Ansel Adams: The Role of the Artist in the Environmental Movement
March 1980 / by ROBERT TURNAGE
Reprinted courtesy of the Wilderness Society from The Living Wilderness
In the history of American conservation, few have worked as long and as effectively to preserve wilderness and to articulate the “wilderness idea” as Ansel Adams. Entering his seventh decade of active involvement, he remains as much a crusader. Wilderness has always been for Adams “a mystique: a valid, intangible, non-materialistic experience.” Through his photographs he has touched countless people with a sense of that mystique and a realization of the importance of preserving the last remaining wilderness lands. This inspirational legacy of Adams ‘ art constitutes his major significance as an environmentalist. In addition, he has been an important activist in the work of several conservation groups and has personally lobbied congressmen, cabinet officers and Presidents on behalf of wilderness values.
Ansel Adams was born on February 20, 1902, in San Francisco and grew up in the dunes area by the Golden Gate . In those days the Pacific surf and fog were a much more evident influence than the surrounding city. Ansel’s earliest memory is of lying in his carriage watching low fog move across the sky.
Because the lad found difficulty fitting in at school, his parents decided to have him tutored at home. The lack of siblings and schoolmates may well have helped turn him early to an interest in nature. As a youngster, he has recalled, he was always “more responsive to wild environments than to urban…the surf and dunes, the storms and fogs of the Golden Gate, the thickets of Lobos Creek and the grim headlands of Land’s End. As a small child I had played in the crisp winter snow at Carson City, and seen the stately oaks at Atherton on the hot, brittle fields rising towards the San Mateo Hills and beyond to the madrone-lush folds of the Santa Cruz Mountains. A few months among the beaches and rain forests of Puget Sound had made indelible the scents of sea and spruce, tar and sawdust. Such early images are often as clear and compelling in memory as the actual vistas of today.”
At 12 he began to play the piano. His talent quickly became apparent, and it was decided that he should take lessons. Thus began years of musical training that would later carry over into the precise craft and interpretive subtlety of the photographer.
Ansel’s father, Charles H. Adams, a businessman who in his own youth had been discouraged from pursuing a passionate love of nature and science, was determined that his son would be free to follow his own interests, wherever they might lead. So in 1915 he bought Ansel a year’s pass to the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Almost every day that year the 13-year-old wandered through the fair, experiencing whichever of the myriad exhibits attracted his fancy. He also began to take pictures of the fair and of the Golden Gate area with a Brownie box camera. He would then painstakingly assemble them in albums which he later described as “photo-diaries.”
The following spring came a more momentous experience—a first visit to Yosemite National Park . “A month before the great event I was given Hutchings’ In the Heart of the Sierra , and pored over it, building fantasies of Indians and bears, of huge waterfalls and precipices…of remoteness and magic. The known qualities of the sea merged with the unknown qualities of rivers and waterfalls, the redwoods of Santa Cruz with the Sequoia-gods of Wawona. The days became prisons of impatience and restlessness. Finally, the train at Oakland ! All day long we rode, over the Coast Range …down across the heat-shimmering San Joaquin Valley , up through the even hotter foothills to the threshold of Yosemite . I can still feel the furnace blasts of air buffeting through the coaches, and hear the pounding, roaring exhaust of the locomotive reechoing from the steep walls of the Merced Canyon . Then arrival at El Portal, and a night spent in an oven of a hotel, with the roar of the river beating through the sleepless hours until dawn. And finally, in the bright morning, the grand, dusty, jolting ride in an open motor bus up the deepening, greening gorge to Yosemite .
“That first impression of the valley—white water, azaleas, cool fir caverns, tall pines and stolid oaks, cliffs rising to undreamed-of heights, the poignant sounds and smells of the Sierra…was a culmination of experience so intense as to be almost painful. From that day in 1916 my life has been colored and modulated by the great earth gesture of the Sierra.”
With his Brownie camera he eagerly set out to explore the new-found beauty of the valley. Returning to San Francisco with a consuming desire to learn photography, he went to work for a photo-finisher. The following year he was again photographing Yosemite and, indeed, he has photographed Yosemite every year since. In 1918 he had his first intoxicating trip into the high country of the Sierra under the trail-wise guidance of Francis Holman, an ornithologist. From this trip, much to the horror of his mother, he came back with a wispy beard. Obligingly he shaved it off, but in later years his big black beard would become a trademark.
