Ansel Adams & The Story of the Sierra Club Outings

Celebrating & Defending Our Wild Spaces

(The Ansel Insider)

Ansel Adams, left, and best friend Cedric Wright (far right, playing the violin) on an early Sierra Club trip. Photo courtesy of the Adams family memorabilia archives

Have you ever ventured out on a day trip in Yosemite? Found a trail that took you a little further out from other visitors? To go even deeper into the wilderness The Sierra Club has been organizing outings on the trails within Yosemite (and beyond) since 1901.

The Club’s first president, John Muir, reasoned, “if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish.”

Joseph LeConte, a close friend and supporter of John Muir, followed his suit in exploring, climbing, mapping, and protecting Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. LeConte was an early member of the Sierra Club and served on its board of directors from 1892-1898. After his sudden death in Yosemite on the eve of the first Sierra Club High Trip in 1901, the Club chose to remember him by building LeConte Memorial Lodge. The lodge is now called the Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center.

VIEW ANSEL ADAMS CATALOG

From his first official experiences with the Sierra Club in 1927 through his final year as a board member in 1971, Ansel Adams cherished these outings. It was on these trips that he developed lifetime friendships over days of hiking, and nights of entertainment. These weeks of hiking and exploring vast wilderness inspired the settings for many of Ansel’s revered vintage photographs.

 

Ansel trekking through the high country with his burro. Photo courtesy of the Adams family memorabilia archives

 

Sierra Club outing members costumed for a production of “The Trudgin Women,” a mock green tragedy produced by Ansel Adams and humorously presented on one of the outings. Photo courtesy of the Adams family memorabilia archives.

Ansel’s first participation in the outings in 1923 was the result of his friendship with Cedric Wright, who invited him to join the Sierra Club to the northern areas of the park. Also a photographer, Wright became Ansel’s mentor and best friend for decades.

Once hired on as the staff photographer for future outings, Ansel spent a good piece of each year in Yosemite with the Sierra Club. While on a month-long outing to Kings River High Sierra, he missed the birth of his son Michael by two days. The packtrain that delivered news from the Yosemite Valley was anything but instantaneous, as Ansel noted in his autobiography “being in the High Sierra was literally being out of this world.” When he did arrive, both baby and mother were in good health. Virginia also participated in earlier outings with the Sierra Club, and served on its board of directors from 1932-4.

Virginia Best Adams (second from left) and Club members enjoying a respite of cool waters on a Summertime outing. Photo courtesy of the Adams family memorabilia archives.

Ansel’s first portfolio of prints was made as mementos to fellow hikers from an outing culminating at Mount Resplendent in 1928. He sold them for thirty dollars each. The portfolios proved so popular that he produced others during 1929, 1930 and 1932 High Country outings.

Throughout, the mission of the outings was to expose enthusiasts to the great wilderness and thereby find meaning and an approach to its preservation.

John Muir’s call to “climb the mountains and get their good tidings” has been followed by Sierra Club members since the organization’s start, and the pursuit of this goal has played a key role in shaping the Club’s history.

Years before the founding of the Sierra Club, many of its future leaders and supporters were traveling the mountains of California and sharing with others the wonders they found there. In 1889 Muir embarked on an excursion in northern Yosemite with Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of the influential Century Magazine. Sitting around a campfire at Soda Springs in Tuolumne Meadows, the two planned a campaign for a “Yosemite National Park”—a campaign that succeeded the following year when Congress established the park.

But Muir and Johnson soon realized that an organization would be necessary to ensure Yosemite’s protection. Soon thereafter they were instrumental in the formation of The Sierra Club. Their charter was:

“to explore, enjoy, and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast; to publish authentic information concerning them,” and “to enlist the support and cooperation of the people and government in preserving the forests and other natural features of the Sierra Nevada.”

Outing campsite | Photo courtesy of the Adams family memorabilia archives

Since the formation of the Club and its early outings, the original large-scale group trips have been replaced with “no trace camping.” When previously trees were cut down for nightly bonfires, today we pack in what we need and take little from mother nature. And we pack it all right back out. Burros no longer haul enormous latrines up mountainsides—we carry waste out in waste paper. We camp a certain distance from a lake, and our imprint is much smaller.

