Ansel Adams: Interpreting The Master – Part I

 

I have never been very serious about my photography. While I enjoy capturing images of the scenic places I’ve visited, I have always been conscious about finding a balance between experiencing nature, and capturing it in photos. With today’s emphasis on sharing photos on social media, it seems I’ve taken the road less traveled.

 

For example, we visited Yellowstone National Park in July, 2017. We hit many of the top tourist spots–along with throngs of others–Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs, and more. I was struck by how many people experienced the breathtaking views through the sights of their expensive cameras–almost all of them shooting on automatic settings–before rushing off to the next photo opportunity. We call them “checklisters.”

 

Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Photo courtesy of Camille Attell

 

Instead, I take photos sparingly and spend more time being present with what I’m observing and feeling. Yellowstone’s sights brought feelings of joy while experiencing Mother Earth’s amazing workings. I wanted to linger and relish in its splendor for hours.

 

I left with gratitude for having the opportunity to travel, work, and enjoy a nomadic lifestyle.

 

My Introduction to Ansel Adams

 

There is one photographer that I find most intriguing: Ansel Adams. The iconic photographer is best known for his black and white images of the American West. I’m drawn to the intense light, shadows, and stark contrasts of his photos, as well as a shared interest in protecting the environment.

 

I was first exposed to Adams by my brother, Andy Cripe. He took a childhood interest in photography, well before embarking on a lifelong career as a photojournalist and freelance photographer. He’s a voracious reader, and always had books laying around–including many on photography.

 

Taos Pueblo New Mexico

Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Ansel Adams, U.S. National Archives (public domain).

 

I remember picking up one containing Ansel Adams’ photographs and was instantly intrigued. I was more interested in travel and geography, but was drawn to these unique and compelling prints. I longed to travel to California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming to see the scenes Ansel had captured so magnificently.

 

Following college, I started backpacking in the wilderness. Living in Southern California, the Sierra Nevada Mountains became my summer backyard. Called the Range of Light by conservationist, John Muir, the 400 mile-long range boasts three national parks, the highest point in the contiguous U.S., and the largest alpine lake in North America. But my favorite section of the mountains quickly became the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area. The area is full of unsurpassed views of rugged granite peaks, crystal clear alpine lakes, and free flowing streams. It was named after him following his death to honor his photography of the Sierras and his conservation efforts.

 

Thousand Island Lake

Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak, Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, California. Photo courtesy of Tim Patterson

 

Years later, well into my working career, my interest was renewed in Adams’ photography when I discovered my boss’ boss was a collector of his prints. I would use all manner of excuses to stop by her office to chat. Conversations usually made their way back to her collection of Adams’ photos. I would gaze in awe at her numbered edition of The Tetons and the Snake River, while she regaled me with tales about her collection, and we shared stories of our travels to areas that Adams had photographed.

 

Ansel Adams: A Brief History

 

For those not as familiar with Adams’ life and work, here’s a brief history:

 

1902 – He was born in San Francisco, California.

 

1906 – After surviving the San Francisco earthquake, he suffered a permanently broken nose when hurled face first into a wall in a subsequent aftershock.

 

1916 – He first visited and photographed Yosemite National Park as a 14 year-old.

 

1921 – He published his first photographs at the age of 19, beginning a long career of artistic and commercial photography, instruction, and consulting. He primarily used large format cameras and is known for creating the Zone System of photography to determine optimal film exposure and development. Adams’ legacy helped elevate photography as a fine art form.

 

1927 – He joined the Sierra Club and served on its board of directors for 37 years. His photography and congressional testimony were instrumental in securing National Park statuses for Sequoia and Kings Canyon in California.

 

1984 – Adams passed away in Monterey, California after receiving numerous honors and awards throughout his life. Many more awards followed contributing to a legacy that continues today.

 

When my wife, Camille, and I decided to begin a nomadic lifestyle in August, 2016, I began to form a vague notion of visiting the sites of Adams’ famous photographs to try my hand (and eye) at his craft.

