Tetons and the Snake River, Original Photograph by Ansel Adams
“It was a beautiful stretch of water, either to a photographer or a fisherman, although each would have focused his equipment on a different point.”
-Norman Maclean”, A River Runs Through It”
It is a happy coincidence that Ansel Adams and the author Norman Maclean were born in the same year, 1902, and that both artists trace the genesis of their craft to seminal experiences in the wilderness of the American West. Adams, of course, made his first visit to Yosemite at age 14, and Maclean’s world was forged in Montana’s “oceans of mountains,” where, at 15, he found work in the US Forest Service in the Bitterroot National Forest. Though one is forever wedded to the forested mountains, valleys, and rivers of Montana, the other used Yosemite as a lens through which he would capture some of the most epic and elegiac images of the United States ever produced. Both mixed earthy humor and rugged wisdom with a lifelong devotion to wilderness and our place in it with a depth that reached spiritual dimensions.
And it just so happens that a river runs through the landscape beneath the jagged peaks of The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, a shimmering bow of rippled light that sets the landscape ablaze with its glow. This 1942 photograph was originally conceived as part of The Mural Project for the US Department of the Interior, a once-in-a-lifetime commission upon which Adams worked through one trip during the fall of 1941 and another in May and June of 1942. The project was initially planned to celebrate the US’s National Parks system in a suite of large-scale mural-sized prints, possibly as many as thirty-six, that would have lined the walls of the Department of the Interior building, separate from, but in concert with, the pre-existing painted WPA murals already installed. Adams thus had to consider his work both in relationship to the scale and color of the artwork in the building, the space of the building itself, and the teeming crowds of visitors to the building. Although no exact descriptions of how Adams would have composed this sequence have survived, it is clear that he was thinking in lofty terms. Each of his operatic views, of which the above photo is part, sings of wild grandeur on an epic scale.
Tetons and the Snake River
The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Tetons National Park joins White House Ruinand Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico(both 1941) in what many consider to be Adams’ most prolific and powerful period of work, wherein his own grand ambitions of reframing photography as fine art were matched with an unprecedented esteemed commission. While World War II raged elsewhere, Adams set his sights on what seemed to be the eternal monuments of national democracy. This commission, however, would change immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Drawn into war, the United States could no longer fund the second leg of Adams’s work. By the end of the month, Adams argued in a letter to E. K. Burlew, First Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior, “I believe my work relates most efficiently to an emotional presentation of ‘what we are fighting for.” In other words, as much as he had seen his work in the fall as a service to the nation, he hoped that his work would continue during and after the war as a patriotic elegy.
To see any photograph from this period of Adams’ oeuvre is to see an artist in full control of their medium. Juxtaposing the sinuous sliver of the silver shimmering river with the craggy peaks of the Tetons, Adams offers a masterclass in compositional balance. Brooding storm clouds billow above the jagged peaks, a foreboding signal of the scene’s unique transience. The storm could break within seconds of Adams taking this photo, or it could pass. One might recall Thomas Coles’ visionary Oxbow (1836), or the dynamic Romanticism of Thomas Moran’s 1870’s views of Yellowstone and other western peaks, as Adams sustains the 19th century tradition of capturing a moment of high-keyed drama and seeing the allegorical meaning of landscape. As The Tetons and the Snake River comes out of the second leg of his trip, in the early summer of 1942, Adams was certainly aware of the potential for homespun symbols of natural force and resilience to galvanize national pride. His work from this summer is charged with an urgency that may have been a response to the US entering the war.
Thomas Moran, Lower Falls, Yellowstone Park; Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1893.
Because of the war, The Mural Project never materialized as Adams had envisioned. In the fall of 1942 Adams sent a set of 225 gelatin silver prints to the Department of the Interior in Washington, DC, with the hope that the exhibition of the prints would convince the government to continue the project. While this may not have played out the way that Adams had hoped, the negatives produced in this generative period have fixed Adams’ status as an American master of photography. The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park graced the cover of his publication “My Camera in the National Parks,” 1950. In this book, published by his wife Virginia Best, the photographs are described as “symbols of that deep emotional and spiritual experience in the presence of nature to which increasing millions of people every year are turning,” a salve to a booming nation in the postwar period.
As Rebecca Senf describes, Adams sought in The Mural Project to “not merely to picture these American holdings but to produce persuasive artistic statements about their value to the nation’s citizens.” In this respect, Adams succeeded. Well into the 21st century, these paeans to the awesome power of each moment that passes still resonate with audiences. In 2020, a mural-size print of The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park broke sales records at Sotheby’s, and continues to inspire audiences to this day.
In a story of his youth in the US Forest Service, “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky,” Maclean writes of his burgeoning awareness of life becoming art. As he describes, “what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened.” Adams and Maclean, both exact contemporaries, wove those moments of inevitable tension, of life simply happening into a form that looks perfectly made. The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park reprinted throughout Adams’ long career, is perfectly made.
Thomas Cole (1801–1848), View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 08.228.
Thomas Moran, Lower Falls, Yellowstone Park; Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1893. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK. O1.2344.