1927 Outing campsite | Photo courtesy of the Adams family memorabilia archives

If you’ve experienced Yosemite’s impressive and stunning landscape on an adventure of your own, or as part of a Club outing, you’ve witnessed first-hand the extraordinary ecosystem that is the Sierra. If you’ve observed the wonders of this landscape in photographs— those of Ansel Adams’ or others—you’ve found another way to partake in and appreciate these wild spaces. As lovers of nature and beauty, it’s our responsibility to protect the Sierra, either as guardians of Yosemite National Park each time we visit, or by donations and congressional action each time it is threatened.

In the words of the Sierra Club, the earth needs our help now more than ever. Together let’s defend our wild spaces.

More Resources and History of Sierra Club Outings:

Current Sierra Club Outings

Edward Taylor Parsons Photo Collection
Edward Taylor Parsons (1861-1914) served as William E. Colby’s outing assistant and as a High Trip photographer from 1901 until his death in 1914.

Origins and Early Outings
Text from The History of the Sierra Club: 1892-1970, by Michael P. Cohen, published by Sierra Club Books in 1988.

Words of the Wild
Recent Newsletter of the Sierra Club’s California/Nevada Wilderness Committee

William Colby

Joseph Laconte
Helped in mapping the John Muir Trail

Two Friends & A Burro

The Story of Banner Peak, Thousand Island Lake

(The Ansel Insider)

Ansel Adams and Burro in the High Country, Photo Courtesy of the Adams Family Memorabilia Archives

“I held Ansel’s ass while he made that picture!”

What’s that again? That statement remained a joke between Ansel Adams and his lifelong friend Herold Seville for decades. The two took a venturesome trip to High Sierra in 1923. While photographing Banner Peak – Thousand Island Lake, Ansel tasked Harold with holding his reliable donkey “Mistletoe” while he managed his camera equipment.

With Harold’s firm hold on the burro, Ansel captured his iconic photograph of the serene lake, luminous peak, and weathered sky. In his autobiography, Ansel recounts details from the trip:

“I made many drab shots and suffered some embarrassing failures.” But one image proved an exception. “I can recall the excitement of the scene,” he went on. “It seemed that everything fell into place in the most agreeable way: rock, cloud, mountain, and exposure … This picture still has a unity and magic that very few others suggested in those early years.”

Banner Peak – Thousand Island Lake, Original Vintage Ansel Adams Photograph, Signed “A. E. Adams”

Almost 90 years after Ansel and Harold’s 1923 trip, Michael (Ansel’s son) and Matthew (his grandson) ventured to Thousand Island Lake on a mission with National Geographic.

Their goal? To uncover Ansel’s “tripod hole” or vantage point from which the photograph was taken. In the published story “The Mountains that Made the Man” author Peter Esseck describes the expedition, where the team successfully discovered the point for Ansel’s final photograph.

Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake is situated in what is now known as The Ansel Adams Wilderness. Originally protected as wilderness by the 1964 Wilderness Act, it was first called the Minarets Wilderness. Renamed and expanded to honor Ansel Adams in 1985, it spreads over 230,258 acres, ranging in altitude from about 7,000 feet to 14,000 feet.

Ansel would be thrilled to know that the peaks and lakes of his 1923 expedition would someday be named in his honor. #Anselwouldbeproud

Says Michael:

“He loved the Sierra, and worked tirelessly to protect these special areas of wilderness.”

A “Tragedy” on the High Trip

(The Ansel Insider)

As an avid outdoorsman, Ansel Adams was no stranger to the hardships of camping in the backcountry. Far from the creature comforts of home, hiking miles upon miles each and every day, even America’s most famous outdoorsman could find himself overwhelmed. But for Ansel, the harsh realities of the outdoors were not merely a source of frustration. They were a source of great humor as well.

Which is why on the Sierra Club’s 1932 High Trip—the High Trips were the Club’s large annual excursions into the mountains of the American West—Ansel decided to debut his One-Act mock-Greek Tragedy, Exhaustos.