 

Interpretation #1 – The Accidental Visit

 

Canyon Discovery

 

As we were wrapping up a tour of Utah’s five national parks in November, 2016, we met a couple in Moab who told us about Canyon de Chelly (pronounced ‘Shay’) National Monument in the Navajo Nation near Chinle, Arizona.

 

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon, Utah. Photo courtesy of Camille Attell

 

We were headed to Monument Valley, Arizona next, and it would be an easy day’s drive from there. We decided to check it out. I muttered a few unkind words about my old road atlas–how could I have missed the existence of Canyon de Chelly?

 

It was the first week of December, and this part of Arizona is at elevation. We had the entire Cottonwood Campground to ourselves–even the hosts and staff had left for the season. It was serene yet eerie. I went outside in the morning to scoop our cats’ litter box and was greeted by a frigid blast of 15 degree air. I have never enjoyed the brilliant warmth of sunshine more than that morning.

 

On a crisp early December day, we parked at the canyon rim and hiked the only non-guided public trail down into the canyon. We descended 600 feet through muted orange and tan-colored sandstone to the canyon bottom where the wind attempted to rustle the remaining leaves off the cottonwood trees.

 

Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Bryce Cripe

 

We entered one of the longest continuously inhabited sites in North America. Originally home to the Anasazi People over 4,000 years ago, it was later occupied by Hopis, and finally Navajos. They were attacked by U.S. Army forces led by Kit Carson in 1864. All but a few holdouts were forced to surrender and endure the Long Walk (forced march) to an internment camp at Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. They lived there for four years before being allowed to return with the signing of a treaty with the U.S. government. Currently there are around 40 Navajo families living in this deep network of canyons.

 

Magnificent Ruins

 

We only saw ten other people on our visit, and were surprised to find two Navajo women selling hand-crafted goods on the canyon floor. After enjoying a homemade lunch and listening to gentle breezes echo through the narrow canyon, we checked out the remarkable ancient cliff dwellings: The White House Ruins. The complex includes structures built into the cliff at least 25 feet above dwellings on the canyon floor (all ruins are fenced off to protect their archeological value).

 

I captured several photos on this day with only my Samsung Galaxy S5 phone camera, and was relatively pleased with them. Months later to my surprise and delight, I discovered that Ansel Adams, too, had photographed these ruins in 1942.

 

I was channeling the master without even knowing it!

 

White House Ruin

White House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly. Photo at left courtesy of Ansel Adams, U.S. National Archives (public domain). Photo at right courtesy of Bryce Cripe

 

Interpretation #2 – Moonless in New Mexico

 

Finding Enchantment

 

December, 2016 brought us to the Land of Enchantment–one of our favorite states–New Mexico. This is where my project to re-imagine Adams’ photography really took shape. My all-time favorite photo by Adams is Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico from 1941.

 

The scene that Adams captured that autumn day is haunting: modest adobe church, cemetery headstones bathed in waning afternoon light, against a backdrop of the distant, snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains, capped with the rising of a nearly full moon.

 

There was one problem–I didn’t know where Hernandez was. Mesmerized by the photo for decades, I always imagined Hernandez to be a dusty outpost downstream from Albuquerque along the Rio Grande River. I could not have been more wrong.

 

We were enjoying New Mexico’s capital city, Santa Fe, in the northern part of the state, when I finally bothered to look for Hernandez on a map. To my surprise, it was only 35 miles away!

 

We quickly made plans to spend the next afternoon up in Hernandez. I searched online to see where we were in the moon cycle. Amazingly, we nearly experienced the ultimate in serendipity. We had missed a late afternoon full moon rising over Hernandez by one day! The next day, the moon would rise around 5:30 pm, but being one week short of the winter solstice, it would already be dark.

 

Roadside Serendipity

 

Adams experienced his own serendipity the day he captured his famous shot. It was November 1, 1941–barely a month before the U.S. would be dragged into World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Adams had been hired by the U.S. Department of the Interior to photograph and promote the American West.

 

He had spent a frustrating and unsuccessful day photographing images in the Chama River Valley and was quickly driving back to Santa Fe with his 8 year-old son and best friend when opportunity struck. Adams slammed on the brakes of the family station wagon and skidded to a stop on the highway shoulder.

