Ansel Adams’ Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail is a stunning book. From a first glance, it’s clear that the photographs inside represent Ansel at his best, each conveying the grandeur, stoicism, and quietude of the John Muir Trail, a winding 213-mile path that stretches from the Yosemite Valley all the way to Mt. Whitney. But John Muir Trail is also a triumph of photographic reproduction as well; each photoengraved image is carefully trimmed and glued individually by hand onto the page. Indeed, so exquisite are the photographic reproductions that, in the years since, they have often been mistaken for actual photographic prints.
Because John Muir Trail is Ansel’s first book composed entirely of landscapes, it’s a fascinating window into the beginnings of what would become the artist’s aesthetic philosophy—the marriage of photography with a conservationist ethic that would become Ansel’s signature.
Although the book itself is a triumph, the story of how it came to be, begins with a tragedy—the death of mountaineer Walter “Pete” Starr, Jr. Born in 1903, Starr was an early explorer of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Like Ansel, Starr was enthralled with the Sierra Nevada. As an avid hiker and lifelong member of the Sierra Club, Starr was determined to one day visit every inch of the High Sierra, sometimes hiking 50 miles in a single day. His love for the area soon translated into advocacy: he wanted others to be able to experience the High Sierra, to be as amazed and humbled by it as he was. He began compiling page upon page of notes on the region, hoping to one day publish a definitive guide to the John Muir Trail, allowing everyone to follow the trail and experience its awe-inspiring landscapes.
In August 1933, Starr went out for a month-long hike in the Minarets. He never came back. When his body was eventually discovered, it was decided that he should be buried where he was found, among the mountains and valleys to which he had dedicated his life.
It was Starr’s father, Walter Starr, Sr., who, in an act of extraordinary devotion amidst extraordinary grief, finished his son’s work. Taking the younger Starr’s detailed notes, Walter, Sr., a member of the Sierra Club’s Board of Directors, compiled them into “Starr’s Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Region.” It was published by the Sierra Club in 1938, and to this day remains a definitive guide for hikers in the region.
The elder Starr didn’t stop there, however. He approached Ansel with an idea for a book—a compendium of photographs documenting the beauty of the John Muir Trail. Offering to finance its production in memory of his son, Starr wanted the finest reproductions possible. And so Ansel, working closely with the printer to adhere to his exact specifications, produced the stunning John Muir Trail.
Though only 500 copies were produced, the book had an outsized impact. It was circulated among members of the National Park Service, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, and even President Franklin Roosevelt himself. Today, thanks to the conservation efforts inspired, in part, by John Muir Trail, hikers along the High Sierra can still follow the path laid out by Walter Starr, Jr. And if they look up, they might even gaze upon Mount Starr, renamed in Walter’s honor in 1939.
Mount Huxley, Evolution Lake by Ansel Adams
Mount Winchell by Ansel Adams
Grouse Valley by Ansel Adams
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Last Updated on August 29, 2022