for clues as to why they might have died (beetle kill, fire, avalanche, other).
  • Notice the patterns of live and dead trees, and patches of trees of different heights, types, or ages.
  • Notice the excellent air quality in all of these photographs. Even the most distant peaks are visible. Visibility is often limited today due to various anthropogenic sources of pollution. Note: this is only applicable in the panchromatic photographs as infrared film and filters remove atmospheric scattering effects which otherwise obscure distant peaks.
  • Compare the skyline with a topographic map of the park and identify the photo-point along with surrounding peaks.
  • Look for other changes in the landscape.
    • See how large the glaciers are. If you have been to one of these lookouts before, try to remember what the glacier looked like when you were there and contrast that with what the photos show. Photographs from Swiftcurrent Mountain and Mt Reynolds have good views of glaciers (Altyn Ridge & Crosley Ridge have more distant views). Also visit our site on repeat photography and glaciers.


Arnst, Albert. 1985. We Climbed the Highest Mountains. Portland, OR: Fernhopper Press.

This excellent reference provided technical details of the camera, film, and similar US Forest projects.

Kresek, Ray. 1984. Fire Lookouts of the Northwest. Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press.

Provides details on lookouts and their locations in the Glacier National Park area and throughout the northwest.

Links to other fire lookout & photography web pages:


Photographs provided courtesy of Glacier National Park Archives, West Glacier, MT 59936.  Technical assistance provided by Kevin Laurent, USGS Multimedia Science Support Team.


Content Information Contact:  Dan Fagre, email:  dan_fagre@usgs.gov, telephone:  406.888.7922,
mail:  Glacier Field Station, Glacier National Park, West Glacier, MT 59936.

Prepared by:  Fritz Klasner, email:  fritz_klasner@nps.gov.