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  January/February 2002 Issue
  FEATURES: Celebrating 100 Years of Ansel Adams
Molded by Mountains
Artist and Activist
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Celebrating 100 Years of Ansel Adams

Conservationist with a Camera

In this issue, Sierra commemorates the 100th anniversary of Ansel Adams's birth on February 20, 1902. Best known for his dramatic black-and-white images of our national parks, the visionary photographer shaped the way Americans think about our natural heritage--and helped protect many of the landscapes he captured on film. In the following pages, we celebrate Adams's legacy with a gallery of some of his finest works, as well as memories of his accomplishments as an adventurous mountaineer, a concerned citizen, an inspiring mentor to other photographers, and one of the most beloved conservationists of all time.
--Jennifer Hattam

Molded by Mountains

Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada were Ansel Adams's spiritual home, the place that never changed and seldom disappointed.

by Stephen Fox

Nothing else so engaged and delighted the young photographer on so many levels, tickling all his senses. He felt more alive in the mountains: The air seemed crisper and smelled sweeter, the sun shone brighter and more golden. The Sierra Nevada granite looked better than other mountain rocks he'd seen, cleaner and sharper than the sedimentary formations of the Southwest. While climbing and photographing in the Sierra, he felt stretched out visually, emotionally, philosophically, and kinetically, with all those elements mingled into a single brimming entirety. Even his photographs, for all their power and beauty, can only suggest fragments of Ansel Adams's larger Sierra experience. Freezing a single moment, they cannot convey how the photographer got to that vantage point--or back to camp afterward.

His Sierra trips underlay everything else. His artistic vision was carried around, after all, by hard effort, by sweat and straining muscles, with frequent discomfort and even occasional danger. Such background details were not incidental, but necessary and defining parts of so deeply felt an experience. Ansel bonded with the mountains on intimate terms by strenuously hiking them, on his own or with a few friends--especially at the peak of his physical vigor in the 1920s, when he could climb two or three peaks a day carrying a 50-pound pack and still spend the early evening making pictures. Usually all went well; but a slight miscalculation, or a stumble at the wrong moment, might turn a pleasant trek into a matter of life and death.

In the summer of 1921, Ansel invited sculptor William Zorach to join him in climbing Yosemite's Grizzly Peak. A New Yorker, Zorach had never climbed anything before. The ascent took all day, 2,200 feet up from the valley floor. When the trail petered out they threw a rope over rocks and hauled themselves up. At the tiny summit, with sheer drops all around them, Ansel made photographs and Zorach sketched. Late in the day, with the valley already in shadow, they decided to return by a shortcut, straight down the LeConte Gully, instead of risking the longer path in darkness. Ansel kept to the safer north side of the gully while Zorach sought a better route across a steep, polished shelf of granite leading down to a near-vertical drop of several hundred feet. Zorach slipped on some loose gravel. His sketches flew up in the air and drifted away. He slid toward the edge; with no rope between them, Ansel could only watch in horror. At the last instant Zorach caught hold of a small tree. Telling him not to move, Ansel removed his shoes and socks and crept down to him. They took off their belts to form a lifeline and moved barefoot away from the edge. They made it down the mountain, bloody and bruised, their clothes in shreds. Zorach went to bed and couldn't move for a week.

Such dangers and difficulties were necessary investments to earn and deserve the benefits of the mountains. It was a clean, reliable transaction: a rigorous physical effort that yielded a range of compensations. "Life in the mountains," Ansel wrote in the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1928, "the intense spirit back of all mountain adventure, the toil, the keen delights, the good-fellowship, the humor--the underlying golden humanity that reveals itself in the presence of hardship, repulse, and death--one wonders if there is any human activity that tests strength of body and soul more severely than man's struggle with the stern crags and glaciers, or that yields such true satisfaction when his intense efforts result in success."

