Color on the East Side of the Sierra

Fall Colors Destinations near Yosemite National Park

While Summer lingers in Yosemite Valley, the east side of the Sierras prepare for Autumn’s transcendent glow. As the season turns, patches of color and patterns of golden light ripple through the hillsides. The air cools, the crowds thin, and Yosemite awakens from its Summertime slumber. Now’s the time to plan for Fall on the east side of the Sierra Mountain Range and experience Fall Colors like nowhere else. Pack that bag (don’t forget your camera!) and prepare to be mesmerized.

“Aspen, June Lake Loop” by William Neill | Original Fine Art Photograph, Signed*

The Eastern Sierra: Where to explore?

Whether you’re returning to the eastside of the Sierra, or experiencing it for your first time, there’s a handful of locations worthy of visiting time and again. Let’s start with North and South Lake, where the first of Fall colors erupt with breathtaking vistas.

North and South Lake

What it’s known for: Typically the first place to freeze and get snow. The window for peak Fall colors can be short, but so worth it when timed correctly.
Why we love it: It’s normally the first place the Fall colors begin to emerge. There’s also several good hotels, breakfast and lunch spots back in Bishop. If you’re looking for a good cup of coffee, stop in at Black Sheep or Looney Bean.
Learn more:

Upper and Lower Rock Creek Canyon

What it’s known for: Rock Creek Canyon is famous for Little Lakes Basin, where a string of high-elevation lakes are linked by leisurely hiking trails surrounded by 13,000 foot peaks.
Why we love it: It’s got some great ‘From the Road’ photography opportunities, gorgeous creekside terrain, and lots of good hiking.
Learn more:

Mammoth Lakes (Reds Meadow) and Convict Lake

What it’s known for: A great home-base when out exploring. When Reds Meadow is open, it offers a variety of places to stay (mountain cabins, motel rooms, hiker cabins) and supreme location one mile from Devil’s Postpile and Rainbow Falls. Also great access to Ansel Adams Wilderness and the Thousand Island Lake region.
Why we love it: The incredible Fall Colors hiking trails in Mammoth Lakes. Hiking around Mammoth Lakes Basin is a good midday activity for those looking to get some fresh air and high altitude. Here’s a list of 7 hikes to enjoy during a Fall visit to Mammoth Lakes.
Learn more:


“Aspen Circle, June Lake Loop,” Archival Pigment Print by Michael Frye*

June Lake Loop

What it’s known for: A vacationer’s retreat, available all four seasons of the year. A spectacular drive following a horseshoe shaped canyon, and world-class trout fishing. Photographers, enjoy the early-to-late morning and late afternoon-to-early evening, when the light is more even and less contrasty. Hungry? Check out The Double Eagle for late breakfast, and The Lift for dinner.
Why we love it: It’s dramatic mountainous backdrop and aspen-lined hiking trails! At June Lake, there’s lots of opportunity for wide angle and zoom shots. Several groves are accessible from the road and more adventurous photographers can wander up the hillsides to the West of the road. Normally, June Lake is one of the longer-lasting Fall colors destinations. Try photographing with a long lens after autumn’s peak when isolated bits of color still linger.
Learn more:

Silver Lake (Part of June Lake Loop)

What it’s known for: Home to the oldest “fishing retreat” in the region, Silver Lake hosts people from all over California and the West who have been visiting the area for generations.
Why we love it: We recommend the Silver Lake Resort, especially for breakfast. Ask for the Garbage Omelet – you’ll be glad you did! There’s also a pack station at Silver Lake and the trails offer a short, but steep climb into the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Once you’ve made it through the initial climb, it starts to level out a bit for an enjoyable hike.
Learn more:

Lee Vining (Lee Vining Canyon, Mono Lake, High Country Access)

What it’s known for: Called “The Gateway to Yosemite,” Lee Vining offers epic fishing, spectacular hiking, and pristine spots for camping. Usually, the groves up Power Plant Road are the last stands of aspen to turn color.
Why we love it: It’s a short trip from Lee Vining to Mono Lake where one can experience the tufa formations. If you have a 4-wheel-drive, we suggest circumnavigating the lake and stopping at Navy Beach and South Beach. Best to have two vehicles in case one gets stuck in the mud! Or, take a left turn off Highway 395 at the top of Conway Summit, and head to Virginia Lakes – a photographer’s dream at every season.
Learn more:

