Merced River, Cliffs, Autumn

Story Behind the Image

Autumn in Yosemite Valley is a particular treat. For intrepid visitors willing to linger past Labor Day to beat the summer crowds of the high season, the cooler temperatures usher in a rare moment of quiet solitude in the often-bustling park. In fall, the formerly rushing waters of the valley’s iconic waterfalls slow to a trickle, and though the trees are mostly unchanging evergreens, the park’s big-leaf maples and other deciduous trees give unsuspecting visitors a glorious show.

Visiting Yosemite on a chilly, late-autumn morning in 1939, Ansel Adams, too, couldn’t help but feel the unique character of the wilderness in Fall.

“There is often a mournful quality about fall in Yosemite,” he recalled. “The Merced River is very low, and the waterfalls are gone for the year. Autumn color is never brilliant there, but the dark gold and russets of the oaks and willows have a particular quiet beauty.”

merced river cliffs autumn

Ansel Adams, “Merced River, Cliffs, Autumn
Yosemite Special Edition Gelatin Silver Photograph
Image Size: 8×10” framed to 14×17”
Prints priced from $325 to $650 depending on framing

Walking along the banks of the sedate Merced, Ansel was struck by this image of the valley’s oaks, the last of their autumn leaves still clinging to the boughs, as the Cathedral Rocks loom in the background. With only a narrow sidewalk to the west of the El Capitan Bridge on which to place his camera, Ansel opted to use a wide-field, 10” lens on his 8 x 10” camera. Since most of the scene was shaded, his primary challenge was of contrast: manipulating the luminance to show the golden leaves in their full autumn splendor. This image, one of Adams’ first to be conceived using his innovative Zone System, demonstrates the depth of thought and attention he paid to considerations of contrast, light, and space within his photographs.

framed merced river cliffs autumn

“Merced River, Cliffs, Autumn” with Embossed Logo & Framed with a Premium Custom Gray Welded Frame

The rich visual potential of the scene he encountered on that autumn day was a source of both artistic joy and frustration for Ansel. Never one to be satisfied with his own work, he couldn’t help critiquing the photograph in the 1983 book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. As he wrote, “In retrospect, I believe I should have given this negative a little more exposure… I have not yet made a print that fully satisfies me.” He even went on to consider how he might have made the image using color film, noting that “the elements here that made a black-and-white image difficult would be most favorable to color photography.” Though the challenge of making the perfect reproduction of this image continued to concern Ansel throughout his career, it nonetheless was one of the images included in his Portfolio III to benefit the Sierra Club, demonstrating the serenity and grandeur of Yosemite Valley, the place he loved so much. Ansel also chose to incorporate it into Classic Images, the book based on the Museum Set Collection, a retrospective portfolio of what Ansel considered his strongest work.

As with many of Ansel’s wonderful images, it is not enough to view them—you have to imagine yourself standing there, as he did, enjoying the fleeting, almost uncapturable beauty of late fall in the woods.