If you read Part I of Ansel Adams: Interpreting The Master, then welcome back and thank you for reading the conclusion of my epic journey! If you have yet to read Part I, I encourage you to start from the beginning. Please click here.
After our ‘Ansel Adams Tour’ stops at Canyon de Chelly, Arizona and Hernandez, New Mexico closed out the year, we ventured east for the first half of 2017. We left ‘Ansel Adams Country’, but didn’t realize how soon he would touch our lives again.
Antique Mall Magic
We’ve always enjoyed visiting antique malls and thrift stores–perhaps even more as full-time RVers. Like modern day gold prospectors, we get an adrenaline rush every time we enter a store. What treasure might we find in this little shop–that most elusive $3 Picasso?
In March, we were in Texas Hill Country in the cowboy and biker town of Bandera. After having a typical Texas barbecue lunch, we wandered into a sprawling antique mall. After finding a few silver souvenir travel spoons, I was suddenly reacquainted with Ansel Adams.
Before me laid a dusty stack of landscape photo prints from a travel promotional series produced by the Standard Oil Company (current day Exxon-Mobil Corporation) in 1947 and 1948. With each service station visit, motorists were given a new photo of the national parks in the American West.
The full color photos were stunning. I was especially drawn to those featuring Yosemite National Park in California and Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.
And when I looked at the photo credits–Ansel Adams!
I had never seen any of his amazing color photography. After researching, I found out that despite likening shooting in color to playing an out-of-tune piano, Adams was often required to use Kodachrome color film for commercial assignments. And development of this new film was complex and had to be outsourced. Despite losing some creative control, Adams reluctantly shot in color, to help pay the bills.
The prints also came with compelling first-hand descriptions of each national park, some written by the master himself. Reading these descriptions allowed me to not only see, but feel how the parks impacted Adams.
These prints were priceless. I had to have them. And for $5 each, they became my Picassos.
Interpretation #3 – Ansel’s Devils Tower Surprise
As spring turned to summer, we headed back west. We landed in the remote Belle Fourche River Valley of northeastern Wyoming in July. We were there to see the unusual 900 foot tall natural rock formation called Devils Tower.
Science fiction fans may remember the prominent role this rock outcrop played in the Steven Spielberg-written and directed film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We visited the national monument during its 40th anniversary, and purchased a special edition DVD from the visitor’s center. I appreciated it much more now than when I saw it as an eleven year-old. Competition was tough at the box office in 1977. It was up against some movie called Star Wars.
On a sunsplashed morning, we hiked the 1.3 mile trail around the base of the tower, photographing it along the way. I imagined how Adams must have photographed the landmark and tried to channel him. After our visit, I anxiously searched the internet to compare photos. All I found were photos by others trying to emulate Adams and discussions of disbelief that he had not photographed Devils Tower. Does my photo look like something Adams may have shot?
We zigzagged between Wyoming and Montana until arriving in the northwest corner of Wyoming, where the state is blessed with two national parks–Yellowstone and Grand Teton. We headed to the Tetons first.
The beauty of the Tetons is unparalleled. A spine of jagged peaks rise dramatically from a high plateau of forests, lakes and meadows. The setting provides a rich habitat for abundant wildlife, including one of the few areas in the contiguous United States where grizzly bears still roam.
Our home for four days was an amazing dispersed campsite (no hookups) in Bridger-Teton National Forest with stunning views of the Teton Range. It was perhaps our best campsite view so far in our travels, but we had to drive the motorcoach up a narrow, twisting, alder-choked, gravel road. It was well worth the trouble.
We lucked into an amazing hike when we encountered a waiting list to park at a popular spot in the park. Rather than wait over an hour, we drove up an unpaved, four-wheel drive road to a trailhead much closer to the mountains. We hiked through alternating stands of lush lodgepole pines and beautiful wildflower-filled high meadows, all while viewing the magnificent Tetons rising above us. With the abundant beauty of this area, it was no surprise why Ansel Adams enjoyed photographing this area.
Interpretation #4 – Ansel Catches the Snake
Parting Crowds and Clouds
After our hike, we made our way in the late afternoon to where Adams captured one of his most iconic shots. His The Tetons and the Snake River photo from 1942 was taken in the late afternoon from the Snake River Overlook. I was excited and nervous as we arrived for our turn to photograph this amazing view.
It was after 6:00 pm and the sun would soon disappear behind the high peaks of the Teton Range. Unfortunately, the day had turned cloudy and threatening with rain. Dark grey bands of clouds clung to the crags of the Tetons. A handful of tourists with expensive cameras milled around hoping for the clouds to part. Many became impatient and left. I convinced my wife to give it a chance, as I scouted for the best camera angles and hoped for some magic.
Suddenly, a streak of brilliant sunlight beamed through the thick clouds as they began to part. I sprang into action, snapping a series of photos of the quickly changing conditions. Surprisingly, I was able to capture some of the same light reflections off the Snake River that Adams had 75 years ago. Although trees now obscure some of the view of the Snake River below, I see similarities in our two shots.
Visualization in the Sky Island
One of Ansel Adams’ biggest contributions to the field of landscape photography was the concept of visualization that he developed, utilized, and taught to his students. It involved taking what he called the external event (the scenery), and transforming it into the internal event (seeing the photo in your mind’s eye). With enough practice, seeing the finished photo before taking it could become quick and instinctual, allowing the photographer to share what they saw and felt.