Cast members of “Exhaustos” fully costumed for the performance.
Photo courtesy of the Adams Family Memorabilia Archives

The 1932 trip proved itself exceptionally difficult, even for the most hardened campers. Frozen water pails, piles of snow, and elevations north of 12,000 feet made the going slow and tough. But, as a means of lifting the group’s spirits, Ansel collected the campers to put on a production of Exhaustos: A Lyric Tragedy.

Ansel did not admit to writing the play, rather insisting that he was merely its translator—a nod to his farce that it was some long-forgotten text of Euripides or Aristophanes. The play, containing “One-Act, Thank God” was performed by the campers themselves around the evening campfire.

Exhaustos tells the story of King Dehydros—ruler of the land of Exhaustos—and his antagonist, Rhykrispos, a would-be king from a different camp. The play pokes fun at the many discomforts of life on the High Trip—from the banality of beans and hardtack, to the annoying ants in the King’s bed. Says the King:

By Hades! We have fallen in the ways of overeating!
But tomorrow we shall climb the ten thousand feet Our Glory must continue over-rising!
Tell Ali to groom Pegasus, my Mule!
And shake the ants from out Dehydros bed.
Last night they drove me wild.

Replacing the traditional Greek Chorus with the “Chorus of Weary Men,” and the “Chorus of Sunburnt Women,” the play offered campers a cathartic laugh at their own discomfort. The complaints of the campers registered dramatically in unison:

Woe! Woe!
Our soles have parted from our boots
Our pants are torn in much to many places.
Woe! Woe!
Last night it rained. Aihr, Aihr
We are too tired to even wash our faces
Woe! Woe! forever Woe!

TAKE TWO: A similar photo as above, but this time with Ansel Adams dressed as the Spirit of the Itinerary in the foreground. Sierra Club High Trip, California, 1932. Image from “Looking at Ansel Adams” by Andrea Stillman

Costumes were derived from what could be found on hand. Ansel himself played the “Spirit of the Itinerary”—perhaps the Greeks would have called him Fate—with a bedsheet toga, an ivy crown, and a lyre fashioned from found wood and fishing line.

With Pegasus, his trusty mule, by his side, Dehydros finally squares off against Rhykrispos at the Summit of North Palisade. When King Dehydros finally dies—it is a Greek tragedy after all—by falling on his ice pick, the Spirit of the Itinerary offers this parting monologue:

Thus ends the sad epic of Dehydros the King
Who ruled Great Exhaustos, his glory we’ll sing.
But Destiny favored the reign of a Nomad
Who made Clymenextra depart home and go bad.
Now this is the Moral, match men, envy and food
Lest you be disgraced by a wandering Dude.

Sound advice.

Glowing Luminosity: A Grove of Tamarack Pine

The Story of Soft Focus on a High Sierra Expedition

(The Ansel Insider)

The Ansel Adams Gallery is pleased to offer a rare vintage photograph of “A Grove of Tamarack Pine,” one of very few soft focus images known to have been made in Ansel Adams’ photographic career.

In September 1921, Ansel Adams set out on a ten-day excursion with friends into the Lyell Fork of the Merced River in the vast High Sierra. It was on this very trip when Ansel captured his dream-like photograph of “A Grove of Tamarack Pine” in the soft focus style hardly ever seen again in the entirety of his career.

“A Grove of Tamarack Pine,” Vintage Kodak Vellum Photograph by Ansel Adams. Negative Date: 1921. Print Date: 1927. Originally titled “Lodgepole Pines”

Ansel and friends headed out from Merced Lake and made the ascent from the McClure Fork Trail to the junction of the Isberg Trail. The crew stopped to camp in a stream-side clearing at high elevation close to the rim of the Merced Canyon. In a piece Ansel wrote for the 1922 Sierra Club Bulletin, he describes their campsite view:

“At this point, a marvelous panorama is obtained⸺all the peaks of the Merced group are in full view⸺but the most startling feature is the vista of Lake Washburn, over two thousand feet directly below.”