The next summer Ansel got a job as custodian of the Sierra Club’s Le Conte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley . Despite myriad duties he found ample time for photography and early morning runs up to Glacier Point. These early years also afforded him an opportunity to meet some of the great conservationists of the day, among them Joseph N. LeConte, William E. Colby and Stephen T. Mather, first director of the National Park Service. Ansel continued working summers at the Le Conte Lodge until 1924. In 1925 and 1926 he accompanied the Le Conte family on long journeys into the Kings River Sierra. Through the 1920s he made many climbs in the Sierra high country, including several first ascents. “Francis Holman and I would ‘scramble,’” he recalled in an interview in Backpacker . “We used window sash cord, an eighth of an inch thick and very strong. Of course, if one of us fell, it would have cut us in two…In a sense, it’s a miracle I’m alive because we did have some hazardous experiences and didn’t know anything about climbing technique.”
Through these early high-country experiences, Ansel became aware of aesthetic qualities in the wilderness that he had not anticipated. “I was climbing the long ridge west of Mt. Clark…I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching push up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light ….I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks. There area no words to convey the moods of those moments.”
By this time his photography was becoming increasingly important, exercising a claim on his time and energy that was competing with a beckoning career as a concert pianist. One spring day in 1927 he perched precariously on a cliff with his camera and the unwieldy photographic glass plates of the day. He hoped to capture an imposing perspective of the face of Half Dome, the snow-laden high country and a crystal-clear sky. Only two unexposed plates remained. With one he made a conventional exposure. Suddenly, he realized that he wanted an image with more emotional impact. “I knew so little about photography then, it was a miracle I got anything. But that was the first time I realized how the print was going to look—what I now call visualization—and was actually thinking about the emotional effect of the image…I began to visualize the black rock and deep sky. I really wanted to give it a monumental, dark quality. So I used the last plate I had with a No. 29-F red filter…and got this exciting picture.”
A half-century later, “Monolith—the Face of Half Dome” remains one of Adams ‘ most compelling studies. It bears clear witness to that “pointed awareness of the light” which he experienced on the ridge of Mt. Clark .
In 1927 Ansel met Albert Bender, a perceptive and generous patron of the arts. Bender took to the young photographer at once. Recognizing an extraordinary talent, he proposed that Ansel issue a collection of his mountain photographs. The result, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras , was stunningly beautiful. Thanks to Bender’s encouragement, Ansel became aware for the first time of the potential of a photographic career. He also found a degree of financial security, enough so that the next year he married his Yosemite sweetheart, Virginia Best, daughter of the painter Harry Best, who had a studio in the valley. For years young Ansel had come to the Best home to practice on their piano. In Virginia he found someone sharing his interests in both music and the natural world.
Through Bender, Ansel found stimulating friendships with poets and writers such as Robinson Jeffers and Mary Austin. He made the photographs to illustrate a Mary Austin text on the Taos Pueblo, receiving equal billing with the author. This was unusual for a photographer in those days and a measure of how rapidly he was distinguishing himself. Yet he was still ambivalent about the future. Many of his friends insisted that photography, unlike music, was not capable of expressing the finer emotions of art. But there was persuasive counter-evidence. On one of his visits to Taos he met the noted photographer Paul Strand. Chancing to see some of Strand’s negative of the New Mexico landscape, Ansel was mesmerized. On the strength of the negatives alone—it was sometime later that he first saw Strand ‘s prints—Ansel became convinced of the expressive power of photography and resolved to devote himself entirely to its challenge.
The perception of photography as too mechanical and “realistic” to be a truly fine art was then still widespread. Partly in reaction, “pictorial” photographers tried in various ways to soften realism, resorting to soft-focus lenses, brush strokes on the negative, soft-texture papers—anything that would make their photographs not look like photographs. But some independent spirits such as Edward Weston were taking the opposite tack, producing sharply focused pictures and printing on glossy papers. “Such prints retain most of the original negative quality. Subterfuge becomes impossible. Every defect is exposed, all weakness equally with strength. I want the sharp beauty a lens can so exactly render,” said Weston.
Ansel realized that, as Imogen Cunningham said, “there are fewer good photographers than painters. There is a reason. The machine does not do the whole thing.” He also realized that the two-dimensional, monotone nature of a black and white photographic image was in itself a radical departure from reality and needed no further embellishments. He was readily converted toWeston’s and Strand ‘s approach. Looking over many of his negatives, he saw he would have to start over. After 1931 he steadfastly objected to use of the word “pictorial” in reference to his work.
With West Coast photographers of a similar bent, among them Weston, Cunningham, and Willard Van Dyke, he formed Group f /64. The number designates a very small lens aperture capable of producing an image with maximum definition. The group’s advocacy of “straight” photography had a revolutionary influence on attitudes in the world of photography.
