In the Spring of 1927 a young photographer but experienced climber, trekked deep into snowbound Yosemite National Park in California. But his hike didn’t go according to plan with the light about to die and just two glass plates left for his 4x5 view camera. Under pressure, he created what many consider one of the greatest masterpieces of American or any other landscape art, Monolith, The Face of Half Dome. Ansel Adams captured the great mountain in dramatic light and would change how Americans saw their country. When Adams came on this scene, it was an epiphany. It was like falling in love, but more importantly, he became not just Yosemite’s photographer, but its great artist, the high priest of its temple, of its stone, its light, its water. What he created in those landscape altarpieces, was an America irradiated with luminous majesty, taller than the highest skyscraper, more powerful than the mightiest business corporation, and he wanted Yosemite to be for everyone, as this is our land. By the 1950’s Ansel Adams’ photographs had become the iconic images of the American west.
Starting in the 1920’s, Ansel Adams pioneered an approach that insisted photography was not simply a mechanical process, but a true art form. His method was to work backwards from the image he’d visualized then anticipate the moment when the light and subject could be seen at their most illuminating and then, with the press of the button, realize that vision. In 1960, the year John F. Kennedy became president calling for a new frontier, Adams published a book, This is the American Earth. It became an instant bestseller. More and more Adams’ photographs became preachy, but those visual sermons were radiant, mystical, ecstatic. They’re passionate statements of how humanity could be redeemed through the encounter with nature. He became a kind of patriarch of environmentalism, and every so often he’d put the camera down and even go away from his beloved Yosemite to try and persuade this or that president to his point of view, but throughout, he remained steadfast to his belief that his job in life was to give visual form to that silken cord tying together the fate of man with the fate of the Earth.
It was the moment for some, when the photographer became a prophet. In 1977, when the Voyager spacecrafts were launched with a golden record containing images and sounds of Earth and its inhabitants, Adams’ images were among them. My photographs of Yosemite will never come close to those of Adams, considering he carried a 4x5 camera and tripod up there and I a modest, lightweight Nikon F3. After a two-hour hike in the middle of the rain and snow, I laid eyes on Half Dome. I cried. As I stood watching, I thought how this massive rock will be the most majestic thing I will ever see. I marveled at how many more millions have seen it, how many photographs have been taken, and how long Half Dome will it stand long after we’re gone.
“We all move on the fringes of eternity and are sometimes granted vistas through the fabric of illusion.” – Ansel Adams