What Adams Saw Through His Lens
by Louise Story
Published: April 27, 2008
WAWONA TUNNEL is a passageway from civilization to natural splendor. The tunnel, dug through a hill on the south side of Yosemite National Park in the 1930s, hides the coming view like a mile-long blindfold.
And then you’re there. Pale, curvaceous granite rocks dance in the skyline. Dozens of people stand along the edge of the pull-off, called Tunnel View, trying to capture the scene. Some snap two quick shots with disposable yellow cameras, and others set up their tripods for hours, watching the light strike Yosemite’s monoliths. On the left, El Capitan, a rock climbers’ mecca, appears the tallest. The Half Dome and Sentinel Dome arch upwards in the center. And the two Cathedral Spires sit on the right next to the sometimes gushing Bridalveil Fall.
Many people know these sights by name, but more know them by sight alone, as captured through the lens of the legendary American photographer Ansel Adams.
Adams first visited Yosemite in 1916 when he was 14 years old. On that trip, he hopped up on a tree stump to take a photo of Half Dome, then stumbled, headfirst, and accidentally pushed the shutter release. The upside-down image remained one of Adams’s favorites, he wrote in his autobiography.
The park itself also remained a favorite. Adams ended up living much of his life in Yosemite, and took many of his most well-known photographs there. Today, it is not unusual to encounter professional photographers and novices alike trying to retrace his path. They wait for the perfect minute of moonrise over Half Dome or a shadow on a fallen tree in Siesta Lake. They remember his photo of a juniper tree they saw in a museum, on a coffee cup or a monthly calendar. Ansel Adams’s work, in some ways, is the best unpaid advertising a national park could get.
The first step on an Ansel Adams-inspired trip to Yosemite is to visit the gallery run by his family. It is in the park’s central area called Yosemite Valley, and displays and sells Adams’s work as well as photos taken by several contemporary artists. Before Adams died in 1984, he spent years living in a house behind the gallery and leading workshops there. Now others teach the workshops, and the gallery is managed by Adams’s grandchildren. The gallery’s staff leads free camera walks three days a week. The gallery also shows a free film about Adams once a week, rents out cameras and tripods and sells keepsakes and guidebooks.
I ordered three books written by Adams from the gallery’s Web site before my trip: Adams’s autobiography, his collected photos of Yosemite and a step-by-step explanation of some of his works called “Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs.” By the time our plane landed in Fresno, Calif., I felt well-equipped to step inside Ansel land.
But Yosemite does not often appear as it did at the moments Adams tripped his shutter. Nor is it easy to stand where he stood and capture the same images.
“I’ve had people say they are kind of disappointed,” says Glenn Crosby, the curator of the Ansel Adams Gallery. “They only know the park through Ansel’s eyes, and he was only showing you the keepers. The park is not always as dramatic as his work.”
Back in 1986, Mr. Crosby was working at a job he didn’t like with too long a commute. So he moved to Yosemite to take photographs for a year and has stayed there ever since. He likes to say he has his own “Moonrise and Half Dome” because in 1998 he photographed the rock with an astronomer who had tracked the exact minute the moon would ascend next to Half Dome in the same way it did in front of Adams in 1960. But as talented as Mr. Crosby is, he says he doesn’t fool himself.
“Someone could be standing shoulder to shoulder with Ansel and come away with a totally different interpretation,” he says.
Once a week, Mr. Crosby takes a handful of people into a backroom at the gallery for a free show of original Adams photos (hint: pre-register). Recently, Mr. Crosby showed visitors Adams’s 1927 photo called “The Diving Board” (which includes Adams’s future wife, Virginia Best, standing on a distant rock) and his 1921 picture “Lodgepole Pines, Lyell Fork of the Merced River,” among others. He handles the photos carefully with white-gloved hands, since the prices for rare prints are as high as $40,000.
“We’re a gallery,” Mr. Crosby says. “We’re not a museum.”
The gallery has been in the family since 1902, when James Best, a local painter, won the rights to sell his work there. Ansel Adams married Virginia Best, James’s daughter, in 1928, and the family still holds the concession license. In the 1970s, Ansel’s son, Michael, renamed the gallery after his father.
Ansel Adams’s family members today say they feel a responsibility to provide education and service.
“We offer a connection to Ansel for people who love Ansel and this park,” says Matthew Adams, president of the gallery and grandson of the photographer.
By the 1950s, Adams had already taken most of his famous Yosemite images. Not unlike tourists today who visit his tripod points, Adams packed up his two teenage children, wife and a couple of burros in 1952 to recreate some of his earlier treks. For 10 days, they hiked through the backcountry of Yosemite, past Merced Lake, Vernal Fall and the peak that would be named Mount Ansel Adams in 1985. It had been decades since Ansel had been to some of those spots, but without hesitation he scrambled up on ledges and visualized new images, recalls his son, Michael Adams, who was 19 at the time.
“He loved the scenery as it was at the time,” says Michael Adams. “Whether it was dead trees or trees that were alive. Or whether the waterfall was full or down. It wasn’t always the big vistas, it could be a wonderful rock.”
Visitors to Yosemite should come with the same openness to appreciating the scenery as it is, rather than expecting to see the living version of Ansel Adams’s pictures. The Jeffrey pine that Adams photographed atop Sentinel Dome in 1940, for example, fell a few years ago, and it is now a rotting log.
Adams was often frustrated with the development of the park during his long life there. When he was young, he felt as if seeing others in the wilderness was “an intrusion or even trespass” and wrote many letters to the national park service bemoaning the commercialization of Yosemite.
But he outgrew the desire for privacy in the park. “Nature is always better when left to itself — but for what purpose?” he wrote. “Starry-eyed reaction to the splendors of nature is an invaluable experience for everyone.”
The Ansel Adams Gallery (209-372-4413; www.anseladams.com) hosts free camera walks, showings of rare Adams prints and a biographical movie. The gallery also runs private and group photography lessons for fees that range from $250 to $700. It costs $20 a car to enter Yosemite National Park (www.nps.gov/yose/) and visitors must make reservations to camp or stay in hotels there.