Ansel Adams’s photographs of the western United States are iconic. Over the last half century, they have become, for many viewers, visual embodiments of the sites he captured: Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks, the Sierra Nevada, the American Southwest, and more. Combining technical mastery with a modernist’s sensibility, his works betray his deep connection to the natural environment—a connection that resonates in new ways today, as the landscapes around us continue to change and be changed.
This is an exhibition about legacy. In these galleries, more than 100 of Adams’s works appear in a new, dual conversation: with the nineteenth-century photographers who preceded him in the American West; and with photographers working today, drawn to some of the same places and tackling some of the same issues affecting the land—mining and energy, drought and fire, economic booms and busts, protected places and urban sprawl. A number of the contemporary photographers also explore issues of landscape and identity: who was traditionally welcome to photograph the landscape of the American West, who is most welcome in these spaces today, and how is access changing and expanding?
Born in San Francisco, Adams (1902–1984) took his first photographs in California’s Yosemite National Park at age fourteen, with a Kodak Box Brownie camera his father gave him. He returned virtually every year. In Yosemite, he honed his skills, but also came to recognize the power of photographs to transcend description and express emotion and meaning. Perhaps no other place had a more lasting influence on the photographer. For Adams, the natural world was a source of spiritual renewal and wholeness.
Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and curated for Portland by Julia Dolan, Ph.D., The Minor White Curator of Photography.
This majestic view of Half Dome is one of Adams’s most important and groundbreaking early photographs. Shot on a hike in the spring of 1927, it represents his first conscious “visualization”—an image fully anticipated before he tripped the shutter, and one that for Adams captured the emotional impact of the scene. He made this enlarged print years later, but the dramatic sky and the sharp contrast between the brilliant white snow and dark ridges in the granite were recorded in 1927 when Adams took the photograph, using a deep red filter and a long exposure (made possible by the windless conditions that day).
This view looks north/northwest across the valley floor. Watkins accentuated the distance between the two levels of Yosemite Falls and artfully framed each one with dark tree limbs and foliage. Though this image is dated 1861, this print was made two decades later by I.W. Taber, who owned Watkins’ original negatives. In 2003, photographers Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe chose Watkins’ viewpoint for their panorama, which hangs nearby.
Mark Klett has photographed and re-photographed the western American landscape for more than thirty years. With his longtime collaborator Byron Wolfe, Klett carefully studies prints by Carleton Watkins and other nineteenth-century wilderness photographers, as well as twentieth-century modernists like Ansel Adams. By studying the shadows, they determine the time of year and time of day that an image was made. Once on site, Klett photographs the view with Polaroid film and Wolfe measures that image against the original photograph, repeating the process until they locate exactly where the earlier photographer stood. By visually collapsing time and space in this composite panorama of Yosemite Valley, Klett and Wolfe document changes to the landscape over more than a century.
In 1919, at the age of seventeen, Adams joined the Sierra Club, whose month-long “high trips” to California’s Sierra Nevada he helped organize. Adams produced albums of photographs from these treks, inviting club members to order contact prints or, for a higher fee, “attractively mounted” enlargements in “plain or soft-focus.” His ingenuity ultimately led to the portfolio Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, on view in this gallery—one of the earliest experiments in custom printing, sequencing, and distributing fine photographs.
Yet Adams was not the first to market views of the American West. In the nineteenth century, an entire industry of mass-producing and distributing photographs of the frontier emerged, catering to a burgeoning tourist market. Today, photography is still closely linked with the scenic vistas of the western United States. Artists also use the medium to call attention to the changing nature of landscapes. By creating works in extended series or grids, they seem to be responding to the earlier tradition of mass-marketing western views.
[Ansel Adams’s] depopulated scenes suggest that the landscape does best without our presence, and that wilderness is an entity defined by our absence. However, anyone who has visited the site of one of Adams’ photographs knows that the romance of his landscapes is often best experienced in the photographs themselves. The reality of place is quite different….The natural beauty of the land is still there to be seen, but you will not see it alone.