Ansel Adams resting beneath his tent during an early High Country trip.
Photo courtesy of the Adams Family Memorabilia Archives

Following this marvelous vista, Ansel and pack continued their ascent. They made it all the way to the summit of Mount Florence and then onwards to the Lyell Fork of the Merced. There they scrambled, burros included, up the rugged canyon, maneuvering carefully to escape windfalls. In less than a mile, the canyon’s ruggedness disappeared and opened up into a tranquil and level meadow.

It was there in that meadow, at 9,000 feet elevation, where Ansel captured his image of “A Grove of Tamarack Pine,” altering the scene before him with a soft focus lens. The soft focus lens refracted the highlights, producing a glowing luminosity that captured the mood of a magical summer afternoon.

Ansel photographing at the summit of Mt. Lyell, early Sierra Club High Country trip.
Photo courtesy of the Adams Family Memorabilia Archives

Ansel’s first photographs were published in the Sierra Club Bulletin within a year of making “A Grove of Tamarack Pine.” It was in these early years when the artist experimented with pictorialism, engaging soft focus, diffused light, and other techniques.

Despite a dramatic shift in his career in 1925 towards sharp focus, heightened contrast, and darkroom craftsmanship, in a biography of Ansel Adams, author Mary Alinder notes:

“His whole life long, Ansel had a soft spot in his heart for [A Grove of Tamarack Pine] and the memories it held.”

Photograph taken on Ansel’s 1952 return to the Lyell Fork of the Merced River on a pack trip with his wife Virginia, and their children Michael and Anne. This was Ansel’s last pack trip utilizing burros to carry his gear and camp material. Photograph courtesy of the Adams Family Memorabilia Archives.

Sierra Club High Country Trip: The Story of “Frozen Lake & Cliffs”

(The Ansel Insider)

In 1932, Ansel Adams set out with Sierra Club on their annual trip to Yosemite’s high country. Even in summertime, the high sierra can still be found rimmed with icy cliffs and snowy peaks. Equipped with lighter clothing for warm days and sturdy boots for slippery climbs, Ansel and crew scrambled over the vast high country, stopping at favorite spots along the way.

Ansel leading mule over snow in an annual Sierra Club High Trip. Photograph courtesy of the Adams Family Memorabilia Archives

As the Sierra Club was passing Precipice Lake, just before crossing the Kaweah Gap into the Kern River drainage, Ansel took several photographs of the lake with ice on its surface. It was here that he captured “Frozen Lake & Cliffs,” his favorite of a series of five iterations.

Ansel took the photograph while Virginia and girlfriends paddled about in the still waters of the lake, which was dotted with patches of melting ice. Cedric Wright, Ansel’s best friend, had set up his own camera quite near Ansel’s. He was later to exclaim that he was shocked to see Ansel’s image, so very different and much more beautiful from what he himself had seen.

Ansel Adams (left) and Cedric (far right, playing the violin) on Sierra Club trip. Photo courtesy of the Adams Family Memorabilia Archives

“Frozen Lake and Cliffs” is one of the earliest abstract photographs made directly from nature.

In Mary Alinder’s biography of Ansel Adams, she describes his composition:

“Mirrored ghostly upon the inky waters, a shattered black cliff descends into a partially frozen lake. The reflection is separated from its source by a band of white ice, a crumpled crust of grayed snow, and a tumble of scree.”

Visit Precipice Lake today and you’ll find it hard to visualize Ansel’s photograph in the surrounding landscape. He captured it with a keen eye, extracting his composition from an elegant nook in a sweeping scene. When Ansel’s daughter-in-law, Jeanne, asked him what he considered his most sophisticated image, Ansel replied, “Frozen Lake & Cliffs.”

Tenaya Lake: Jewel of the High Country

(The Ansel Insider)

The Ansel Adams Gallery is pleased to offer “Lake Tenaya” special edition photograph, along with a rare version signed by Ansel Adams. The vintage print has been sold.