 

What caught Adams’ eye was the rising of a nearly full moon. It was accompanied by amazing late afternoon light that made the tombstones in the lonely graveyard appear to glow. But the near-mystical light was fading quickly as the sun prepared to dip into a bank of low clouds on the western horizon.

 

They scrambled to set up his gear. He could not find his light meter–and about to miss the shot–he frantically estimated the luminance of the moon to determine his exposure, and hastily snapped the shot. Knowing that it was an unusual photo, he quickly set up for a second image, but the light disappeared before he could get it. In his desperation, he had captured a single image with about ten seconds to spare!

 

Better Than Government Work

 

Adams was inconsistent at keeping records of his photographs. Academic research later determined the photo was taken at 4:49 pm. However, he was better at billing the government for his work. In a stroke of fortune, Adams had not billed the government for work performed on November 1st. And as a result, it was determined that Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico was his property, not that of the U.S. government, as many of his other famous photos were.

 

Adams personally produced over 1,300 prints of the photograph throughout his career. By 1971, prints of the photo were selling at auction for astonishing prices. More recently, a print sold at auction in 2006 for over $600,000!

 

Hernandez Calling

 

Now it was my turn. We drove north from Santa Fe past a few small communities and Indian casinos. I wondered how much the small town had changed in the ensuing 75 years. Would the cemetery still be there? If so, would it be visible from the same highway Adams had traveled? Or had it all been paved over by today’s all-too-familiar strip malls?

 

We missed a turn and were headed halfway to Taos when we realized our mistake. Now we were racing against the clock just as Adams had. We looped around a back way into Hernandez. As we approached the town, it was not surprising to see it had grown since Adams’ chance encounter. It is now inhabited by nearly 1,000 residents with many narrow roads branching off from the highway to people’s homes.

 

Hernandez New Mexico

Hernandez, New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Camille Attell

 

We took a side road in hopes of locating the church and cemetery. The approaching dusk made the area feel more congested. An unease washed over me. Was I just another opportunistic tourist doing a flyby trying to recreate the decades-old magic? How must they feel about people traipsing through their community photographing their church and gravesites of their deceased ancestors?

 

Roadside Revival

 

And then, in an instant, there it was. First the church. And then the cemetery. Everything looked intact–the town had just grown up around it. I felt uncomfortable pulling into the modest, unpaved parking lot. I was not even sure if the church still operated. Having located the site, we returned to the highway to shoot it from Adams’ perspective.

 

There were no throngs of tourists there trying to get the shot. There may have been the day before, but it was just us that afternoon. As we stood on the shoulder of the busy U.S. highway, we started photographing the scene. It was around 4:30 pm, but significantly darker than when Adams had been there due to the shorter days.

 

We received a few honks from motorists–not sure if they were ‘encouraging’ us to be safe on the highway shoulder, or sending a message, “Hey, I know what you guys are doing.”

 

My deepest gratitude goes out to the residents of Hernandez for allowing me to indulge in this creative project.

 

After spending close to half an hour taking photos, we retreated to the local Family Dollar Store to get out of the cold and await the moonrise. I was hoping the near-full moon would cast enough light to illuminate the tombstones (I mentioned that I’m not a serious photographer, didn’t I?).

 

The moon rose brilliantly above the horizon around 5:30 pm, but it was no match for the inky black December skies of New Mexico. I would have to settle for a moonless Hernandez shot and a separate photo of a lovely moon that could have been from anywhere. Once again, it was my trusty Samsung Galaxy S5 phone camera at work. How do they look? I’d be happy to auction them off for a mere fraction of Adams’ prints!

 

Moonrise Hernandez

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. Photo at left purchased reproduction of Ansel Adams original. Photos at right courtesy of Bryce Cripe.

 

Click here for more information on Ansel Adams’ photography.

Be sure to check out Ansel Adams: Interpreting The Master – Part II

Title photo courtesy of J. Malcolm Greany, U.S. Government (public domain).

 

Stayed tuned for my travels to Wyoming and Part II of Ansel Adams: Interpreting the Master.

 

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