In the spring of 1927, Ansel Adams, Virginia Best, and three friends hiked up to Yosemite’s Diving Board. From that rocky outcropping they could see the sheer granite face of Half Dome, as well as Mirror Lake far below. Virginia, who grew up in Yosemite and later married Ansel, was an intrepid climber and recorded that day’s trek on film. Adams carried a large view camera, a dozen glass-plate negatives, and a heavy wooden tripod.
A popular attraction during the late-nineteenth century, Magic Column (later called Agassiz Rock), became somewhat easy to reach when the original Four Mile Trail was constructed during the 1870s. One of the more frequently photographed sights in Yosemite Valley, the natural granite column was a popular subject for stereocards and other tourist souvenirs. This composition by Watkins stands out due to the differentiation between foreground and background—not an easy photographic feat at the time. This print is one of only two known to exist from Watkins’s original mammoth-plate negative.
Four Mile Trail was rerouted during the twentieth century, and the column is now very difficult to access. Additionally, surrounding vegetation has grown considerably; it is unlikely that photographers can recreate this composition today.
This photograph was issued as part of a 16-print portfolio, in an edition of 100, by Grabhorn Press of San Francisco in 1927. Although photographic print portfolios would become common later in the century, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras represents one of the first attempts to market photographs in this way. Looking back on this moment in his career, a time when he was struggling to make a living and gain recognition as an artist, Adams was embarrassed by the made-up term “Parmelian” in the title. His publisher thought it was necessary because photographs were not yet considered worthy of investment by fine art collectors. Later, Adams would use the same negative to produce the larger version of Monolith—The Face of Half Dome, which appears at the start of the onsite and online exhibitions.
Sharon Harper is drawn to the many ways that photography can mediate our relationship to nature and measure the powerful forces that transform the landscape over time. Her individual portraits of massive, lichen-covered boulders document the after-effects of ancient rock falls in the wilderness. Harper treats these environmental artifacts like specimens in a nineteenth-century natural history museum, vignetting them in dome-shaped “frames” reminiscent of those in stereo cards. She even uses digital technology to suggest the 3-D effects that so captivated Victorian audiences.
San Francisco is where Adams became a modernist photographer. His first exhibition, featuring photographs taken on Sierra Club hikes, was held at the club’s headquarters in the city in 1928. Convinced that he could make a living as a photographer, Adams acquired a large-format camera and became an advocate of “straight” (unmanipulated) photography, leaving behind the soft-focus aesthetic of his earlier work. He experimented with abstraction and the extreme close-up, capturing texture and clarity of detail. He recorded cloud-filled skies and depicted landscapes with seemingly infinite space.
During the Great Depression, Adams began photographing a wider range of subjects, including the challenging reality of urban life in his hometown. Letting others record the breadlines and the workers’ strikes, he photographed the demolition of abandoned buildings, toppled cemetery headstones, political signs, and the patina of a city struggling during difficult times. One sign of hope for the future was the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Begun in 1933, the bridge was opened four years later and forever transformed the appearance of San Francisco Bay.
Adams made this photograph near his family home the year before construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge. He had only recently taken up the large-format 8×10-inch camera and begun shooting with panchromatic film, which allowed him to capture the dramatic skies that were missing from his earlier views. Here his fascination with the ever-changing weather and atmospheric conditions is obvious: the real subject is not the famous strait of water between San Francisco and the Marin headlands, but the billowing cumulus clouds above.
In 1997, Richard Misrach began what would become a three-year project photographing the Golden Gate Bridge from his own porch in the Berkeley Hills. Placing his large-format 8×10-inch camera in exactly the same position on each occasion, Misrach recorded hundreds of views of the distant span, at different times of day and in every season, set off against the constantly changing sky. The series was reissued in 2012 to mark the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the bridge’s landmark opening.
It is often very difficult to pinpoint the timing of Adams’s photographs, as he was notoriously bad at recording dates, even for some of his most famous pictures. Here we are lucky because a magazine on the rack clearly reads October 7, 1933. During the Depression one could still find examples of carved wooden statues of cigar-smoking Native Americans outside tobacconist shops. Adams’s tongue-in-cheek title, Americana, is borrowed from the short-lived left-wing satirical magazine just visible at lower right.
