New Ways of Looking at Landscapes

Ansel Adams's Legacy and the Diverse Artists Building on an Icon

BY Rebecca Senf  
Cover Image
Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park
Ansel Adams (American, 1902–1984)
About 1937
Photograph, gelatin silver print
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Lane Collection
© The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Jul 14th 2021

In 1916, Ansel Adams arrived in California’s Yosemite Valley as a smart and eager fourteen-year-old boy on vacation with his parents Charles and Olive. The only child had read a copy of James M. Hutchings’ In the Heart of the Sierras, an 1888 tale of the “discovery” of Yosemite by Anglo Americans and the episodes of conquest that followed. The book inspired him to ask his parents for a summer trip to this magical wilderness destination. With a Kodak Box Brownie camera in hand, Adams enthusiastically explored the valley, taking advantage of hiking trails, swimming, playing croquet, and making his first group of Sierra Nevada photographs. This experience provided his dual lifelong obsessions: photography and wilderness conservation.

Those themes endure in Ansel Adams In Our Time, now on view at the Portland Art Museum and available online through August 1, 2021. The exhibition is an exciting opportunity to see Ansel Adams’s iconic prints and to appreciate how a diverse group of 28 contemporary photographers, included in the show, has built upon his legacy of conservation and advocacy in a modern world while reaching even broader, more diverse audiences. It includes photographers from different generations; varied racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds; and those viewing the American landscape from the lens of their underrepresented gender or sexuality. Their photographs represent a wide range of distinct experiences in relation to the American West.

When Adams began his work, photography was neither considered an art, nor was it widely available in publications or museums. Today, landscape photographers exist in a world awash with art and everyday photography, with social media providing access to all kinds of images.

Francis Farquhar, Ansel Adams with a cigarette and Sierra Club cup, 1920s. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Ansel Adams Archive.
© Farquhar Family

I’m the author of Making a Photographer: The Early Work of Ansel Adams, the newest research on Adams’s early life, and curator at the Center for Creative Photography, at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, the home of the Ansel Adams Archive.

As someone who has been learning and writing about Adams for nearly 20 years, I am struck by how “Ansel Adams In Our Time” creates such an interesting dynamic between Adams’s famous images and the diversity and richness of photographs being made now. You come away from this exhibition understanding Ansel Adams better, as well as appreciating his influence on today’s greatly expanded field.

An Icon in the Making

From that first teenage visit on, there was never a year Adams did not spend time in his beloved Yosemite. His photographic practice evolved and developed until, in the 1940s, he began to make iconic images that continue to represent the ideals of wilderness for many Americans.

On his return trips over the next decade, Ansel Adams began to develop a more sophisticated and nuanced relationship to Yosemite and its surrounding high country. Initially, he experienced Yosemite as a tourist, attempting to learn and do and investigate as much as possible, like a hungry foodie at an all-you-can-eat buffet. He soon began to understand the geology and geography of the Sierra Nevada, to learn navigation and wayfinding skills, and to appreciate the flora and fauna he encountered. The once ravenous adolescent was developing into a connoisseur of the outdoors, developing his palette for the appreciation of more subtle and profound wilderness pleasures.

Building on Adams’s Legacy: Binh Danh

For Adams, photographs made in the Sierra Nevada Mountains were the result of his personal development through wilderness experiences in the territory around Yosemite during his teens and twenties. In contrast, Binh Danh, a Vietnamese American photographer featured in Ansel Adams In Our Time, came to Yosemite for the first time as an adult. As a child, he saw wilderness outings and outdoor vacations as something white people did, not what his Vietnamese immigrant family might do.

While photographing Yosemite, Danh thought about how other Asian Americans related to the land, including the Chinese laborers who had built the railroads and worked in the mines in this part of California and whose presence has been largely ignored by the photographic and written record. Rejecting the ease of contemporary photographic technology, Danh works with an early process called Daguerreotype. The resulting images have a mirror-like surface that requires the viewer to be at just the right angle to see the image; otherwise, they are met with their own ghostly reflection overlapping the image. It is precisely this reason Danh uses this process for his Yosemite work.

Danh’s reflective Daguerreotypes invite all of us, especially America’s immigrants, to literally see ourselves as we view Yosemite’s celebrated landscapes, thus allowing us to think about how we too fit into this place. Ansel Adams felt a deep connection to Yosemite and turned that resonance into a body of photographs that helped define the place for generations. In contrast, Binh Danh creates work that encourages those who do not see this as their landscape to explore why that might be and to approach it anew.

Binh Danh (American, born in Vietnam, 1977), Lower Yosemite Fall, August 16, 2016, 2016, Daguerreotype. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mary S. and Edward J. Holmes Fund, 2018.
© Binh Danh, courtesy of Haines Gallery, San Francisco, and Lisa Sette Gallery, Phoenix

A Working Artist

Unlike artists working today, Adams experienced a different art and photographic market. Photographers like Danh often teach photography at a university and then make photographs that are exhibited at museums and sold through galleries. Those professional avenues did not yet exist when Adams was a young man. Throughout the 1920s, Adams made hundreds of photographs in the Sierra Nevada mountains. At times these pictures were made on personal excursions; at others, they were a part of Sierra Club-sponsored outings, but all attempted to convey Adams’s own experience of these incredibly significant places.

