“Wherever one goes in the Southwest, one encounters magic, strength, and beauty.”
So wrote Ansel Adams, whose photographs of the varied and rugged landscapes of the region have imprinted upon the imaginations of millions around the world. Beyond Yosemite and the High Sierra, the Southwest was one of Ansel’s best-loved regions of the country.In fact, it was a trip to Taos, New Mexico in the 1930s that led Ansel to cross paths with photographer Paul Strand, who helped inspire him to make photography his life’s work. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ansel Adams, “Petroglyphs” Original Gelatin Silver Photograph | Signed “Ansel Adams” Negative: 1958 | Print: 1970 | Large Format 16×20”
Over the years, Ansel made many such trips, criss-crossing the Southwest to photograph its canyons, gullies, deserts, and towns, often bringing his family along.
His son Michael recalls one particularly memorable journey in 1941, which saw them traversing the deserts of Arizona from Canyon de Chelly to Monument Valley. Arriving in the trading post at Chinle, Ansel met up with Cozy McSparron, a trader and colorful character who ran the Thunderbird Ranch, a lodge for visitors to the Navajo Territory. As Michael remembers, it was still very warm, despite the late afternoon hour, when they arrived, and “Cozy McSparron and Ansel sat on a screened-in porch and drank bourbon.” Of course, he adds, “I drank Coca-Cola,” given that he was just eight years old at the time.
The next morning, McSparron took the two Adamses down into the canyon, using the unusual vehicle he’d retrofitted to make the journey.
“He had a large Lincoln four-door convertible that had oversized tires on it,” says Michael, “that he used to take people up and down the canyon to see the ruins.” Though Ansel and Michael did stop to examine the White House Ruins, they continued on towards Canyon del Muerto without stopping to take a photograph.
It was only the following day that Ansel returned to make the image that we now know as “White House Ruin.”
With young Michael in tow, Ansel climbed down from the White House Overlook in search of the perfect spot from which to make his photograph. All these years later, Michael still remembers how scorchingly hot it was that day. “It was a very hot day,” he recalls, laughing, “and after waiting around until he got the photograph that he was happy with, we had to climb back out of the canyon,” quite a journey on eight-year-old legs!
Later on that very same trip, Ansel and Michael returned to northern New Mexico, where he’d made an image of the Ghost Ranch Hills in Chama Valley in 1937.
In addition to the dramatic mud hills and rock formations of Ansel’s image, the Chama Valley was also the home of Georgia O’Keeffe, his close friend and artistic collaborator.
Though they didn’t stop to visit with O’Keeffe on that particular trip, Michael fondly remembers her visits to Ansel’s home in Yosemite, where the two would spend long nights drinking wine and talking. In fact, when Michael went off to medical school in St. Louis, he would often stop in New Mexico on his journeys East to drop off a case of O’Keeffe’s favorite California red, a gift to the painter from his parents.
But in 1941, Michael remembers, Ansel was experiencing a rare moment in Chama, New Mexico, of artistic defeat. “He was very disappointed with what we were looking at,” Michael says. Ansel’s own account of the day, in his book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, concurs. As he put it:
“Defeat comes occasionally to all photographers, as to all politicians, and there is no use moaning about it.”
In the case of this day, there’s certainly no use in moaning about it—because it was on the journey home that inspiration returned with a vengeance.
Driving home with Michael in the car, he caught sight of the brilliant moon rising through the clouds of a clearing storm over the tiny community of Hernandez, New Mexico—and nearly leapt from the driver’s seat in his haste to capture the image. The resulting photograph was “Moonrise, Hernandez,” one of Ansel’s most iconic images of the dazzling desolation of the landscape. For Ansel, this kind of serendipity was one of the joys of photographing the Southwest.
Moonrise, Hernandez 1941
As he wrote in a 1936 letter, the region is full of “beautiful and exquisite things that exist only in the light of the moment—the light that comes from the mind and the heart… These things must be caught when they can.”
On that fateful night in 1941, Ansel rose splendidly to the challenge.