Zig Jackson explores the ways in which popular American culture continues to perpetuate the racist myth of the “Noble Savage,” and works to dismantle prevalent stereotypes about Native Americans. For the Indian Man in San Francisco series, he wears a feathered headdress while performing everyday activities such as riding the bus or walking along the beach. These photographs challenge viewers to reassess deep-rooted assumptions about Native American appearance, assimilation, and even land possession and national sovereignty. They counteract the continuing belief that Native Americans only live on isolated reservations, far from city centers, and are few in number. In fact, at least 19,000 Native Americans live in San Francisco. Portland is home to 60,000 Native Americans descended from over 380 tribes. More than 110,000 Native Americans live in New York City today.
Adams made his first trip to the American Southwest in 1927. Shortly after, he collaborated with author Mary Austin on an illustrated book about the Taos Pueblo, where Pueblo people still lived in their ancestral home. Adams and Austin shared a concern that the artistic and religious traditions of indigenous people were under threat from the increasing number of people traveling through or settling in the region. Indian dances had become popular attractions among tourists, who came by train and automobile to be entertained and to buy pottery, jewelry, and other souvenirs. Adams’ own photographs of dancers have a complex legacy, as he was one of those onlookers—though he carefully framed his images to leave out any evidence of the gathered crowds.
Diné photographer Will Wilson’s ongoing series, Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange, specifically addresses the romanticized portraits of Native Americans taken by Edward S. Curtis a century ago. Wilson responds to and confronts past depictions of Native Americans by white artists who traveled west to “document” the people who were viewed as a “vanishing race” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
An amateur archeologist and committed preservationist, Adam Clark Vroman owned a bookstore in Pasadena, California that also sold photography supplies. In the mid-1890s, he made the first of many photographic trips to Navajo, Pueblo, and Hopi communities in Arizona and New Mexico. Like Edward S. Curtis and other Anglo-American photographers, he approached Indigenous subjects with concern for what he saw as their threatened lifeways. Nevertheless, when he produced this set of playing cards in 1900, his sitters, each representing a different southwestern tribe, were reduced to elaborately costumed “types” and often were not identified by name. In one example shown here, a group of young Walpi women is simply captioned “Bashful.”
In the summer of 1929, Adams told Mary Austin, his collaborator on the Taos Pueblo book, that he made some “stunning” Pueblo dance negatives during visits to San Ildefonso and Tesuque. He considered creating a portfolio of ceremonial dance photographs, but it was never realized. Native American dances were popular attractions by the 1920s and were often crowded with tourists who eagerly bought pottery and souvenirs. Adams cropped out all signs of casual bystanders in his images, as if to return these occasions to the sacred rituals they originally were. He made these photographs early in his career, when he was still sometimes producing soft-focus images printed on warm-toned, uncoated, matte papers.
Born in San Francisco, Diné photographer Will Wilson spent his childhood in the Navajo Nation. Today he lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Made from his original tintypes, Wilson’s double self-portrait shows him in profile, facing off against himself: on one side wearing an elaborate silver and turquoise necklace, and on the other dressed in a cowboy hat and work gloves. The title riffs on a 1962 John Ford movie titled How the West Was Won, an epic western of the type that helped turn stereotypical “cowboys and Indians” into potent symbols for the American public. Wilson’s dual portrait illustrates the disparate ways that he—as a Native American artist— might be portrayed and perceived by others, whereas in his case, the reality lies somewhere between the two.
Moonrise is one of Adams’s best-known images and one of the most famous photographs ever made. Adams was driving with his young son Michael and friend Cedric Wright toward Santa Fe late in the afternoon, when he saw the small town of Hernandez under the rising moon. Adams stopped and frantically began to set up his camera. He could not find his light meter, but he recalled the luminance of the moon (250 candles per square foot) and used that to estimate his exposure. He released the shutter only seconds before the sun slipped away and the town fell into shadow.