“Aspen Leaves, Lee Vining Creek,” Archival Pigment Print by Keith Walklet*


Lundy Canyon

What it’s known for: Its enormous beaver ponds, and location in the heart of the High Sierra’s Hoover Wilderness. Along the Lundy Canyon Trail, you’ll pass historic ruins, waterfalls, abundant meadows, wildflowers, and soaring cliffs. Keep climbing and you’ll reach the beautiful granite playground of Twenty Lakes Basin. The climb can be treacherous, leading up a talus-filled chute that is precariously steep and unstable.
Why we love it: The abundant Aspens and cottonwoods are especially striking here during the Fall time of year. It’s also got some great photography from the road.
Learn more:

Conway Summit

What it’s known for: Some of the best autumn photography north of Bishop. Bring a wide and long lens! It’s the highest point on U.S. 395, and offers spectacular views of Mono Lake and the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Why we love it: From Conway Summit, there’s a great adventure to embark on. Head to the east slope of Dunderberg Peak, at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. Only available by 4-wheel-drive, you’ll find the outlet of a lake that has wildflowers late into the season. You’ll be well above the tree line, with incredible views of Aspen groves below. Be sure to check weather and road conditions before venturing out on any unpaved roads. Check out the Mono Lake Vista on the South side of Conway Summit (big pull out along the road) for some great sunset opportunities.
Learn more:


What it’s known for: It’s a historic California Town sometimes called the gateway to High Sierra canyons, peaks, lakes, streams, and beautiful pastures.
Why we love it: It’s a great home-base for lodging when venturing out on day trips into the Sierras. Enjoy an easy drive to Yosemite National Park, Bodie, and Mono Lake. Photographers, venture to Sonora Pass where jointed and fractured granite lined with Aspen can make for intriguing foreground details. Stay at Mono Inn between Bridgeport and Lee Vining. Mono Inn offers unsurpassed fine dining in the Eastern Sierra. Dinner there is a must, especially around the full moon when it rises in view from the Inn’s veranda above the White Mountains beyond Mono Lake.
Learn more:

“Sunset, Mono Lake and White Mountains,” Archival Pigment Print by Charles Cramer*


Bloody Canyon Trail

What it’s known for: Historically, the Bloody Canyon Trail was used to cross the Sierras before wagon roads were built. It is named for the injuries to stock that made this rugged crossing. The trail is still not recommended for stock.
Why we love it: The colors: a dramatic contrast of the cliffs with the Aspen leaves. The trail through Bloody Canyon is lesser known, and therefore offers a quieter excursion. There’s a great climb up to Lower Sardine Lake, along with some beautiful waterfalls on the way up. Keep on going to Upper Sardine and check out the view. The trail dips briefly into Yosemite and eventually gives access to the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail.
Learn more:

“Shepards Crest and Macabe Lake,” Archival Pigment Print by Keith Walket*


*To purchase an Eastern Sierra fine art photography print, please email or call (209) 372-4413 ex. 204.

The Color of Black and White

  • The Color of Black & White
  • Cabin, Grand Tetons
  • Light Storm
  • Gates of the Valley, Yosemite National Park
  • Spring Rain, Yosemite
  • Corn Lily
  • Bridalveil Fall, Stormlight
  • Courthouse Valley, Arches National Park
  • Moon and Clouds, Banff National Park
  • Rocks, Moon and Clouds, Alabama Hills, CA
  • Rocks, Moon and Clouds, Alabama Hills, CA
  • Joshua Tree and Rocks

Purchase these photographs

Join us for the Artist Reception Saturday, October 12th, 3-5pm

For the photographer, the art (or skill) of seeing the finished print in the mind’s eye is not to be taken lightly. It is a trait of true dedication – a sixth sense. Ansel Adams was a proponent of the task, and something he developed right here in the heart of Yosemite National Park around 1927. Today, Alan Ross, following years of side-by-side engagement with several giants of the medium, continues this tradition of visualization. Alan has said:

People often ask me if I actually “see” in black-and-white when I’m photographing. And the truth of it is, I do. For me, once the limitations or expectations of reality are eliminated, shapes, textures, relationships and nuance that might otherwise be missed come into view, and the image takes on a life of its own. Black-and-white, by its very nature, is an abstraction of reality and therefore tremendously liberating. With the “colors,” or tones, of black-and-white, I am free to skew the emphasis of the elements in the scene…a green leafy plant in front of a red sandstone wall can either be the hero of the scene, or recede against the wall, depending on what I want viewers to see. I can see the reality of color in my own way. These “colors” between true black and harsh white are also what give me a visually rich, elegant and expressive silver image.

Opening on August 18th and running through October 13th, 2019 The Color of Black and White – Original Photographs by Alan Ross will be on display at The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village. A closing reception for the artist will be held on Saturday, October 12th with the artist in attendance. Come on by and witness Alan’s skewed views and ‘colorful’ visualization of The West.

“Sierra Meadow” by Ansel Adams

A Visual Incentive to Protect our High Country Meadows

In 1930, Ansel Adams ventured to Yosemite’s high country and photographed “Sierra Meadow,” a work of art that depicts the lush beauty and intricate flora of a garden-meadow. The wildflowers in Ansel’s photograph glow with a luminosity made through a soft focus lens, a technique Ansel almost entirely abandoned five years earlier. Though “Sierra Meadow” does not illustrate the high contrast and sharper style of Ansel’s more well known photographs, it was a piece that remained close to his heart for the rest of his life.

“Sierra Meadow” by Ansel Adams, Negative Date: 1930


As lovers of nature and beauty, how can we interpret “Sierra Meadow” as a source of inspiration today?

Yosemite’s high country meadows have become increasingly overrun with visitors each year. Particularly in the summertime, who wouldn’t want to bask in the sublime beauty and cooler climates of the Sierra? Undeniably beautiful, the meadows evoke a natural simplicity, yet their ecology is very complex.

John Muir described the Sierra Nevada’s intricate meadows as:

“…so complete that you cannot see the ground and, at the same time, so brightly enameled with flowers and butterflies that it may well be called a garden-meadow, or meadow-garden.”

The beautiful meadows of Tuolumne in Yosemite’s High Sierra, which have been undergoing a restoration plan for 171 acres of meadow and riparian areas within the park.
Photo by QT Luong via

According to an article published by the Yosemite Conservancy, the meadow-gardens were first threatened in the 1850s, when Euro-American settlers came and transported cattle and sheep onto the meadows, planting non-native forage species for grazing purposes. The settlers also stopped anthropogenic burning of the meadows by the American Indians, which historically promoted meadow stability by reducing the encroachment of surrounding forests.

Today, the most notable threats to these beautiful meadows include changes in climate, including less snowpack and earlier snowmelt, and us—the constant flow of people visiting and crossing these meadows, sometimes exploring off-trail.

Keep an eye out for signs like this when visiting meadows in Yosemite.
Stay on the trail to conserve the natural landscape.

So, how can we help?

It’s important to protect the meadows before they are too deeply impacted to recover. Hundreds to thousands of people crossing these meadows each year cause stress on the land and its inhabitants, resulting in lasting change. The Yosemite Conservancy asks us to:

  • Stay on designated trails. “Multitrailing” or wandering off trail can result in meadow closures in order to restore the damage done.
  • Walk, don’t drive. Wherever you visit in Yosemite, tread lightly, and avoid decorating nature’s meadows with tire tracks—or footprints, for that matter.

We at the gallery ask you to share this conservation message with friends and family, hopefully inspiring others to do the same. Ansel’s “Sierra Meadow” is a gorgeous representation of the magic and abundance of high country meadows.

Let’s work to keep them that way.

Experience another of Ansel’s soft focus photographs, “A Grove of Tamarack Pine,” and the story behind the image.

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.”