Running counter to the work of Adams and Weston in the 1930s was another view—that artistic themes should be “socially significant,” meaning directly concerned with man’s works and ideologies. Many, especially East Coast and European intellectuals, felt Ansel’s love of the beauty of nature to be sentimental and naïve. French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was saying, “The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!” In his response to such criticism, Weston spoke for Adams as well as himself. “It seems so utterly naïve that landscape—not that of the pictorial school—is not considered of ‘social significance’ when it has a far more important bearing on the human race of any locale than excrescences called cities. By landscapes, I mean every physical aspect of a region—weather, soil, wildflowers, mountain peaks—and its effect on the psyche and physical appearance of the people.”
In 1933 Adams met the old master Alfred Stieglitz, who exerted a further clarifying influence on his artistic direction. Adams wrote to Paul Strand, “I am perplexed, amazed and touched at the impact of his force on my own spirit. I would not have believed before I met him that a man could be so psychically and emotionally powerful.” Stieglitz was very impressed with young Adams and his photographs. He introduced him to the artists O’Keeffe, Marin and Dove and presented a one-man show of Ansel’s work at his New York studio, An American Place, in 1936. Adams was the first new photographer Stieglitz had introduced to the public at An American Place since Paul Strand in 1917. In a letter to Ansel in 1938 Stieglitz said, “It is good for me to know that there is Ansel Adams loose somewhere in the world of ours.” Lovers of photography were not the only ones glad to have Ansel Adams loose in this world. Lovers of wilderness echoed this feeling. Referring to Adams ‘ relationship to the wilderness, David Brower remarked: “That Ansel Adams came to be recognized as one of the great photographers of this century is a tribute to the places that informed him.”
Brower, first executive director of the Sierra Club, once wrote: “It is hard to tell which has shaped the other more—Ansel Adams or the Sierra Club. What does matter is that the mutuality was important.” The Adams tie with what was to become one of the nation’s best-known conservation organizations began to assume significance in the early 1930s when Ansel served as a guide and official photographer on the club’s annual high-country outings. On several of these trips he produced mock Greek tragedies with such exuberant titles as “Exhaustos” and “The Trudgin’ Women.” On the 1934 outing the group decided to christen a beautiful unnamed peak Mt. Ansel Adams in honor of their irrepressible playwright-photographer.
In 1932-4 Virginia Adams served on the Sierra Club’s board of directors. Then someone nominated Ansel, which precipitated a humorous situation. Ansel insisted that Virginia , having done a fine job on the board, should remain on it. Virginia insisted with equal force that she was too busy with their baby son Michael and that it was Ansel’s turn. In the end Ansel was elected. He quickly proved such a valuable member that he repeatedly was reelected by the club membership until his voluntary retirement in 1971.
Adams was chosen in 1936 to represent the club at a national and state parks conference in Washington to be attended by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture. The club wanted him to present its proposal for a wilderness park in the Kings River Sierra, feeling that his photographs of the area would be very persuasive. The Sierra Club was mindful of the key role photography had played in the creation of earlier parks. The photographs of Carleton Watkins (for whom Yosemite’s Mt. Watkins is names) had influenced the unprecedented decision to set aside Yosemite Valley as a state park in 1864, and the photographs of William Henry Jackson had figured in Congress’ decision to create the first national park, Yellowstone , in 1872.
When Ansel reached Washington , he carried his portfolio to the offices of the heads of the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service and to key congressmen to show them why there should be a Kings Canyon National Park . One happy result of the visit was an invitation from Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes to do a photomural of his landscapes for the new Interior Department building. The desired park legislation did not materialize that year, but the effort continued. In 1938 Ansel brought out an elegant limited-edition book entitled Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail . It was subsidized by a prominent Sierra Club member, Walter Starr, as a memorial tribute to a son who had died on a climb in the Minarets. About this volume Stieglitz said: “What perfect photography…I am an idolater of perfect workmanship of any kind. And this is truly perfect workmanship.” Georgia O’Keeffe described it as “like a trip in the high country again.”
A letter from the National Park Service the following January said, “Recently we transmitted to Secretary Ickes the complimentary copy of your new Sierra Nevada portfolio which you sent to the National Park Service. Yesterday the Secretary took it to the White House and showed it to the President, who was so impressed with it that the Secretary gave it to him. In later discussion, Secretary Ickes expressed his keen desire to have a copy for his use also.”
Shortly thereafter, Ickes wrote: “My dear Mr. Adams: I am enthusiastic about the book— The John Muir Trail —which you were so generous as to send me. The pictures are extraordinarily fine and impressive. I hope before this session of Congress adjourns the John Muir National Park in the Kings Canyon area will be a legal fact. Then we can be sure that your descendants and mine will be able to take as beautiful pictures as you have taken—that is, provided they have your skill and artistry.”