When a Sierra Club friend gave him a copy of the nineteenth-century Wheeler geographical survey album, Adams had the opportunity to study Timothy O’Sullivan’s photographic technique, as well as his subject matter. In 1941, as Adams set out to work in Canyon de Chelly as part of his national parks project, he decided to try to rephotograph O’Sullivan’s memorable view of the ancient ruins. Adams used a green filter to replicate the dramatic striations in the canyon walls that are so pronounced in the early print, as otherwise they would not appear in a “straight” print from his modern negative. Of the power of works like this one, Adams said: “O’Sullivan had that extra dimension of feeling. You sense it, you see it.”
As long as people have been in the American West, they have found its barren desert landscapes to be ideal for dumping garbage and forgetting. I was born in Yuma, Arizona in 1980 and I have never known this landscape without the forgotten debris of urban sprawl. Today, the notion of land untouched by the hand of man is so foreign it might as well be make-believe.
Photography played a critical role in the establishment of the national parks. Increasingly in the late nineteenth century, many Americans came to see the “wild” places of the western states and territories as assets to be preserved. The dramatic views captured by Carleton Watkins and other photographers ultimately helped convince government officials to take action to protect Yosemite and Yellowstone from private development. Yet efforts to preserve these lands for the benefit of American citizens ignored the fact that indigenous people had inhabited them for thousands of years.
Adams claimed he never made a photograph for political purposes. He was aware, however, of the power of the image to sway opinions on land preservation. Adams’ photographs of King’s River Canyon helped the Sierra Club successfully campaign to establish the site as a national park. Over the following years, Adams photographed national parks from Alaska to Texas, Hawaii to Maine. Marked by a potent combination of art and environmental activism, the images he made spread his belief in the transformative power of the parks to a wide audience.
Many contemporary artists working in the national parks acknowledge, as Adams did, the efforts of the photographers who came before them. But the complicated legacies—and uncertain futures—of these protected lands have led some photographers to take more personal and political approaches to the work they are making in these spaces. They know that iconic images surround them when working in Yosemite or Yellowstone, but they accept the challenge of creating a new way of seeing those very familiar places.
Frank Jay Haynes was one of the second generation of photographers to be employed by the railroads and government surveys in the American West in the late nineteenth century. In 1884 he was named official photographer and concessionaire of Yellowstone to serve the growing numbers of tourists coming to visit the first national park. Yellowstone is situated on top of a massive subterranean volcano, which produces its active hot springs and towering geysers, such as Old Faithful. For his photograph of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Haynes used a mammoth-plate camera to produce a large glass negative, from which he made this highly detailed contact print.
Early in his career, Morell began experimenting with the camera obscura (from the Latin for “dark room”)—a set-up that allowed him to photograph the view outside, projected through a small hole (or lens) and inverted on the opposite wall of an interior. More recently, Morell has adapted this technology, using a tent fitted with a periscope and angled mirror, with a digital camera pointed downward to capture the sweeping landscapes reflected on the ground. This process of combining the distant view with the grass, pebbles, pine needles, sand—even pavement—underfoot, allows Morell to turn the terrain into his “canvas” and transform familiar scenes into otherworldly, impressionistic images.
Adams began writing “how to” books on photography in the mid-1930s, but he is best-known for his series of technical books, including Camera and Lens, The Negative, The Print, and Natural Light Photography. In one of his later books, he uses an image of a Yellowstone geyser as an example of a particularly challenging subject that defies light-meter readings and tests a photographer’s ability to “visualize” in advance something so inherently fleeting and unpredictable.
Based in southern California, Catherine Opie is best known for her unflinching portraits—of herself and of members of the lesbian leather community to which she belongs. Her mostly black and white landscape photographs often record the mini-malls, tract houses, and freeway overpasses of Los Angeles. Recently, she was commissioned to create a large-scale piece spanning the multi-story atrium of a new federal courthouse, which inspired her to tackle a very different California subject: Yosemite National Park.
The opportunity to produce such a major work motivated Opie to take on the iconic views of the park’s natural wonders, to examine her relationship with these Western landscapes, and to try to “de-cliché” them. Her luminous color images of Yosemite are often soft-focused, yet still recognizable, thanks to the popularization of such views by earlier photographers like Watkins and Adams. Imaging Yosemite through a feminist lens, Opie seeks to assert her equal rights to such wilderness subjects, previously considered the domain of white male photographers.
