Ansel Adams made this image on a chilly late autumn morning in 1939 with an 8″ x 10″ view camera and 10-inch Kodak Wide-Field Ektar lens. The Cathedral Rocks loom in the background. He took the photo from west side of the El Capitan bridge over the Merced River in Western Yosemite Valley.
Over time, Adams printed the negative of ”Merced River, Cliffs, Autumn” in different ways, initially printing it very brightly and later using more dramatic tones as in the Yosemite Special Edition version. In Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs , Adams writes that he had “not yet made a print that fully satisfies” and goes on to consider how he would have visualized the image in color:
“I can imagine a very quiet and luminous effect of subdued hues; the elements here that made a black-and-white image difficult would be most favorable to color photography. The low contrast of the subject would be compatible with color processes. … Few subjects lend themselves to both black-and-white and color image concepts.”
Though Ansel Adams claimed to dislike color photography, he did produce an accomplished body of work in color and even tested color films for Eastman Kodak. A selection of his color photographs appear in the posthumously published Ansel Adams: In Color. (Ansel had a love-hate relationship with color photography, primarily because he could not control it)
Merced River, Cliffs, Autumn appeared with the title “Merced River, Cliffs of Cathedral Rocks, Autumn” in “Portfolio III, Yosemite Valley” published by the Sierra Club in 1960. It was included in the 2001-2003 traveling museum exhibition Ansel Adams at 100 and companion book. The photograph also appears in Ansel Adams Monograph (out of print), entitled Autumn, Yosemite National Park, Yosemite, Yosemite and the High Sierra, Yosemite and the Range of Light (out of print), Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, Our National Parks, and Classic Images, the book based on the Museum Set Collection, a retrospective portfolio of what Adams considered his strongest work.