For the annual Sierra Club High Trips from 1930 through 1936, Ansel served as photographer and assistant manager, which meant long days filled with more distractions than he liked. He would get up early, make some photographs in the favored morning light, and see that everyone got under way. Then he would hike ahead of the pack to select that evening's campsite; then more photographs in late afternoon; then he would conduct the campfire and a department of lost and found, and explain the next day's route and possible climbs along the way. Paid a small fee for expenses, he also sold portfolios of outing photographs to Club members. The Club encouraged both his climbing and his camera, linking them in a tightening, self-reinforcing bundle of enthusiasms.

Ansel wrote a long account of the 1931 High Trip for the Sierra Club Bulletin. Like many mountain lovers, he couched his Sierra descriptions in explicitly religious terms. "The disciples are drawn to the high altars with magnetic certainty, knowing that a great Presence hovers over the ranges," he wrote. "You were within the portals of the temple. . . . to enter the wilderness and seek, in the primal patterns of nature, a magical union with beauty."

Taking advantage of his Sierra pulpit, Ansel as preacher made larger points of instruction and caution. He noted that some younger members had adopted the new techniques of rock climbing with pitons and ropes, a method he himself enjoyed. "Yet," he wrote, "I feel that certain values should be preserved in our contact with the mountains. While it is rarely a case of the complete ascendancy of acrobatics over esthetics, we should bear in mind that the mountains are more to us than a mere proving ground of strength and alert skill. Rock-climbing should be considered a thrilling means to a more important end." That same end, of fully appreciating the Sierra, might also be obscured by a mistaken interest in only the biggest, highest, most theatrical of natural sights. "It is a typical modern conceit," Ansel insisted, "to demand the maximum dimension and the maximum power in any aspect of the world--whether of men or mountains. It is better to accept the continuous beauty of the things that are."

Pursuing his point, Ansel pulled back from a panoramic mountain perspective and focused on less obvious details of the Club's campsite near Benson Lake. He wrote of the small communities of creatures, all worthy of notice, in the wetlands between lake and trees. "Millions upon millions of friendly living things crowd the soil, the edges of pools, the spaces under the leaves, and in the sunny openings of the forest. A hushed and swiftly moving life enters your consciousness as myriad sparklings of light and color and the frail sounds of faery wings." Dragonflies, larvae, gnats, bees: "Small earthy creatures concern themselves with their problems of existence." A proper mountain reverence demanded respect for all kinds of beauty.

In conservation affairs, the Sierra Club still carried on in nearly the spirit of its avatar, John Muir. Ansel eventually became a kind of 20th-century Muir, known like him as the artistic expresser and protector of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. As young lovers of nature, both had come to Yosemite and immediately recognized their special place. Both spent years hiking and climbing the area, inhaling it, studying all its aspects in every kind of weather, learning to know it viscerally. Both men then publicized and celebrated the Sierra: Muir with words, Ansel with his camera (for a later and more visual age). And, ultimately, love of the mountains led both Muir and Ansel into careers in conservation.

When Ansel opened his gallery in San Francisco in 1933, the Bulletin announced the news with pride: A year later he was elected to the Club's board of directors, a position he would proudly hold for the next 37 years. The Sierra Club ensured him a consistent institutional and social expression for his love of the mountains. More broadly, the mountains nudged him toward conceptualizing the social purposes he hoped to serve with his camera. For years he had thought of modernity and the mountains as paired opposites, in starkest terms as an illness and its cure. If a restoring excursion into nature was impossible for many frazzled urbanites, the next best relieving measure should be an art that brought the outdoors indoors.

"I think the salvation of art is going to be in its detachment from the shallow fashions of surface-contemporaneous thought," Ansel wrote to his friend William Zorach. "There is a deeper thing to express--the return of humanity to some sort of balanced awareness of the natural things--some rocks and sky. We need a little earth to stand on and feel run through our fingers. Perhaps Photography can do this--I am going to try anyhow."