Initially, Adams’s motivation was about personal expression. But in 1927, with the support of patron Albert Bender, he gathered 18 of his best photographs into a portfolio for sale: The Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras. He sold this edition of photographs of the mountain peaks, riverside groves, crystalline lakes, and soaring ridgelines that encapsulated how he saw and experienced the California wilderness he knew best, introducing him to the possibility of an income from his artistic practice. All 18 images are on view as part of the Ansel Adams In Our Time exhibition.

Monolith—The Face of Half Dome. Ansel Adams (American, 1902–1984). 1927. Photograph, gelatin silver print. 2018.2345. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Lane Collection
© The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.  Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Building on Adams’s Legacy: Wendy Red Star

Unique to the Portland Art Museum showing of Ansel Adams In Our Time is Wendy Red Star’s impactful Four Seasons, which combines aspects of Red Star’s lived experience and a desire to engage viewers in issues surrounding her identity as an Indigenous woman. The series in four works shows the artist in each frame wearing the same elk’s tooth dress, a status symbol of her Apsáalooke matrilineal family. She is surrounded, however, by dioramas of her own creation filled with artificial materials—fake flowers, Styrofoam packing peanuts, plastic inflatable and cardboard cutout animals, replica animal skulls, and landscape backdrops with the fold still evident right across the middle of the scene.

Red Star’s research takes her to archives and museums, and this piece is a response to her experience visiting a natural history museum featuring dioramas in their native galleries. She purposefully uses humor to help her audience connect with the ideas she wants to convey: the portrayal of American Indigenous people as “extinct,” the tremendous value of her own cultural heritage in relation to many people’s appreciation of commercial goods and possessions, the experience of being separated from landscapes that have profound importance, and the mythology of American Indians living in synchronicity with nature.

The blatant artificiality of her scenes, contrasted with her authentic presence in deeply meaningful traditional clothing, invites viewers to engage with the works and helps provoke questions and conversation. Red Star’s dioramas acknowledge that our understanding of nature is a construct, created in part by photographers like Ansel Adams. Although Adams saw connecting with nature as a deeply resonant experience and critical to his personal identity and artistic expression, Red Star foregrounds her heritage and cultural practices as a compelling source of identity. This set of prints by Red Star was acquired by the Portland Art Museum in 2017.

The Emergence of Photography as Activism

The Sierra Club played a critical role in Adams’s early development as a photographer and as an activist. He joined in 1919 to become the custodian of the LeConte Lodge, the Sierra Club’s headquarters in Yosemite, to extend his time in the valley. But for Adams’s career, it also created a significant connection to the club as an environmental advocacy organization, for which he wrote, photographed, and lobbied on behalf of their preservation goals.

In 1936, Adams brought his prints of the Kings River Canyon wilderness to a conference on state and national parks in Washington DC, hoping to persuade policymakers to extend federal protection to this region. In so doing, he drew on a long history of using photographs as evidence in support of setting aside lands for governmental protection: Carleton Watkins’s pictures of Yosemite and William Henry Jackson’s views of Yellowstone had successfully contributed to the creation of those parks earlier in the nation’s conservation efforts.

Mount Starr King and Glacier Point, Yosemite, No. 69. Carleton E. Watkins (American, 1829–1916). 1865–66. Photograph, mammoth albumen print from wet collodion negative. 2006.847. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow Fund
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Building on Adams’s Legacy: Meghann Riepenhoff and David Emitt Adams

Many younger photographers are concerned with issues of sustainability and how we understand our place in and impact on the landscape. Two such artists featured in the show are Meghann Riepenhoff and David Emitt Adams, who take radically different approaches to the theme. Both work in a tradition that sees human presence and the landscape as inherently intertwined—a push-pull relationship between people and nature. Through this perspective, their work encourages deepening that awareness as a prerequisite for creating a sustainable future.

Riepennhoff employs cyanotype photosensitive paper and works directly with the elements, rather than a camera, to make her abstract images. Working where the ocean and landscape meet, Riepenhoff places her paper into the water allowing the waves, salt, sand, and wind to create the deep blue colors and organic shapes of her pictures. The result is a record of the experience, capturing the dynamic gesture of the environment. Reipenhoff’s photographs convey not what she saw but the natural world as a force, both powerful and fragile. The prints are never fully processed, so the images continue to change as they are exposed to their ambient conditions, an analogy for the fleeting nature of our own existence.

