Conserving the Spirit of Yosemite: Ansel Adams’ Early Years in the Sierra Club

For many, the photographs of Ansel Adams are a portal to a different world. Through Ansel’s striking images, the outdoors are transformed from an abstract concept—a world beyond our suburban cul-de-sacs or crowded city streets—into a reality. Here, in his photographs, are our lonely mountains, here are our rugged cliffs, here are our rushing rivers. There is perhaps no photographer in American history who stood for the ethos of stewardship for our shared environment as much as Ansel Adams, who over the course of his decades-long career did more than just introduce Americans to their wild places, but encouraged them to protect them.

Banner Peak, Thousand Island Lake,”1923, Original Photograph by Ansel Adams

Ansel made his first trip to Yosemite in 1916, when he was just 14. After a San Francisco childhood spent playing in the dunes behind the Golden Gate and the wind-swept shoreline at Land’s End, the young Adams had a keen eye for the romance of nature. As Ansel later wrote of his first impression of Yosemite, after weeks of boyhood anticipation:

“That first impression of the valley—white water, azaleas, cool fir caverns, tall pines and solid 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.”

Sierra Meadow

Sierra Meadow,” 1930, Original Photograph by Ansel Adams

From then on, Ansel returned to photograph Yosemite every summer of his life. In 1919, he took a job as the custodian of the Sierra Club’s Le Conte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley, where he would come back and work every summer until 1923. The custodian job, a dream for an outdoorsy teenager, left him plenty of time to explore the valley with the fervor and invincibility of youth. In a later interview with Backpacker magazine, Ansel recalled one rock-climbing trip in the high Sierra country, where he scrambled up rock faces with nothing more than a quarter inch-thick window sash cord to hold him. “In a sense,” he conceded, somewhat sheepishly, “it’s a miracle I’m alive.”

Charlie Michael and Ansel on the climb to the Diving Board, Yosemite National Park, 1927

Charlie Michael and Ansel on the climb to the Diving Board, Yosemite National Park, 1927

But his youthful time at the Le Conte Lodge didn’t just instill in Ansel a love for adventure. It introduced him to the vision and the aspirations of conservation. In spite of its name, the Sierra Club’s lodge isn’t really a lodge in the conventional sense. Rather than serving as a bunkhouse for hikers on the way to Mirror Lake or Yosemite Falls, the Le Conte Lodge was opened in 1904 to provide a public reading room and information to visitors of Yosemite National Park. The lodge educates thousands of visitors every year on the importance of respect for the Park’s wilderness, and on the Sierra Club’s preservationist goals. As custodian, Ansel was introduced to the Sierra Club’s founding mission: “to explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth,” and to educate humanity to do the same.

Ansel at LeConte Lodge, Yosemite Valley, California, c. 1921. Collection of Michael and Jeanne Adams.

Ansel at LeConte Lodge, Yosemite Valley, California, c. 1921. Collection of Michael and Jeanne Adams.

There was perhaps no more formative experience for Ansel, both artistically and personally, than his time spent as custodian. As David Brower, the 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.” Soon, Ansel began attending the High Trip, the Club’s annual outing of more than 200 people, then organizing the trips, and before long he was the Club’s official photographer. Gone was the teenager who bemoaned seeing others with him during his long summers in the park, thinking visitors to be “an intrusion or even trespass.” Instead, the artistic mission of Adams’ life became an educational one: to use his photography to introduce to others the joys of nature and the imperative need to protect it.

 “On The Hermit,” 1930, Original Photograph by Ansel Adams

On The Hermit,” 1930, Original Photograph by Ansel Adams

Throughout his long career, Ansel sought to make his art available to as many people as possible, knowing full well the emotional and transportive power of his photographs. When asked to speak in 1975 about the role of the artist in conservation, he said, somewhat wistfully, then an older man: “I would like to think of all young people of today, with their health, vigor, and creativity striding the high hills as I did so many years ago, with the beauty and the wonder of the world opening before them.” Through his photography, Ansel invited everyone to experience his wild and idyllic years among the cliffs and pines of Yosemite Valley. Through his photographs, all people can truly feel as he did: that they are striding through a vast and unknowable wilderness, watching its treasures reveal themselves just for them. Who, knowing Yosemite that way, wouldn’t fight to preserve it?

Ansel Adams, left, and best friend Cedric Wright (far right, playing the violin) on an early Sierra Club trip. Courtesy of Adams Family Archives.

Did You Know:

  • Ansel Adams served as a Director of the Sierra Club for nearly 50 years, from 1925 to 1971. His predecessor as Director was none other than his wife, Virginia Best, who retired from her post to take care of their baby son, Michael.
  • In 1938, Ansel published a special limited-edition book of photographs, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, celebrating the beauty of the Kings River wilderness. The images were so striking that when the National Park Service gave a copy to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Roosevelt was inspired to preserve those lands as the Kings Canyon National Park. As the director of the National Park Service wrote of Ansel’s portfolio: “So long as that book is in existence, it will go on justifying the park.”
  • Ansel Adams returned to the LeConte Lodge in 1955 for a photographic exhibition, This is the American Earth, advocating for conservation and the expansion of the National Park system.
  • Ansel Adams thought of the role of art as creating a “universal conscience.” In the context of his environmental activism, how do you think his photographs do that?
  • In 1980, President Jimmy Carter awarded Ansel the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his “efforts to preserve this country’s wild and scenic areas, both on film and on earth.”

Experience Ansel Adams’ original early photographs on display in our online exhibition.