Ansel Adams: Photography for the Parks

Last week, I delved into the early history of the US National Parks: their origins, their development, and their advocates – particularly John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. Muir loved and treasured Yosemite, but was constantly fighting with local businesses and industrial enterprises to keep the park from being overrun and commercialized. He kept up the fight until his death in 1914. But who would continue his legacy? Who could keep up that fight with the same level of passion and ability to share the importance and beauty of the wilderness with the American people?

Enter Ansel Adams. Where Muir’s weapon of choice was writing, Adams’ was photography.

Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite, by Ansel Adams, 1938

Ansel Adams, born in 1902, grew up in San Francisco and was fascinated with nature from a young age. He first visited Yosemite National Park with his family at age 14, and put his first camera (a gift from his father) to good use. He, like Muir and many others before him, fell in love with Yosemite. The following year, Adams returned to Yosemite Valley on his own with better cameras, tripods, the works. He invested time and money and energy into photography, joining clubs and exploring outdoors as much as possible. Even a bout of Spanish Flu in 1918 didn’t keep him from getting out in the wilderness with his cameras.

Adams continued to visit and photograph Yosemite, often climbing through the brush and forest to reach the best vantage points. In 1928, he married Virginia Best (who came from a family of photographers) in Yosemite Valley. They lived in the Valley and operated a studio there. He also joined the Sierra Club, and took photos of the park and surrounding wilderness for them. In the process of taking these photos, Adams made several first ascents of various peaks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains – which is all the more impressive when you consider the size and weight of photography equipment in the 20s and 30s.

The Mariposa Grove of Big Trees in Yosemite, by Ansel Adams, from his 1938 essay, "The Four Seasons in Yosemite National Park". Adams used his photographs to help establish Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

These photos of natural wonders were used as a means of generating interest in nature preservation. The Sierra Club presented his photos as part of their efforts to establish Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and Adams himself addressed Congress with his unique perspective of these wilderness areas as a photographer. Their efforts were successful, and the parks were officially created in 1940. I don’t like to make assumptions, but I’m guessing that John Muir would’ve been proud. Adams continued to fight against over-commercialization in Yosemite and other national parks, as well as for the protection of other natural areas such as California’s Big Sur Coast.

By this point, Adams was becoming famous for his unique methods to create striking photographs. He worked almost entirely in black and white, but used natural lighting and special focusing techniques to bring images to life. His photos are known for their sharp clarity, high contrast, and bold expressive tones – captured using small apertures and long exposures to get all those details in perfect focus. Adams did occasionally try working with color photography, but found it largely uninteresting. He also expressly forbid in his will any alteration of his photos to add color later. He showed his prints at several prestigious museums around the US, including the Smithsonian, and sold books, taught classes, and contributed to several photography magazines. He also co-founded his own: Aperture, now one of the world’s most prestigious photography journals.

Ansel Adams in Yosemite, circa 1950. Image by J. Malcolm Greany.

In 1941, Adams was contracted by the US Department of the Interior (which operates the National Park Service) to photograph the country’s national parks and other protected lands. They wanted records of the parks and sites, and large-format prints for the Department of the Interior HQ. At that time, there were 28 established parks, and Adams visited and photographed all of them with the exception of Everglades National Park in Florida. These photos not only captured the beauty of those important places, but also served as historical records. Adams continued to photograph national parks and wilderness areas and historical sites throughout his life, and advocated for their protection. He died in 1984, but his photographs continue to speak to people long after his death. I remember going to see some of his photos at the National Gallery in D.C. as a kid, before I was ever interested in photography, and being fascinated that black-and-white pictures could still show so much.

Three Johns Pond (Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Wisconsin) by Jarob J. Ortiz, the new official NPS photographer

A few years ago, the National Park Service decided it was time to hire a new photographer to continue his work in documenting federally protected land and sites. It’s a tall order to fill – stepping into the shoes of Ansel Adams is no easy task. The NPS eventually hired Jarob J. Ortiz, a photographer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and appropriately, a long-time fan of Adams and practitioner of his methods. Ortiz now travels to wherever the NPS wants him to go, and photographs sites that might be in particular danger of decay or destruction. These photos, like Adams’ work, are meant to capture the beauty of the location as well as document it for posterity in the Library of Congress.  

Ansel Adams’ legacy will live on for a long, long time. His photographs both serve as official records and are beautiful works of art. In fact, at least one of his photos is pretty much guaranteed to survive for up to a billion years – “Tetons and the Snake River” is one of the images featured on the Golden Record traveling on Voyager 1, which a few years ago, left the solar system and is now traveling through deep space.

Tetons and the Snake River by Ansel Adams, 1942. This image is now traveling through deep space aboard Voyager 1.

Announcement: I’ll be on vacation next week, so there will not be a blog post next Friday. I'll probably be on Instagram though. The next post will go up on Friday July 27 – talk to you then!