Kings Canyon National Park finally became a reality in 1940 after energetic lobbying by Ickes and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Of the Kings Canyon campaign, Ansel later recalled: “With what one may call arrogant modesty, I think many of my pictures…have an excitement in them which commands more attention than if they were the same scene not composed or adequately printed…I think the pictures I had of the Kings Canyon-Sequoia region did have a helpful effect in getting Congress to pass the bill. But no one will ever know whether it was one percent or five percent, or whether it was entirely imaginary.”
After establishment of the park, National Park Service Direct Arno Cammerer wrote the photographer: “I realize that a silent but most effective voice in the campaign was your book,Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail . So long as that book is in existence, it will go on justifying the park.”
In 1941 Adams began the photomural project for the Interior Department, only to be interrupted by the war. During the war he served as a photographic consultant to the Armed Services and worked with Dorothea Lange for the Office of War Information.
In 1946 a Guggenheim fellowship enabled him to visit and photograph many of the national parks and monuments. The fellowship was renewed in 1948. From this body of work came a series of portfolios and books which document what by now was a firm personal dedication to celebrating America ‘s natural wonders through the art of the camera.
“Dear Mr. Adams,” a woman admirer wrote in a letter in 1975, “In writing to you, I almost feel that I am writing to John Muir, or to Yosemite Valley itself. I am overawed, but I will try to speak.” Ansel Adams has had a love affair with the grandeur of Yosemite for nearly three fourths of a century. He was married at Yosemite . His son Michael was born there. He was one of the originators of the Bracebridge Dinner, a Christmas festival at the park’s Ahwahnee Hotel dating from 1927, and continued to direct this traditional pageant through 1972. In 1937 Virginia inherited Best’s Studio and the Adamses became full-time Yosemite residents. Virginia has operated the studio in marked contrast to the cheap “curio” quality of so many national park concessions.
Each year increasing multitudes have visited the park, a trend that became acute after World War II. In a story Ansel likes to tell, William Colby and John Muir around 1910 were gazing at the magnificent vista from Glacier Point when Muir said to Colby, “Will, won’t it be wonderful when a million people can see what we are seeing today?” To both men a million was surely a fanciful number. They hardly could have anticipated that two generations later Yosemite visits would exceed 2.5 million per year.
This crush of people visiting Yosemite and other national parks, which had been “set apart for the use, observation, health, and pleasure of the people,” puts pressure on another mandate of the Park Service’s founding principles: “that the national parks must be maintained in absolutely unimpaired form for the use of future generations…”* Not only are the numbers of visitors of concern; so are the attitudes and activities they bring with them, which sometimes are more of the resort genre then the contemplative appreciation of nature practiced by John Muir.
*The National Park Service Act, which established the service in 1916, directed it to promote and regulate the national parks and monuments so as “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic object and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
In letters and articles Ansel raised an early voice against these potentially destructive attitudes. “The imposition of commercial ‘resortism’ violates the true function of national parks,” he wrote in 1945. “One weakness in our appreciation of nature is the emphasis placed upon scenery , which in its exploited aspect is merely a gargantuan curio. Things are appreciated for size, unusuality, and scarcity more than for their subtleties and emotional relationship to everyday life. In a 1948 letter calling for some regulation of these activities, he asked: “Is it a matter of ‘snobbery’ that the priest does not permit the sale of peanuts in the aisles of the church? Is it snobbery that the Metropolitan Museum of Art objects to my playing my portable radio in the Egyptian Room?”
Writing in 1959 to Bruce Kilgore of the National Parks Association, he declared: “Our difficulties lie in the fact that we are always worrying about the symptoms—we should be attacking the root cause of the desecration of wilderness and park ideals. Curios are simply one kind of symptom…The syndrome is what we have to overcome.”
In the 1950’s, the National Park Service, responding with a “more the merrier” attitude to the spiraling numbers of visitors, instituted a program called “ Mission 66: designed to provide more roads and accommodations—and thus to promote still more visitation. Mission 66 exhibited a sort of Chamber of Commerce mentality. Ansel described it as “a very two-dimensional idea when we consider mood and experience and emotional state-of-being. It never enters these people’s minds at all. They just want everybody to see it; isn’t it beautiful?…something to be seen and note experienced.”
