Towering over Colorado’s wild Elk Mountain range, the Maroon Bells are some of the Rocky Mountain States’ most striking alpine features. True to their name, the bell-shaped peaks glow a vivid purple in the pre-dawn or pre-dusk light, thanks to the unique mudstone that colors the mountains maroon.
Ansel Adams made this photo in 1951, while traveling to one of the first meetings of the Aspen Institute, a gathering of intellectuals and artists set amidst Colorado’s natural beauty. Amongst the attendees slated to appear at the 1951 gathering were Dorothea Lange, the documentary photographer and photojournalist, Ben Shahn, the social realist painter, and Berenice Abbott, whose iconic photographs of New York City became some of its defining images of the 20th century.
Though Ansel took plenty of time to discuss art and photography with his fellow creators—including a conversation that would lead to the founding of Aperture magazine, the nation’s first creative photography journal—he wouldn’t be Ansel if he didn’t sneak away to make a few photographs. Hosting the Institute amidst some of the most geologically fascinating features of the West would have been a siren song impossible to ignore, and Ansel soon found himself in the White River National Forest, ten miles west of Aspen, gazing upon the Maroon Bells.
Though Ansel had traveled throughout Colorado on multiple occasions—including as part of a photography project he undertook in 1941 in conjunction with the Department of the Interior, his previous images had never taken on quite this scale. Ansel’s composition emphasizes the truly massive size of the snow-dusted formation, leaving almost no room for the cloud-dappled sky. His heightened use of contrast highlights the unique striations in the Bells’ soft red shale and paler siltstone, and the snow blown into the crevasses makes them look as though they’d been scraped by some enormous, unseen hand. Though many of Ansel’s landscapes highlight an amazing contrast between water and land, as seen here, he kept the focus primarily on the mountains and the valley, rather than on the reflection in the still water.
Throughout his life, Ansel would photograph Colorado’s Rockies again and again, but would never again attempt a grand landscape like this one, at least not in the region. Perhaps, as he considered the image’s perfect encapsulation of the harshness and serenity of winter in the Rockies, he considered that element of his photographic project complete. Contemplating this photograph, it’s impossible not to be reminded of some of Ansel’s other iconic landscapes — ”Tetons and Snake River,” “Monolith,” or “Clearing Winter Storm.” But as a portrait of the grandeur of some of our nation’s most dramatic wilderness, “Maroon Bells” stands alone.
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