Ansel’s image of Tenaya Lake captures the soul of one of the grandest landscapes of Yosemite. It provides an expansive view that places the viewer squarely on site. Ansel took this photograph when access to the lake was via a narrow and winding road. Getting there with hundreds of pounds of camera equipment was quite the adventure.

Experts have traditionally dated the vintage version of this photograph circa 1946, but new evidence offers a different date—at least six years earlier.

“Tenaya Lake, Mt. Conness” Vintage Ansel Adams Photograph, ca. 1940

Ansel was notorious for not recording negative dates, an oversight which troubles collectors still today. Through x-ray fluorescence analysis, the gallery determined that this particular print could have been made no later than 1940. 

How do we know? 

Ansel began to use selenium toning as a means of hardening the surface of his prints in 1940 and used it consistently for the rest of his career. The latest analysis shows no trace of selenium. Most likely, the negative dates to 1937, when Ansel photographed the area with his friend and colleague Edward Weston, or possibly several years later when he was working on images for a sequel to the children’s book “Michael and Anne in Yosemite Valley,” published in 1940.

Tenaya Lake, Mt. Conness is a phenomenal example of Ansel’s  Yosemite photography.

Lake Tenaya, one of the true jewels of the Sierra Nevada, lies nestled between rolling domes and steep escarpments of granite. Its pristine, iridescent waters invite visitors to pause and memorize its beauty. The jumping off point to Sunrise and May Lake High Sierra Camps, the lake offers hikers several trails into the wilderness above Yosemite Valley.

Michael Adams and Ansel Adams, Tenaya Lake, Yosemite. Print from a Kodacolor negative. Courtesy of the Adams Family Memorabilia Archives.

This newly-surfaced vintage print offers a window into the sublime of the Sierra that could only have been made through the lens of the artist himself.

“It is difficult to explain the magic: to lie in a small recess of granite matrix of the Sierra and watch the progress of dusk to night, the incredible brilliance of the stars, the waning of the glittering sky into dawn…And always that cool dawn wind that I believe to be the prime benediction of the Sierra. These qualities to which I still deeply respond were distilled into my pictures over the decades. I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite.” – From Ansel Adams: An Autobiography, 1985

Discovery at Diamond Cascade

A Pivotal Moment in the Life of the Artist

(The Ansel Insider)

By the summer of 1920 Ansel Adams, then 18, had found his passion in the photographic landscapes of Yosemite National Park. With the support of his family, Ansel spent the next four summers as the custodian of the Sierra Club’s LeConte Memorial Lodge. This experience awarded him the opportunity to go deep into the trails, waterfalls and cliffs of the park with his gear and evolving style in tow.

Ansel Adams in Le Conte Lodge window, 1920. Yosemite National Park
Photo courtesy of the Adams Family Memorabilia Archives

Around the same time, Ansel began his lifelong habit of letter writing. Many of his letters can be found in the thoughtfully edited compilation “Ansel Adams, Letters 1916-1984.” Those first years in Yosemite are chronicled in his frequent letters to his family.

On June 8, 1920, during Ansel’s first year at LeConte, he wrote a soaring update to his father Charles Adams. Along with the obvious joy of his time in the park, Ansel detailed the first take on what would become his lifelong philosophy of photography as an artform:

“I am more than ever convinced that the only possible way to interpret the scenes hereabout is through an impressionistic vision.”

Ansel was not drawn to strictly representational photography. Instead, he found his philosophical thesis in an abstract and imaginative output. Ansel describes this imaginative output as “suggestive and impressionistic…in the representation of material things.” The description of his evolving process is laid out in the letter to his father. It illustrates a pivotal moment and profound realization that would inform the future of his career.

Diamond Cascade in Tenaya Canyon, Photograph by Ansel Adams, 1920

In an enclosed photo of Diamond Cascade in the Tenaya Canyon, Adams describes contrasting approaches to photographing water. When up close it is “delicate and airy” and when seen in mass it can assume “great strength and power.”