As part of Mission 66, the Park Service expedited its redesigning and rebuilding of the Tioga Road through the heart of the Yosemite high country. Ansel was especially upset by the dynamiting of a three-mile stretch through strikingly beautiful glacially polished granite in the Tenaya Lake area. Ansel thought the Sierra Club did not take a strong enough stand on this “improvement”. He fired off angry telegrams in July 1958, to the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce and the director of the Park Service. “As an individual and not as a director of the Sierra Club,” he wired, “I wish to lodge a most sincere and severe protest against the desecration of Tenaya Lake…which is being perpetrated by the ruthless construction of the new Tioga Road for the National Park Service by the Bureau of Public Roads. The catastrophic damage is entirely unnecessary and violates the principles expressed in the National Part Organic Act of 1916….I consider this desecration as an act of disregard of these basic conservation principles which approaches criminal negligence on the part of the bureaus concerned. I urgently request you order an immediate cessation of work on the Tioga Road in the Tenaya Lake area until a truly competent group can study the problems and suggest ways and means of accomplishing completion of this project with minimum damage. I have never opposed appropriate improvement of the Tioga Road but in 40 years’ experience in national park and wilderness areas I have never witnessed such an insensitive disregard of prime national park values.”
Simultaneously he tendered his resignation from the Sierra Club board so he could be free to protest without embarrassing the club. In his resignation letter he wrote President Harold Bradley who had been far more critical of the Tioga Road redesign than the board: “I cannot go along with the Sierra Club in their attitude of compromise and persuasion.” In another angry letter he said, “While we are acting like gentlemen—and, I fear, timid ones at that—the Tioga Road will be lost…urbanization of Yosemite will continue….”
Bradley replied: “As you know, I cannot myself accept a resignation. The Board will have to act upon it at the next meeting….I appreciate your motives in proffering it, but I shall be greatly surprised it [is] accepted.” It was not.
Ansel’s Tioga protest drew wide attention both within and beyond the club. Work on the road was halted for 12 days, and club Executive Director Dave Brower inspected the route with Park Service Director Conad L. Wirth. But the damage already had been done. Work resumed with only a minor modification. “We wiggled it a little,” said Wirth.
In a Sierra Club Bulletin lament headed “Tenaya Tragedy,” Ansel wrote: “I am an artist who also appreciated science and engineering, and I know we can’t keep everything in a glass case—with the keys given only to a privileged few. Nevertheless, I want people to experience the magic of wildness; there is no use fooling ourselves that nature with a slick highway running through it is any longer wild….While the National Park Service is open to most severe criticism in this Tenaya Lake road mater, so are the conservationists, who should have been alert to possible damage. I, personally, must assume my share of the blame because I failed to do my part before most of the damage was accomplished.” In a wistful later letter he reflected: “Wilderness is rapidly becoming one of those aspects of the American dream which is more of the past than of the present. Wilderness is not only a condition of nature, but a state of mind and mood and heart. It cannot be confined to the museum-case status—seen only as a passing diorama from superlative throughways.”
Ansel also became involved in other conservation organizations and issues. For a number of years he served as president of the Trustees for Conservation, set up in 1954 to engage in lobbying activities that the Sierra Club and other groups might fear to pursue actively because of possible jeopardy to their tax-deductible status. He became vice chairman of the Sierra Natural Resources Council, organized in 1957 to fight a proposed Mammoth Pass road.
In 1955 Adams and Nancy Newhall organized an exhibit at the Le Conte Lodge called “This Is the American Earth.” Ansel described it as the first endeavor of its kind to relate to conservation at “both the sociological and esthetic level.” The exhibit was circulated in the United States by the Smithsonian Institution and abroad by the United States Information Service. In the course of 1959, with the editorial help of Dave Brower and the aid of a McGraw Foundation gift of $15,000, it was made into a book, the first of the Sierra Club exhibit format series which would have a profound success in awakening many Americans to the beauty of our wild areas and the need to preserve them. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas hailed This Is the American Earth as “one of the great statements in the history of conservation.”
In 1962 Ansel moved to Carmel Highlands in Monterey County , where he still lives today in a house over-looking the Pacific and the magnificent Big Sur coast. In the mid-sixties he was prominently involved in a battle against construction of an oil refinery at Moss Landing, a fishing harbor on Monterey Bay with two ecologically significant estuarine sloughs. The refinery proposal, which generated intense feelings, pro and con, in the Monterey Bay area, also attracted national attention. Ansel and other opponents eventually carried the day when Humble Oil decided to go elsewhere in 1966.
That same year the proposed siting of a power plant at Diablo Canyon in California started an internal debate in the Sierra Club that eventually grew into a controversial board election in 1969 and the resignation of Executive Director David Brower.
Adams and Brower first met on a Sierra trail in 1933, and they became close friends. As early as 1937 the photographer had proposed creating the post of executive secretary for Brower, and he backed him enthusiastically when the club finally appointed Brower executive director 15 years later. In a 1963 letter to the club’s president, Ansel called Brower “the greatest single force in conservation.”
But in 1968 increasing differences within the club on the proper management of club policy and finances, as well as the Diablo Canyon question, led Adams to join with other directors and members in a move to elect a slate of directors opposed to Brower. In the 1969 board election Adams headed the successful anti-Brower slate. Defeated as a board candidate, Brower announced his resignation as executive director.
