the image Ansel Adams created

By Laura Heywood

Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, Ansel Adams

When we think about wilderness, we think of nature untouched by man. If you plan a trip to the wilds you probably think of an uninhabited place that is unspoiled by man or woman. It’s interesting that we don’t consider our National Parks to be under the control of the federal government, but they are. I remember when I visited Yosemite in the summer of 2016 the valley was covered in shuttle buses, stores, lodges, traffic, etc. I was taken back by so much activity in the unspoiled wilderness. But don’t get me wrong, walk in the opposite direction and Yosemite still has the appearance of pristine wilderness.

It’s a complex formulation, our understanding of the unspoiled. Yet, there are writers and artists who have created our ideas about what unspoiled wilderness is. Looking back on the 20th century, this was when photographers such as Carleton E. Watkins, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Minor White helped to promote how beautiful and sacred the land was. Gradually, with the help of others, they passed laws protecting specific parts of the Sierra Mountains and the mid-west. These men are the masters of western landscape photography and gave us iconic images of our greatest landmarks, such as Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Park.

And a thousand calendars will follow him.

The most iconic of these photographers was Adams, who set a standard template for the idea of the beautiful, unspoiled, landscape. He was an environmentalist who had a great love for the environment. Then and still now, Adam’s work is widely reproduced on calendars, posters, books, prints, and now all over the Internet. What’s fascinating is after 40 + decades, Adam’s work continues to be the basic template for the unspoiled landscape.

Whether people know Adams or not, one still has an intuitive idea of his aesthetic. Adams once stated, “I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the final print.” To get a better idea of Adam’s achievements, here are three significant photographs. The first two are taken from Yosemite Valley, one from Tunnel View and the other from El Capitan. He photographed the third in Washington, looking towards Mt. McKinley.

In Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park (1940), Adams sets himself up at Tunnel View as Yosemite Valley lies perfectly before him. Using large format cameras equipped with glass plate negatives to capture as much detail as possible, Adams worked with both a 4x5 camera and an 8x10 cameras. This affects the crop of the image as well as the amount of grain (detail) that one can see in the final print. As Adams made his crop of the valley, he gives both the bottom of the valley as much space as the sheer granite cliffs and the stormy sky above.

It couldn't be more iconic

As I mentioned earlier, he’s interested in capturing the beauty of the moment rather than what is actually there. What makes this image so jaw dropping is that he took it during a clearing of a winter storm. The valley floor is blanketed with white while the trees are almost bare. As the viewer's eye moves to the mid section of the image, we see a dark shadow to our left. El Capitan, 7,569 ft. high, peeks out of clouds while its top and lower half are covered. Ansel leaves its sheer face exposed and seemingly floating over the valley. To the right, a light shines down on the back of one of the Three Brothers peaks. Swooping down off the back of the lowest peak is a full stream of glacier water descending towards the valley floor. The heavy white clouds cover the grand Half Dome and obscure our sight and blend the cliffs into the sky.

This is how we now envision the natural landscape. Adams and Fred Archer, who was also a photographer, created the zone system in the 1940s. The zone system is quite complicated, but allows an experienced photographer to have full control of what he or she wants in an image. To keep it simple, the zone system is a photographic technique to determine one’s choice in film exposure and development time. With this technique and the grandeur of the subject matter, Adams created a way of looking at the world.

Not just a photograph, but a way of looking.

Looking at the last two images, we can understand more clearly his artistic and technical choices. The image titled, Mt. Mckinley and Wonder Lake (1947), is stunning in that Adams recreates the same processes he used in the earlier photo, exposing highlights, shadows, and darkened areas. This creates depth in the mountain, exposing its ridges and creates a nice glow around the image. Adams was also known for using red density filters on his camera. This helps stop overexposure to an image especially on a bright day. Adams enhances the highlights bringing out the mountain and pushes the sky to a dramatic dark gray.

