Secrets of the Southwest: Locals Point the Way

(The Ansel Insider) 

For Ansel Adams, the project of cataloging the American Southwest was as much about finding beauty as it was about photographing it. But Adams did not have to look far for friends who were eager to help him uncover the secrets of that landscape. Entrée to the Southwest—insider knowledge about special sights and locations—was provided by enthusiastic local traders. On Adams’ trip to Arizona in 1941, it was Cozy McSparron, a trader who ran a post at Chinle who took him up to the Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto.


Cozy McSparron at Thunderbird Lodge

“They were old friends,” says Michael Adams, Ansel’s son, who joined his father on the 1941 trip. “They sat on the porch and drank whiskey. I drank Coca-Cola.” – Michael Adams

According to the younger Adams, the three went up the canyon in a four-door Chrysler open-top convertible. “It had great big oversized tires on it, so that it wouldn’t get stuck easily. But he said every now and then he would get stuck and he’d have to get horses to pull him out.”


“Canyon de Chelly” by Ansel Adams

McSparron, born in Gallup, New Mexico, learned to speak Navajo at an early age. “He brought with him to that trading post, a knowledge of native culture, and a supportiveness of that culture,” says Adams. That knowledge endeared him to the community, and his knowledge of the landscape would prove invaluable.

“He knew about all these small places—more intimate places—that my dad would have never known on his own, but was led there.” -Michael Adams

Ansel photographing petroglyphs and Rainbow Bridge in AZ

McSparron was far from the only trader that Adams would rely upon for insider knowledge. Harry Goulding, a trader in Monument Valley, was another remarkable resource.

Harry Goulding in Monument Valley. Image from

“He had a wonderful clientele with the film industry—with the people who filmed movies in Monument Valley,” Michael Adams says with a chuckle.

The punchline is this: it was Goulding himself who first drove to Los Angeles with the album of Josef Meunch’s photographs of Monument Valley, strolled into the United Artists studio building, and insisted on a meeting with John Ford. Goulding’s determination assured that Monument Valley would, for many, define the look of American West—both in Ansel Adams’ photographs, and in Hollywood Westerns.

“Monument Valley, Arizona” by Ansel Adams. Image from the National Gallery of Art

Traders also provided hospitality and a “home away from home.” At Wide Ruins, Arizona, Michael Adams recalls staying with a younger couple who had gotten into the trading post business. “Once they knew I could ride a horse safely, they’d let me take a horse every day and wander off across the reservation.”

Without his relationships to the traders and locals, Adams’ work in the Southwest would have been markedly different. It was only through the cultivation of strong friendships that Adams’ camera was able to find its now-iconic subjects.

Ansel photographing petroglyphs and Rainbow Bridge in AZ

Adams’ work cataloging the natural beauty of the American Southwest is not just an environmental project. It’s a human project as well.

“The traders facilitated Ansel getting into places that he might not have gone otherwise,” says Adams, “They showed him places, and they enabled him to explore those places through his photography.”

By Ethan Simon, Creative Writer for The Ansel Adams Gallery