Two years ago, my boyfriend-at-the-time was visiting from Australia, and we took a wide looping road trip to National Parks in the West. Yosemite National Park was the third stop on our itinerary. I had been there once already, but in the winter and only for a short hike in the snow before continuing back to Portland. I was excited to really get to see the park and explore. There have always been two things that represent Yosemite in my mind: the first being naturalist, John Muir; and the second, photographer Ansel Adams.
Famous for his sharp and stunning black and white landscapes, Ansel Adams was an advocate for maintaining the wild places that he loved and photographed. One of his most famous subjects was Yosemite and the Sierras. As we drove through hills charred by wildfire, I grew nervous that what would meet us might look nothing like the Yosemite of Muir and Adams. But, after we made it to the park’s edge and further into the valley, it was easy to see just why Adams was so taken by it. Adams captures it well himself: “That first impression of the valley—white water, azaleas, cool fir caverns, tall pines and stolid oaks, cliffs rising to undreamed-of heights…”
Adams grew up in San Francisco, but by age 14 he was spending time in Yosemite every year. William Turnage notes in his biography of Adams: “From his first visit, Adams was transfixed and transformed. He began using the Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie his parents had given him. He hiked, climbed, and explored, gaining self-esteem and self-confidence.” What resulted over time was a collection of photographs showing exactly what Adams was so passionate about protecting, each and every one of them grand. Photographs of El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and the whole of Yosemite Valley. Photos in winter, in summer, clear skies and misty clouds. A famous shot of a daytime moon rising behind Half Dome.
In college I took photography classes – black and white film. This was just when digital was coming on full-force. I thought I would be a diehard film photographer, beginning to end. I adored the methodical mixing of chemicals, agitating film reels, spending hours in the amber-lit darkroom watching the photos slowly appear. For me and for many others, Adams represented black and white photographic perfection. I had posters of his photographs pinned to the walls in my room.
His photography is art, but in a way he also treated it as a science. He practiced straight photography, a technique which relied more on the real elements of the shot than the ability to manipulate the photo in the darkroom. He created The Zone System – a process that allowed photographers to better translate the light from the world into densities on paper. He gave lectures and had books published on technique.
On that trip I had decided to bring along my film camera. I’d found some old rolls of black and white film – leftover from those college classes – and wanted to use them up. I took photos from the top of Yosemite Falls, from the top of North Dome, from the valley floor. Capturing scenes relatively unchanged from the days when Adams was shooting with that first box Brownie. William Turnage again: “His black-and-white images were not ‘realistic’ documents of nature. Instead, they sought an intensification and purification of the psychological experience of natural beauty. He created a sense of the sublime magnificence of nature that infused the viewer with the emotional equivalent of wilderness, often more powerful than the actual thing.”
I sometimes worry that Adams has lost his place as an artist and has been relegated to historical figure. In his own time photography was considered documentation rather than art. But it was the way that he used his zone technique, the way he harnessed light, that made him stand out. John Szarkowski of New York’s Museum of Modern Art said: "What Adams’ pictures show us is different from what we see in any landscape photographer before him. They are concerned, it seems to me, not with the description of object...but with the description of the light that they modulate, the light that justifies their relationship to each other."
There’s one particular photo of Adams’ himself that resonates in my mind and defines him as artist. He’s standing on a platform built on top of his station wagon prepping his camera for a shot. I love the obvious dedication. The patience of holding out for the right moment, the exact right light, the lengths he would go for the point of perfection. One of his technical assistants, Alan Ross, said that Adams always planned to be in the right place and the right time. That luck played a role but ultimately meant nothing if you weren’t prepared.
A short time after our trip, I had my black and white photos of Yosemite developed. They had none of the stunning qualities of Adams’. I was, after all, using film that expired 5 years prior to my shooting it, and the automatic setting on my simple SLR. The shots are faded, the sun causing washes of bright white in the rocks, the sky dull instead of a vibrant, round gray. But the cliffs are still “rising to undreamed-of heights.” The sense of grandeur is there and – the dedicated film photographer in me hopes – some small feeling of wilderness captured.
Ginger Duncan is a writer of poetry, flash fiction, and creative non-fiction. A native Oregonian, she lives and works in Portland, but always has her eye out for a new adventure.