The Brower fight and the role he felt compelled to play in it were personally painful for Adams . This was probably the most traumatic fight he has ever been involved in. Adams continued as a Sierra Club director until 1971, when he voluntarily retired after 37 years of continuous service on the board. Brower went on to found another conservation organization, Friends of the Earth, which now has members in 24 countries. He is now chairman of its board. Time has diminished the intensity of feeling that was generated by that election. Today Adams expresses great admiration for the extraordinary conservation achievements of Brower. He was especially pleased when the club in 1977 gave Brower its John Muir award, which he had recommended several times, even during the disagreement.
“Sometimes I do think I get to places just when God is ready to have someone click the shutter!” Adams once remarked whimsically. An example of such a happy merger of preparation and chance is the story of one of Ansel’s most celebrated images. Her is his own account, as published in Backpacker: “When I took my moonrise picture, the one with the church and the graveyard at Hernandez , New Mexico , I was driving back to Santa Fe from the Chama Valley and I saw this wonderful scene out the window. The reaction was so strong I practically drove off the road. I got out the tripod and camera, took the front part of the lens off, screwed it on the back of the shutter and began composing and focusing. All the time I was trying to think of what I’d have to do to make the picture. I couldn’t find my exposure meter, but I know the moon’s luminance was 250 candles per square foot and that was placed on Zone VII of the exposure scale. That gave me a shutter speed of a sixtieth of a second at f /8 with a film speed of ASA 64. The filter factor was 3X, so that made the basic exposure a twentieth of a second. I exposed for a long second at f /32, made one picture, and while I was turning the holder around and pulling out the slide to make a duplicate, the sunlight went off the crosses. I got the picture by about 15 seconds!
“If I had spent more time in the Chama Valley , I would have missed the entire thing. If I had come home earlier, I would have missed it. So there’s always an element of chance in photography. If you have practiced and practiced, the process is intuitive. You suddenly recognize something, and you react.”
Adams ‘ photography has embraced a tremendous range of subject mater, but his most famous and popular images are his landscapes of the American West. Most critics would probably agree that in the realm of the grand landscape Adams is in a class by himself.
He dislikes the term “nature photographer,” but he seems even more dismayed by a popular misconception that photography like his, which involves readily identifiable subjects, is “realistic.” He is not concerned, he says, with the mere recording of external reality—what he calls the “external event”—but is intent on conveying the emotional content of a scene, the “internal event.” Perhaps this is why he has worked almost exclusively in black and white. As Wallace Stegner remarked, “In black and white there is a cooler distance between the world and its symbolic representation.”
Inevitably, Adams has been compared to the landscape photographers of the nineteenth century, William Henry Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan, as well as nineteenth century painters of the sublime landscape, such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt. It might be argued that Adams is one of the last in the Romantic tradition. But there is a point beyond which such comparisons cannot be carried. Adams himself feels that the Romantic artists were “sincere but limited ‘scene’ painters” who were primarily “commemorating in dramatic style the huge ‘external events’ of landscapes….Few examples of what I call the internal event were revealed.”
According to critic Jon Holmes, “There is something in Adams ‘ spirit reminiscent of pioneer Western photographers. Adams ‘ subject matter—awesome nature—is the same. Through the years he has certainly put in enough miles leading mules laden with equipment over the Sierras to equal the stamina and endurance of [Jackson and O’Sullivan]. His tools are better than theirs, but as both recorder and printmaker, his craft is far greater. Adams , in addition, has that quality which, in 1932, his close friend, Edward Weston, described in a letter to him as ‘seeing plus.’”
John Szarkowski of New York ‘s Museum of Modern Art has said: “What Adams ‘ pictures show us is different from what we see in any landscape photographer before him. They are concerned, it seems to me, not with the description of object—the rocks, trees, and water that are the nominal parts of his pictures—but with the description of the light that they modulate, the light that justifies their relationship to each other.”
“The effect of the natural scene on the artist is an emotional one,” Adams himself told me. “He visualizes his work, bringing in the quality of esthetics, to try to convey an emotion.” On another occasion he remarked: “It’s really the impact of recognition….Photographing ‘scenery’ is the very thing I don’t believe in, because that’s often a two-dimensional affair. So the element of immediate, emotional impact is very important.”
Dave Brower aptly describes that impact. “We say beauty because Ansel had seen it first and had interpreted it with a strength that was identifiable at a hundred yards. If there were an Ansel Adams print you would know it. It just sort of sang out….The last time I went to a show of his…I watched the other people and I remember there was one young man, he’d go from photograph to photograph and he’d spend about 10 minutes in front of each, looking, and exploring every tonal quality, every bit of what had happened there….That was moving, just to watch that, to watch somebody absorbing Ansel.”