Everything else in the scene he leaves behind in a silhouette, creating silence surrounding the majesty of the mountain. In El Capitan (1952), Adams highlights the sheer edge of the cliff swooping down to the valley floor. Unlike the dramatic tones we saw in the Mt. McKinley image, the tones here are subtler. The cliffs are touched by highlights as the rest recedes to a neutral gray. Assuming Adams is looking up, he encompasses the image by using the trees before him. For example, the tree to the left of the image reaches from the bottom extending to the top of the frame. After looking at these three images, we can see and understand why he is such a great master of the American Western Landscape.

The American idea of majesty.

After Ansel Adams had created such a magnificent template for the American Western landscape, it’s of interest to see what and how other artists or photographers are visualizing wilderness today. Are people rethinking the template that Adams worked so hard to create? Is there work that goes against the photographic grain of his notions of the unspoiled? Thinking about these questions, I believe that photographers/artists are always trying to capture/create the next new thing as well as breaking out of older ways of seeing.

Roger Minick is a contemporary photographer who is consciously taking on Adams. Minick was apart of a class taught by Adams in Yosemite Valley, called strangely enough “The Ansel Adams workshop.” When he was there, he was more interested in what was behind him than in front. As everyone in the class set up their cameras for the grand shot of the Valley, Minick turned his camera to the crowds facing the Valley. This inaugurated a series called, Sightseers, where he photographed tourists in National Parks. As he still includes the grand view behind the tourist, he is just adding another layer to our notions of what is unspoiled and what is wilderness.

Minick ushers in a new point of view of nature.

For example in Woman with Scarf at Inspiration Point (1980) of, he gives us a well known view of Yosemite valley, but what we also see is an older woman wearing a headscarf. One would think she is disrupting our view of the grandeur but the way Minick has pulled back a step, shows a reality of a different sort. The image is square, assuming he photographed with a medium format camera, and is suffused with deep rich colors.

Minick started this project in the 80’s and it is quite representative of that time. The woman is directly in the center of the image, as the rest of the valley lies before her. The woman’s headscarf has three illustrations and the title, Yosemite National Park, printed on it. The one and only illustration that the viewer can read is of Yosemite Falls, which mimics what we see to the right of her head. I enjoy this image because it starts to pull apart the many layers of what we know to be dedicated spaces for wilderness. The work is effective in that it’s going against Adam’s template. Minick shows us the reality and how the reality is reworked over and over again. If Adams is a romantic, Minick is an anti-romantic and enjoys his wilderness spoiled.

Another photographer that plays with Adam’s template is Mark Klett. In his book Yosemite in Time, he captures recent images of the natural landscape while collaging on older iconic images of that same place. The images are usually taken from Adams, Edward Weston, or Carleton E. Watkins. Estimating where they took their photographs, Klett positions himself where the grand masters were and captures the exact image.

A new type of vision moving through time.

For example, in his Four Views From Four Times and One Shoreline (2002), the viewer sees exactly that. Images are collaged onto each other creating warped frames but one final panoramic view of one scene. In this particular image, Klett captures a widespread view of Lake Tenaya north of Yosemite Valley. The panoramic view stands in as somewhat of a contemporary background. Then older iconic images are placed on top, lined up, creating one scene.

He uses Eadweard Muybridge 1872 photograph of where the land meets the shoreline of the lake. To the right of that is Klett’s 2002 view of the lake. Continuing to the right is a smaller image of Adam’s, Lake Tenaya, 1946, of a mountain side running down to the lake. Then behind that but to the right of Adam’s image is Edward Weston’s image of the same scene in 1937. Weston’s image captures more of the lake but still includes the mountain range Adams included. This is a great comparison to see how things have changed, especially the landscape and what we were shown then and what we can see now. This series of images that Klett patiently creates are powerful and similar to Roger Minick’s ideas of wilderness and reality.

It’s a complex formulation, our understanding of the unspoiled. Yet artists, past and present, are continuously trying to rework and grapple with the notion of what the unspoiled is to us. The unspoiled wilderness is an intimate experience between man and nature and to visually represent that is challenging. It is like knowing what the word love means. No group of people or society will have one answer to describe love and no one could ever really know what is truly spoiled or unspoiled.

Your choices: spoiled or unspoiled

©Laura Heywood and the CCA Arts Review

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