The Mosquitoes Stole the Show on Mt. McKinley Negatives

From Citronella Dousing to Black Fighter Aircrafts

Mount McKinley at 20,320 feet is the highest peak in North America.

The way Michael Adams (Ansel’s son) tells the story, the lead-up to capturing the now famous 1947 photograph of Mt. McKinley, Wonder Lake in Denali National Park was not a seamless operation. After nearly a week in a ranger station (there were bears!) the clouds seemed to be opening up one summer night. With the sunset there was a break in the light.

Perpetually snowcapped, the 20,000-foot, wind-bitten peak simply defied the power of Adams’s thirty-five millimeter Contax lens. Even if a photographer had perfect conditions of light, shadow, and wind, it was difficult to capture such bulk, even with a wide-angle lens. Patience was necessary if the goal was to create the definitive photo of America’s tallest peak.

– Douglas Brinkley, The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom

Ansel and Michael were faced with a conundrum. On top of the ridge a steady wind shook the camera. Off the ridge and out of the wind, the mosquitoes, commonly referred to as Alaska’s State Bird, were innumerable and unstoppable. Michael describes a tip from the rangers who had learned a technique to keep the mosquitoes away.

“They had a stockpile of citronella oil and they were advised to open the bottle and pour it over their heads and let it soak into their clothing. It wasn’t pleasant, but seemed to keep the attackers at bay.”

Finally Ansel captured the dramatic images of Denali at 1:30 a.m. Half an hour later clouds covered the peak and the light no longer reflected off Wonder Lake.

However, the mosquitoes persisted in that they made their way onto a few of the negatives. Large format negative holders carry two negatives. To expose a new sheet of film, you insert a slide to cover the exposed sheet, pull the holder, turn it over, insert the holder back into the camera, and pull the slide. The act of inserting the slide included inserting mosquitoes, and the squished insects interfered with the development process, creating little “fighter aircraft” in the finished print.

Michael Adams recalls that no pesky insects were hurt in the process.

The mosquitoes were not squished. They got between and lens and the paper and when the photo was taken, they appeared as small objects in the negative. No physical damage to the mosquito as I remember, just the shadows.

The business of photographing in nature is sometimes fraught with the elements and a few creatures. In this case the battle of the pests was worth the struggle when looking at the final majestic image of Mt. McKinley.

Mount McKinley, Wonder Lake