Meghann Riepenhoff, Littoral Drift #1297 (Triptych, Port Blakely, WA 08.14.19, Five Waves at Flow Tide, Propped on Barnacle Logs), 2019, Photographs, dynamic cyanotypes
© Meghann Riepenhoff, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

David Emitt Adams is one of the youngest artists in the exhibition and makes photographic sculptures by placing images on abandoned metal cans. His practice engages a historical photographic process called tintype to comment on how we use and experience wild landscapes. David Emitt Adams collects discarded cans from the desert floor, some many decades old, which have taken on a deep reddish-brown, rusty coloration. He then manipulates them through a 19th-century photographic process known as tintype and places images of the surrounding landscapes on the discarded cans’ surfaces. The results are photographic objects that have a history as artifacts enriched with images connected to their locations.

David Emitt Adams (American, born in 1980), Before We Arrived, 2014, from the series Conversations with History, tintypes on found objects
© David Emitt Adams, courtesy Etherton Gallery

A Quest for Emotional Resonance

A key part of Adams’s lasting resonance was his ability to create photographs that both emotionally engage his audiences and effectively convey his deep investment in the value of wilderness experiences. In the early 1940s, Ansel Adams was hired by the United States Department of the Interior to make photographic murals of the national parklands. At that time, he developed an influential signature style that came to define “an Ansel Adams” photograph. This style is characterized by framing a distant panoramic landscape, choosing an omniscient (or god’s eye) perspective, including dramatic light and weather effects, and printing with a wide range of greys from deep blacks to bright whites.

Adams used this set of visual tools to create drama and evoke awe and grandeur, to persuade his audience that wilderness places were sites of meaningful spiritual experiences and offered transformative potential to individuals. His photographs stood in for his own powerful experiences. Adams wanted to share them with as broad a public as possible.

The Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Ansel Adams (American, 1902–1984). 1942. Photograph, gelatin silver print. 2018.2733. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Lane Collection
© The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Building on Adams’s Legacy: Mark Klett, Byron Wolfe, and Catherine Opie

Adams’s work serves as a touchpoint for contemporary photographers, such as Mark Klett, Byron Wolfe, and Catherine Opie. The collaborative pair Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe have worked in sites, like Yosemite, where they can create a dialogue with Adams’s original works. They identify the precise locations of those earlier photographs and build new panoramas of the place, incorporating Adams’s earlier views. They can create visual relationships between historic and contemporary images, inviting viewers to compare how differently a place can be understood. They are interested in how each photographer’s work becomes a product of their historical moment and cultural values.

Mark C. Klett (American, born in 1952) and Byron Wolfe (American, born in 1967), View from the handrail at Glacier Point overlook, connecting views from Ansel Adams to Carleton Watkins, 2003, archival pigment print
© Mark Klett & Byron Wolfe, courtesy Etherton Gallery

Catherine Opie established her reputation as an artist with color portrait work that explored issues of LGBT identity, using herself and members of the Los Angeles lesbian and gay community. Around 2015, Opie began a study of Yosemite inspired by Ansel Adams while acknowledging that in this oft-photographed place, all the iconic images had already been made. Her photographs pull details from the spectacular landscape, meditating on a single motif. Other views are out of focus, diffusing the specificity of the historic location in favor of a wash of colors evoking familiar scenes.

Opie’s work revisualizes Adams’s iconic scenes from her feminist perspective. She eschews the heroic, descriptive, panoramic, and awe-inspiring approach to the landscape—well established by generations of male photographers in Yosemite—for abstracted, evocative, and mysterious glimpses that hint at the familiar landmarks but avoid “capturing” their specific likeness. As with Adams’s Parmelian Prints portfolio of 1927, Opie is sharing a collection of views of the place from her personal perspective, trying to convey her experience through the photographic medium.

Catherine Opie (American, born in 1961), Untitled #1 (Yosemite Valley), 2015, pigment print. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Stephen D. and Susan W. Paine Acquisition Fund for twentieth century and Contemporary Art, 2018.2220
© Catherine Opie, courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

As Ansel Adams In Our Time illustrates, Adams helped form an iconic way of depicting the meaning of wilderness, but the plurality of voices we have today serves us as a more diverse and inclusive nation. Whereas Adams sought a photographic style that would resonate with most Americans, now a range of photographers each work from their own point of view, creating dramatically different pictures with the potential to resonate with distinct and diverse audiences. Today’s landscape photography builds on Adams’s work to highlight issues like sustainability, land preservation, access to wilderness, and the value of outdoor experiences. Adams’s legacy, thus, is not only his own record of photographs but the rich tapestry of contemporary photography that invites even more people into the sustainability conversation.

Author image

Rebecca Senf

Dr. Rebecca Senf is an Ansel Adams scholar, and recently published a book on Ansel Adams’s early years, Making a Photographer, copublished by CCP and Yale University Press. She is Chief Curator at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. Her other books include Reconstructing the View: The Grand Canyon Photographs of Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe and To Be Thirteen, showcasing the work of Betsy Schneider.

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