I was not yet aware of Adams’ concept, but had a moment of visualization at the end of a long, tiring hike in the mountains. We were in Great Basin National Park in Nevada in late October, 2016. Despite being late in the hiking season, we attempted to climb 13,063 foot Wheeler Peak–the highest point in Great Basin’s forest islands in the sky.
On a crisp, clear day, we ascended through ghostly forests of leafless aspens and birch. As we climbed, the trees thinned out and the winds picked up. And then it hit us. Above the treeline and along an exposed ridgeline leading to the summit, we were suddenly blasted with hurricane force winds.
The fabulous 360 degree views of the desert below were difficult to enjoy while struggling to stay on our feet. The mountain would not yield its summit on this day.
After turning back some 1,000 vertical feet and a mile from the summit, we retraced our route back down to the calm of the protected valleys. On the way down, I kept peering back at the summit thinking about what could have been. It was an exhausting, cold day of hiking and I was dreaming of the warm drink awaiting me back in civilization.
We trudged past a craggy, old tree. I stopped dead in my tracks. With the tree in the foreground and the summit in the background, it appeared as though it was guarding the summit–a perfect metaphor for the day. I visualized the shot and captured the feeling of our experience. I hope Ansel would be proud.
Interpretation #5 – Ansel in Yellowstone Country
The Other Grand Canyon
In late July, 2017, we moved on to Yellowstone National Park during high tourist season. It was Camille’s first visit, so I wanted to make sure she saw many of the iconic spots–Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Grand Prismatic Spring, and Yellowstone Lake.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River is a majestic sight. It is 24 miles long, about 1,000 feet deep, and an average of a 0.5 mile across. While not as big as its namesake in Arizona, it is easy to understand the comparison. The canyon was formed by erosion from the Yellowstone River cutting a path through rhyolite rock, leaving a tapestry of blonde, tan and red-colored soils.
The park is immense, but the tourists like to congregate in the popular places. The Canyon area buzzes like a city–campgrounds, stores, museums, theaters and a visitor center form a sprawling complex. Everyone is there for the main attraction–the canyon and its two amazing waterfalls. Three of the four main viewpoints feature the larger, 308 foot Lower Falls. We drove extra miles to the far side of the canyon and Artist’s Point, in hopes of getting away from the crowds and seeing it as Adams had in 1941.
We were not alone among the throngs, but were fortunate to find a parking spot on our first pass through the lot (Camille has a gift for finding parking in crowded places). We made the short walk to the lookout, and were practically mobbed by tourists asking us to snap waterfall portraits. I fought my way to the railing. Once there, I tried to imagine the calm through which Adams viewed the Lower Falls and canyon. I took my time framing the view and capturing the amazing sights.
Adams’ famous shot appears to have been taken from a lower angle and with brighter skies. The snow present in the canyon in his shot was gone for the season by the time we visited. The canyon still remains grand 76 years later.
Interpretation #6 – Ansel in the Desert
Ansel is Everywhere
Summer turned to autumn and then winter. We ushered in the new year in the beautiful Desert Southwest. I published Part I of this article while we were staying in Tucson, Arizona. When we arrived in town, we picked up a visitor’s guide as we usually do. Camille excitedly held the magazine up to my face. On the cover of Zocalo–the local arts and culture magazine–a familiar fellow (in black and white, of course), gazed back at us. Unbeknownst to me, Adams had extensively photographed the Tucson area, including the local Sonoran Desert and its fantastic saguaro cacti.
As I read the feature article, I learned that Adams had co-founded the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1975, further cementing his commitment to education. The Center has grown to become one of the pre-eminent academic art museums and research centers for the history of photographic arts. An extensive archive of Adams’ photography has now grown to include archived collections of nearly 250 photographers. Unfortunately, we would just miss an event honoring Adams’ 116th birthday.
Jazzed by our latest Ansel Adams find, we set out to see and photograph the unique desert flora of the area. We visited Tohono Chul botanical gardens and Saguaro National Park East, and captured some great shots. Surrounded by the plants of the Sonoran Desert, it feels like you’re living in the fascinating world of a Dr. Seuss book.
Every saguaro cactus has its own character and stirs the imagination. Oh look, that saguaro is shaking hands. This one is waving. They are a joy to behold and photograph. Here’s my favorite saguaro shot, along with one from Adams.
Ansel Adams’ Gift
Reluctantly, we moved on from Tucson for a brief stopover in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on our way to Texas. We dropped into an outdoor apparel store after visiting the local farmer’s market. Weary from shopping, I sat down at their coffee table only to find a picture book of Ansel Adams’ photography! There were over 400 photos arranged chronologically. I went through every photo–marveling at those I had never seen, and savoring his familiar standards. Click on image to see the book.
As I flipped through the book, I realized what an impact Ansel Adams has made on my life. You may remember from Part I of my article, I had never been serious about photography and never allowed it to be the reason for anything I did.
My feelings about photography have definitely changed. While I may not ever become a photography expert, I now have a great appreciation for photography as an art form. And I have become more serious about the composition of my shots–subject, angle, and lighting. I plan to continue developing and sharing my photographic craft.
And as soon as I land in a place long enough to receive deliveries, I will buy the Ansel Adams book I saw in Las Cruces. It will become a part of our travels. And I will continue to capture the shots Ansel shot, as well as many of my own along the way.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as I have. And I hope you enjoy future photography I share in our travel blog.
Cover photo of Bryce Cripe, courtesy of William Trinkle.
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