“To interpret through dynamics of line and tone instead of form. It’s all in the head anyway, so why not employ mental effects…”

“With my Father,” Yosemite, c. 1920
Ansel Adams and his father Charles H. Adams, Photo Courtesy of the Adams Family Memorabilia Archives

Ansel finished off that summer with his new Graflex camera at his side. Through his photographic experiments, and documented in the letters, he continued to evolve his creative philosophy. Follow along with his letters, and you will also find a young man discovering his voice and defining his philosophies through a constant, heartfelt dialog with his family.

To learn about more of Ansel’s early works in Yosemite, see: Ansel’s Teenage Years: Largely Unknown Images

Ansel Leads the Way

Georgia O’Keeffe, the Rockefellers, and Ansel Adams Go Camping

(The Ansel Insider)

Ansel Adams’ photography introduced generations of Americans—even those who would never visit the park themselves—to the grandeur of Yosemite National Park. Through his photographs, hundreds of thousands would come to know the splendor of its rugged summits and polished valleys.

Ansel photographing in the High Sierra. Photograph by Ron Partridge

For many Americans, Ansel acted as a sort of liaison to Yosemite itself, welcoming viewers into the park with the intimacy that only his deep familiarity with its natural beauty could provide. It was a role that he would inhabit regularly throughout his life, and indeed, Ansel often found himself serving as a guide to Yosemite for many notable artists of his time. These excursions into the High Sierra with other artists were particularly uplifting for Ansel, who took great pleasure in sharing his beloved wilderness with friends.

It was on September 11th, 1938 that Ansel set out into Yosemite for a ten-day pack trip with four friends in tow: David McAlpin, a grandson of William Rockefeller and a notable philanthropist; McAlpin’s cousin, Godfrey Rockefeller, and his wife Helen; and Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the most celebrated painters of the American West.

Photograph from the trip published in “Looking at Ansel Adams”

When one goes camping with three Rockefellers, one does not pack light. The five campers enjoyed four hired hands—a highly luxurious ratio—and fourteen mules to carry all their gear. McAlpin and Godfrey Rockefeller—both amateur photographers—had purchased cameras specifically for the trip. Working with a large-format camera and eight-by-ten-inch negatives, Godfrey often had to rely on Ansel for technical assistance, which Ansel was happy to provide.

Ansel Adams, American, 1902-1984, “Untitled” (Godfrey Rockefeller) and “Untitled” (David McAlpin), c. 1938.
Courtesy of the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, WY, Gift of Sarah S. and David H. McAlpin

But it was Georiga O’Keeffe who attracted the majority of Ansel’s attention. Ansel had first met O’Keeffe in 1929 at an artists’ retreat in Taos, New Mexico. As kindred spirits and fellow lovers of the American West, they quickly sparked a lasting friendship.

Photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe by Ansel Adams during their camping trip, 1938
Photo courtesy of The Carnegie Museum of Art

According to Andrea G. Stillman in her book Looking at Ansel Adams: The Photographs and the Man,

“Adams was in awe of O’Keeffe. Not only was she the wife of his idol, Alfred Stieglitz, but she was also a widely-recognized artist.”

On that 1938 trip, Ansel was highly preoccupied with showing O’Keeffe a good time. In his autobiography, he writes,

“O’Keeffe loved campfires and would stand close to them in her voluminous black cape, her remarkable features and her dark hair gleaming in the flickering light. She never seemed bored or tired and enjoyed every moment of the trip.”

O’Keeffe even left behind a souvenir for Ansel and family from the camping trip: her hiking boots. The Adams family has a photograph of Michael, Ansel’s son, sporting a rake and her boots, and looking rather serious about his new look!

Michael Adams in Georgia O’Keeffe’s hiking boots
Photo Courtesy of the Adams Family Memorabilia Archives

For her part, O’Keeffe was often playfully sarcastic with Ansel, and loved to poke fun. Ansel had designed the excursion himself to show off the best that Yosemite had to offer, taking the group to his favorite locations and vistas. But after leading the group up to the distant peak that would one day come to be known as “Mount Ansel Adams,” O’Keeffe is reported to have quipped,

“Oh, now I see why you brought us up here. You just wanted to show off your mountain.”