Ansel’s photography has had great impact indeed, not only in awakening people to the beauty of nature but in inspiring many other photographers to turn their efforts to the natural scene and to use photography in the interests of environmental preservation. The publicizing of wilderness can be a double-edged sword, however. In recent years environmentalists, including Adams , have come to an awareness of a dilemma: that wild areas once publicized and saved from the depredations of the loggers or miners may, because of their fame, become “loved to death” by backpackers and other visitors, through sheer weight of numbers. Critic Szarkowski has suggested that “to photograph beautifully a choice vestigial remnant of natural landscape is not necessarily to do a great favor to its future. This problem is now understood, intuitively or otherwise, by many younger photographers….It is difficult today for an ambitious young photographer to photograph a pristine snowcapped mountain without including the parking lot in the foreground as a self-protecting note of irony. In these terms Adams ‘ pictures are perhaps anachronisms. They are perhaps the last confident and deeply felt pictures of their tradition….It does not seem likely that a photographer of the future will be able to bring to the heroic wild landscape the passion, trust, and belief that Adams has brought to it.”
One of the rewards of Adams ‘ fame is entrée in important places where he can press his viewpoint on conservation. In 1975 President Gerald Ford invited him to the White House, and Ansel did not hesitate to turn the visit into more than a social call. He expressed concern to the President over what he saw as negative trends in the national parks. Commercial exploitation and poor management, he said, were threatening the primeval natural qualities of the parks. Now was Mr. Ford’s chance, he urged, to do something. He handed the President a memorandum proposing new initiatives for the parks. “Our National Park System encompasses the Crown Jewels of the American Heritage,” the memo said. “The Park Idea has not received the Presidential and Congressional support and concern that the time require. You have an unsurpassed opportunity to make an historic and lasting contribution by initiating a major new effort to bring the Park System and the Park Service into our nation’s third century.”
He also presented a print of his “ Yosemite : Clearing Winter Storm” and urged: “Now, Mr. President, every time you look up at this picture, I want you to remember your obligation to the national parks.”
Mr. Ford, who had been a ranger in Yellowstone during one of his youthful summers, replied, “If anyone has the basic feeling for parks, I have.” But to Ansel’s disappointment, only minor steps followed.
Since Yosemite is Ansel’s first love, he has always taken an active interest in policies affecting the park, whether speaking to Presidents about its management in the broad sense or to superintendents about the locating of road signs. In a letter to one superintendent, he wrote: “ Yosemite is a somewhat fragile experience; you cannot do much harm to the cliffs but you can dislocate the ‘mood’ and the subtle qualities of the place which are without parallel in the world.” To Will Colby he had written in 1952: “Everyone has a right to visit Yosemite . But no one has the privilege of usurping it, distorting it, and making it less attractive to those who seek its experience in its simpler, unmanipulated state….The preservation of the primeval qualities does not relate to the mere protection of material objects. The significance of the objects of nature; the significance which concerns poets, dreamers, conservationists and citizens-at-large, relates to the ‘presence of nature.’ This is mood, the magic of personal experience, the awareness of a certain purity of condition .”
Ansel’s opinions on Yosemite have not always endeared him to the park’s major concessioner, Yosemite Park and Curry Company. Nor have they always been heeded by the Park Service, Tenaya Lake being only one case in point. In the early 1970s the Park Service was drawing up a master plan for the future management of Yosemite that could also serve as a model for other national parks. While environmentalists essentially were ignored, much heed was paid to the views of the Curry Company. When this and other facts became known, there was a nationwide furor. Assistant Secretary of the Interior Nathaniel P. Reed exclaimed that the plan “appeared to have been written by the concessioner.” The Park Service was ordered to start over, this time with public participation. Partly as a result of the controversy, Park Service Director Ronald Walker resigned.
Adams had declared in 1971: “ Yosemite Valley itself is one of the great shrines of the world and—belonging to all our people—must be both protected and appropriately accessible.” He urged a “bold” management plan that would remove most of the automobiles and visitor facilities that now deface the valley. But in 1978 another plan unveiled by the Park Service fell far short of that goal. Ansel complained vigorously to both Park Service Director William J. Whalen and Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus, telling the Secretary the plan was “only a slight reshuffle of the status quo.” The Park Service subsequently accepted some of Ansel’s suggestions for reducing auto traffic in the valley, but did almost nothing about moving commercial facilities. Ansel’s hope is that Secretary Andrus and if necessary Congress will insist on better.
