Eastward, beyond the surf of the Pacific, beyond the tawny rolling Coast Range and the wide central valley of California, rises the great wall of the Sierra Nevada. Four hundred miles long, seventy miles wide, ten to more than fourteen thousand feet in height, it ranks with the major mountain ranges of the world. Certainly it is one of the most beautiful. Geologically, it is a tilted block of the earth’s crust – a long, continuous slope fronting the west, and a short, breath-taking decline to the eastern deserts. The western slope is cut deeply with magnificent canyons forking back to the final peaks of the crest. Dominantly granitic, the rock has responded to the slow but irresistible wearing of the rivers and later, to the refining sculpture and burnishing of the ice-age glaciers; the great forces of the earth have revealed a landscape of extraordinary purity and simplicity, vigor and grandeur.
Truly the “Range of Light,” as John Muir defined it, the Sierra Nevada rises to the sun as a vast shining world of stone and snow and foaming waters, mellowed by the forests growing upon it and the clouds and storms that flow over it. White domes and ridges of granite merge with the black metamorphic rocks of the final summits; mineral-infused veins impose gleaming color on the peaks and canyons; hundreds of shining lakes are hidden in the stone matrix of the mountains. Snow fields scintillate above the last domain of living things, and wide meadows, profuse with flowers, rest upon the gentler slopes and in the sheltered valleys.
Rondal Partridge Portrait of Ansel
So vast is the detail of the Sierra, so many aspects of the region demand adequate interpretation, that no one work of science or of art may compass it. It is one of the wonders of the natural world – a fresh and complete exposition of the forces of glaciation, of erosions by wind and waters, and of the deep travail of the earth.
As a region of recreation it is unequaled. In no other mountain range may be found a more benign climate, more favorable conditions for life out-of-doors, wider opportunities for the study and enjoyment of nature, more exciting temptations for the mountaineer. The ice-fields of the Alps and the Canadian Rockies are not found in the Sierra, but, as more than adequate compensation for this lack, there are clean high spires and summits of stone, crystalline sun and air, and the fragrance of lofty meadows and wild gardens.
For the artist and all others seeking the intimate splendors of the natural world the Sierra is an inexhaustible well of esthetic and spiritual stimulation. The interpretation of the Range has been mostly factual, but we may be sure that in time artists and poets, gifted in relating the qualities of nature to the mystical and creative elements in man, will seek in the remote fastness of these mountains the substance of their expression. The emotional interpretation of the Sierra Nevada – the revelation of the beauty of wide horizons and the tender perfection of detail – is the function of the present work.
The region concerned in this collection of photographs stretches from the Yosemite National Park in the north to the Sequoia National Park in the south, including the watersheds of the Tuolumne, Merced, San Joaquin, Kings, Kern, and Kaweah rivers, and the numerous streams descending the eastern slope. The John Muir Trail is the main artery through the Sierra, enabling the traveler to enjoy not only the rugged splendors of the crest, but also the more tranquil lower spurs and canyons and the magnificent desert-fronting regions of the Range.
A word about the photographs themselves: my best work with the camera in the Sierra, they attempt to convey the experiences and the moods derived from a close association with the mountains. Many of the important peaks and canyons are not represented – the sheer limit of space would restrict a complete exposition of this kind. No attempt is made to portray the Range in the manner of a catalogue; in fact, the program of the book determines that factual, informative qualities be submerged in favor of purely emotional interpretative elements. A detail of a tree root, a segment of a rock, a great paean of thunder clouds, – all these relate with equal intensity to the portrayal of an impressive peak or canyon. The grandiose elements of the scene are subordinated to the more intimate aspects – for it is through the reception of beauty in detail that our experiences are formed and qualified. The majesty of form, the solidity of stone, the eternal qualities of the Sierra as a noble gesture of the earth, cannot be transcribed in any but the richest and most intense expression. Nevertheless, a certain objectivity must be maintained, a certain quality of reality adhered to, for these images – integrated through the camera – represent the most enduring and massive aspects of the world, and justify more than an abstract and esoteric interpretation. I feel secure in confining the tone-scale of my prints to a vibrant deep register and in adhering to a certain austerity throughout, in accentuating the acuteness of edge and texture, and in stylizing the severity, grandeur, and poignant minutiae of the mountains.
This work, then, is a transmission of emotional experience – personal, it is true, as any work of art must be, – but inclusive in the sense that others have enjoyed similar experiences so they will understand this interpretation of the intimate and intense beauty of the Sierra Nevada.
Yosemite National Park
March 17, 1938
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Last Updated on September 11, 2022