Light from a Distant Mountain

(The Ansel Insider)

“Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California” by Ansel Adams, 1944

In 1943, Ansel Adams began to document the Manzanar War Relocation Center, an internment camp for over 10,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. Ansel used his camera to capture the strength, determination, and spirit of the people there amidst the hardship that had been thrust upon them. Immersed in the community of displaced Americans, Adams produced Born Free and Equal. It was a project that would prove to be surpassingly prescient towards the impacts of its own historical moment, and one of Ansel’ only forays into photo-documentation. In more than 100 images, he captured the nature of life in the camp, the humanity of its residents, and the monumentalism of its surroundings weaving them together to form a mosaic of natural beauty and human perseverance.

When Ansel completed his project at Manzanar, he had created a body of work dedicated to the human dignity he found there that was as profound as his iconic photographs of the surrounding landscape.

And as it turns out, it was one mountain in particular that stood out as an agent of hope among the unsurpassed beauty of the western landscape that encompassed Manzanar. Mt. Williamson. On the floor of the Owens Valley, Manzanar is bordered to the west by the soaring Sierra Nevada and the east by the great arid expanse of Death Valley National Park. Ansel believed that this surrounding western landscape was one of the few American cultural symbols the internees could still lay claim.

Photograph of the landscape outside of the Manzanar Relocation Center. Image courtesy of the Ansel Adams family archives

In a poignant passage written in Born Free & Equal, Ansel describes the sublime geography of the region that is empowered by a spirit originating from the granite wall of the Sierra Nevada: Mt. Williamson, only a distance of ten miles west of Manzanar, rises against the sky so magnificent and shimmers under the clear sun.

“The acrid splendor of the desert, ringed with towering mountains, has strengthened the spirit of the people of Manzanar. I do not say all are conscious of this influence, but I am sure most have responded, in one way or another, to the resonances of their environment…The huge vistas and stern realities of sun and wind and space symbolize the immensity and opportunity of America.” — Ansel Adams, Born Free & Equal

It was in 1944, on one of his later trips to Manzanar, when Ansel captured his extraordinary photograph of Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California. The image, taken from a platform mounted to the roof of his car, portrays Manzanar’s most important landmark rising from the foothills in the far distance. The mountain stands central in the image, its enormous form erupting from a sea of boulders resting on the floor of the newly made desert. Arguably, Ansel’s inspiration that enabled him to make such an iconic, moving image as “Mt. Williamson” came from the impact of his experiences observing the coping and fortitude of the Japanese-American internees. He believed the grand landscape transcended the everyday existence of internment. Ansel received criticism for photographing the surrounding landscape, and responded to such criticism in Ansel Adams: An Autobiography:

“I have been accused of sentimental conjecture when I suggest that the beauty of the natural scene stimulated the people in the camp,” he wrote. “No other relocation center could match Manzanar in this respect, and many of the people spoke to me of these qualities and their thankfulness for them.”

Ansel photographing the sweeping views near Manzanar. Photo courtesy of the Ansel Adams family archives.

Ansel’s Mt. Williamson reminds us of the deep-seated relationship between the landscape and its inhabitants, its cool mountain peak radiating an air of possibility in contrast to the heat of the desert floor where the camp lay. Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California is breathtaking in its portrayal of the Owens Valley environment. In another passage from Born Free & Equal, Ansel expresses:

“It is the magical mountain, the dominant accent of the world of Inyo…No summit of the Sierra looms so impressively above its immediate base as Williamson. Mary Austin speaks of its ‘seven-mile shadow.’ In the same mood Horace wrote of the ‘great shadows falling from the high mountains.’ Yet the shadows of the Sierras are not somber; they make space definite with glowing light.” — Ansel Adams, Born Free & Equal

By Reily Haag, Creative Writer for The Ansel Adams Gallery

The Artists of the Manzanar Relocation Center

At Manzanar, every 20-by-25-foot room held eight detainees. Few furnishings were provided. Cots with straw mattresses, an oil stove, and a single hanging light bulb were all that decorated the rooms. And yet, in spite of the harshness of their environment, and in spite of the injustice of their circumstances, the prisoners managed to find inspiration, extract beauty, and create art.