The magnificent Big Sur coast south of his home in Monterey County has long occupied a special place in Ansel’s heart. His great dream is during his lifetime to see the coast given lasting protection. He is actively leading a national effort to check the development that threatens the magnificence of that region. Ansel sees the present hodgepodge of regulatory agencies concerned with land use on the Big Sur coast as incapable of controlling continued development. He has been working closely with The Wilderness Society and California ‘s Senator Alan Cranston and Congressmen Phillip Burton and Leon Panetta to establish federal protection for the coast. In this cause he has made several trips to Washington, one of them including a fruitful meeting with President Carter. After three years of work by Adams and his associates, legislation is expected to be introduced this year to create a Big Sur National Scenic Area. Prospects for passage appear very good.
In a recent statement to his fellow citizens of Monterey County , Adams said, “I am nearly 78 years old and I have lived in Carmel Highlands for the past 17 years. Perhaps the greatest joy I will ever find in my lifetime is the opportunity to protect the unsurpassed natural beauty of our coastline for our children and grandchildren….Let us not go down in history as the generation that stood silently by while the Big Sur coast was developed and its natural beauty destroyed. Let us, instead, leave a splendid legacy for our children….If we join together to accomplish the preservation of our Big Sur Coast I will feel I have had a life fully lived.”
Another major conservation priority for Adams is the preservation of Alaska lands, an effort in which he has been an active participant since his first visit to Alaska more than 30 years ago. He is a member of Americans for Alaska , a group of nationally prominent individuals committed to the preservation of Alaska wilderness. As with Big Sur , he has worked primarily with The Wilderness Society on the Alaska National Interest Lands legislation. In his meetings with the President and important members of Congress he has spoken persuasively on behalf of Alaskan wilderness.
Ansel Adams will be remembered for his wide range of conservation activities and his inspirational commitment over more than half a century. But his foremost contribution to “the American Earth” has been the remarkable impact of his photography on the consciousness of Americans.
In the address entitled “The Role of the Artist in Conservation,” Adams declared, “I believe the approach of the artist and the approach of the environmentalist are fairly close in that both are, to a rather impressive degree, concerned with the ‘affirmation of life’….Response to natural beauty is one of the foundations of the environmental movement.”
In a 1970 Chubb fellowship lecture at Yale University , he said, “Wilderness, to me at least, is a ‘mystique’; a valid, intangible, non-materialistic experience. The right to experience is a fundamental right, just as is the right to possess, the right to believe or the right to work or right to security. The concept that there are other (and equally important) values than those of obvious material and financial character is one that we must nourish and support to the utmost.”
Adams has been referred to as “the visual John Muir.” As Muir’s contemporary writings had an inspirational effect on the appreciation of Americans for wilderness, Adams ‘ photography has had similar effect in modern times. Adams has celebrated the same essential qualities of wilderness as Muir and in particular has celebrated the same “ Range of Light ,” the Sierra Nevada .
The broad philosophical effect on attitudes toward the natural world, while hard to quantify and isolate in terms of dates and numbers, is the most fundamental and important element of the environmental movement. It transcends any of the issues and events involved. It is the essence of Adams ‘ greatness that he has so eloquently communicated a philosophical vision of the land and our relationship to it. That vision, and its eloquence, is what make Ansel Adams one of the truly significant figures in environmental history.
Brock Evans, now associate executive director of the Sierra Club, wrote a letter in 1968 to Ansel that movingly describes the impact of Ansel’s photography. “Ansel, I have never told you this,” the letter said, “but you are in a most direct way responsible in large part for my love of the land and my passion for my job. I was born and raised in Ohio , and never really had much contact with raw, wild nature, until about the spring of 1961. I was just finishing my first year at the University of Michigan Law School, and I happened to pick up a copy of ‘ Yosemite ,’ that beautiful book edited by Charlotte Mauk, with John Muir’s writings, and your incomparable pictures. I remember rushing back to my room all during final exams, reading and re-reading the book, being absorbed in the magnificent pictures, and playing beautiful music on my record player. It was like another world, and the words and the pictures stunned me and moved me more deeply about nature than I ever had been before. I had a job that summer in Glacier National Park, my first time to see any mountains; and, having already been prepared by the book, stepping off the train into the mountains and smelling the pines was as if a lost chord was touched deep inside me, and it has been humming ever since. I have looked now for seven years to try and find a copy of that book for my own, but apparently it is out of print and only available in libraries. But you were a hero to me, as you must be to many, many others, long before I ever knew you. Than beautiful book helped to change my life in ways that I still only vaguely understand.”
Robert Turnage is a graduate student at Yale University’s School of Forestry and School of Organization and Management and a graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has worked at The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite and as a trail crewman in Yellowstone National Park .
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Last Updated on August 29, 2022