The Photographer: Jacques Perrin’s Road Trip Across the American West

The French director and producer behind nature documentaries Microcosmos and Winged Migration (nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2003) is preparing a new film on the national parks of the great American West. Research has begun in the field and at Stanford University in California.

The scouting mission was given to co-director Thierry Machado and Antoine de Cazotte, who is supervising production in Los Angeles. The duo has already travelled 13,000 miles by car! From the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, they have taken photos, investigated local fauna and flora, and interviewed specialists such as Yosemite Park rangers, a biologist and wolf specialist in Yellowstone National Park, an elder of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, and Shoshone dancers in Wyoming.

“The documentary The Photographer will be a 19th-century road trip,” says Antoine de Cazotte. “But instead of driving a convertible Cadillac, we will be following a photographer exploring the American West with his mule, large-format camera, and darkroom.”

Photography developed at the same time as the conservation movement that led to the creation of the U.S. national parks. In 1871, American geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden explored the Yellowstone river basin in an attempt to convince Congress to ban mining prospection and transform it into a protected area. The report he presented in Washington was illustrated with watercolors by Thomas Moran, a landscape artist from the Hudson River School, and with photographs by William Henry Jackson. The black-and-white images won over the politicians, and Yellowstone National Park was founded in 1872 — the first in the United States.


Photographer William Henry Jackson at work on Glacier Point in Yosemite.

“These photos mark the birth of the movement to protect the environment in the U.S.,” says Antoine de Cazotte. “Thanks to the work of photographers such as William Henry Jackson and Edward Curtis, we can still admire landscapes as they were before the industrial era: intact.”

Capturing the Immensity of the American West

In the documentary — set for release in 2021 — Ferdinand Vandeveer Haydenet’s expedition and the subsequent negotiations in Washington will be reproduced with the help of actors. Historical research is also underway as part of a partnership with the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.

This is not the first time Jacques Perrin has worked in the United States. The footage from his film Winged Migration was donated to the laboratory of ornithology at Cornell University, and he even filmed a group of blue whales for 33 weeks off the Californian coast for his 2009 Oceans documentary.

Filming for The Photographer will begin in the polar regions of Alaska and Canada in winter 2019-2020. In an effort to follow the migration of animals and avoid the busy tourist period, scenes will be filmed over several seasons. “Before starting filming on a documentary like this one, you have to understand the immensity and diversity of North America,” says Antoine de Cazotte. “Europe has its cathedrals; the United States has its landscapes. These are the country’s natural monuments.”