Modernity needed nature--and an art informed by nature. By the same logic, modernity also needed nature conservation. For years the Sierra Club had been working toward the establishment of a new national park on federally owned land in the Kings River Canyon region southeast of Yosemite. This campaign gave Ansel his first experience as a lobbyist. In January 1936, he represented the Sierra Club at a conference on parks in Washington, D.C. He spoke at the gathering and then, Sierra photographs in hand, lobbied members of Congress for the proposed Kings Canyon park. "The conference was very successful," he wrote his wife, Virginia. "I am sure it was worthwhile. But Washington is a funny place. I shall be immensely pleased to be home."

Engaging and well-spoken, Ansel was presumably an effective lobbyist. But his best arguments for the mountains were his photographs. His book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, published in 1938, became a promotional tool for the Kings Canyon park. Following the trail that runs near the crest of the Sierra from Yosemite down to Sequoia National Park, the book included striking pictures of the Kings Canyon region, such as Grouse Valley; Devil's Crags From Palisade Creek Canyon; Mather Pass; Arrow Peak From Cartridge Pass, and Mount Clarence King. Ansel sent a copy to Harold Ickes, secretary of the Interior, whose department included the National Park Service, and whom Ansel had met at the 1936 conference. "The pictures are extraordinarily fine and impressive," Ickes thanked him. He hoped that Congress would soon establish the park: "Then we can be sure that your descendants and mine will be able to take as beautiful pictures as you have taken--that is, provided they have your skill and artistry." Ickes showed the book to his boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who kept it for himself. Ansel sent another copy to Ickes, and Kings Canyon National Park was established two years later.

Working the edges of a dominant culture that heartily believed in progress, coarsely defined, anyone in conservation had to accept compromises. When he visited Yosemite Valley, Ansel was often appalled by conditions: frowzy shops selling tourist trinkets, too many cars and people, livestock staked out or turned loose in the meadows, a noisy pool hall and bowling alley at Camp Curry, and a general air of disorder and sloppiness. Most of these problems fell under the management of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, which ran the concessions in the valley. Ansel's freedom to protest the situation was limited by the practical fact that the Curry Company was also his best commercial client in the 1930s, employing him for up to four months a year. He made photographs in and around the park that were used in advertisements and other promotional materials to attract more paying customers to the valley. In this way, Ansel became an implicit accomplice in the misuse of Yosemite. Yet he needed to make a living. Within those implacable constraints, he did what he could for Yosemite's protection. "I know," he said later, "I was a source of annoyance to some of the executives of [the Curry Company] because of my ardor for nature and conservation."

Even the Sierra Club had its ambiguities. For years Ansel had been growing disenchanted with the High Trips: Their size, commotion, "scheduledness," and disruption of the landscape all seemed far from a proper Sierra spirit to Ansel. "Everything on a Sierra Club trip is impregnated with Bigness," he confided to photographer Cedric Wright. "I want to go out in the mountains with a few friends and my camera, sit down in a chosen spot, and come as close to Nirvana as I can for a little while. Just a little peace without schedule, quiet without campfires, happiness without Have-to"--like the trips he took on his own as a young mountaineer.

While he stopped going on the High Trips, he stayed committed to his work on the Sierra Club Board. His everyday dilemmas as a conservationist were not resolved, only managed: how to attract friends of the natural world without losing one's own corner of it, how to celebrate nature without encouraging its destruction, and how to live in the modern world, enjoying its advantages while still insisting on curbing its excesses. Stretched across these riddles, Ansel felt torn by crosscurrents that no conservationist in America could escape.

Given the impossibility of any final resolution of these conflicts, Ansel could only persist. "I have developed a concept of interpretation through the camera," he wrote in 1945, "of the qualities of the natural world, hoping to reveal them with sufficient impact and clarity to aid definitely in the coming struggle for true conservation." The Sierra Nevada remained up there, close at hand, to remind him of why that struggle mattered.


Stephen Fox is the author of John Muir and His Legacy, a biography of John Muir and a history of the environmental movement (Little, Brown, 1981). His Ansel Adams article, adapted from a longer work, was donated by the Corbis Corporation. Copyright (c) 2002 by Corbis.

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