Adams made his reputation mainly through spectacular images of beautiful, “unspoiled” nature. Less well known are the images he produced in California’s Death Valley and Owens Valley, just southeast of Yosemite. Yet he was drawn to these more forbidding, arid landscapes multiple times—occasionally lured by a book or magazine project, but often of his own volition.
Here, on the dry side of the Sierra Nevada, Adams and his work took a dramatic detour. Edward Weston introduced Adams to Death Valley, where he photographed sand dunes, salt flats, and sandstone canyons. Owens Valley was once arable farmland, but its residents had been suffering since their water was siphoned off to supply the growing city of Los Angeles. In 1943, Adams first traveled to nearby Manzanar, where he photographed Japanese Americans forcibly relocated to internment camps shortly after the U.S. entered World War II.
Contemporary photographers continue to find compelling subjects in these remote places. Some are drawn to them as “blank slates” upon which to leave their mark. Others explore the raw beauty of the desolate terrain and the many, sometimes unsettling ways it is used today: including as a site for maximum-security prisons and clandestine military projects, carried out under wide skies.
Adams initially found the bright, desolate expanse of Death Valley incredibly challenging. Years later, he detailed the making of this image, which he included in his book on Furnace Creek, on view nearby: “After sleeping on the camera platform atop my car, I woke before dawn, made some coffee and stoked my stomach with beans reheated from last night’s supper. I then perched my camera and tripod across my shoulders and plodded heavily through the shifting sand dunes, attempting to find just the right light upon just the right dune…. Just then, almost magically, I saw an image become substance: the light of sunrise traced a perfect line down a dune that alternately glowed with the light and receded in shadow. The result is Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley National Monument.”
Three hundred miles north of Los Angeles, Owens Valley was once an agricultural region fed by the streams of the High Sierra. Early in the twentieth century, however, its water was diverted to supply the needs of Los Angeles and its suburbs, leaving the soil depleted and dry. This windmill is emblematic of the challenges of raising crops and livestock on this now inhospitable land.
David Benjamin Sherry’s photographs of the American West are at once a tribute and a critique of the so-called “straight,” unmanipulated photography of Ansel Adams and his fellow modernists. Shot with a large-format field camera, these monumental landscapes are recorded in extreme sharp-focus and almost hallucinatory detail. He then prints each one using color filters that transform the canyons, falls, glaciers, rock formations, and dunes into brilliant monochromatic vistas. For Sherry, as a gay man, this is a way to humanize or “queer” the view and challenge and counter the dominant tradition of the straight male gaze in western landscape photography.
Adams was invited to photograph Manzanar by Ralph Merritt, a Sierra Club friend who had recently been appointed director of the isolated detention center in Owens Valley. A few months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast (two-thirds of whom were American citizens) were quickly rounded up, separated from homes, possessions, and businesses, and quietly relocated to remote camps. Although he was not allowed to photograph the barbed wire or guns at Manzanar, Adams did see himself as a kind of conscientious objector for his work documenting the site and the people forced to live there.
Adams was personally impacted by the treatment of Japanese Americans in World War II. An elderly Japanese man who worked for his family for many years was forced to move to a detention center. When Adams first went to Manzanar in 1943, he was “profoundly affected” by photographing the camp and meeting its displaced inhabitants. He later presented his Manzanar images in an exhibition and book entitled Born Free and Equal. Manzanar means “apple orchard” in Spanish, but agriculture in the area had suffered since the diversion of water to Los Angeles began in 1913. Nonetheless, the internees were responsible for raising much of their own food in the fields near the camp.
We are living in the era of mass incarceration in the U.S. I discovered this by chance when a new prison was built in the town I grew up in in Illinois. On the outskirts of town the night sky was punctuated with a brilliant glow that changed my perception of the horizon. This transformation of the landscape revealed an unseen human cargo held in time and place…. Never going dark these institutions permeate beyond their physical boundaries. This encroachment symbolizes a powerful tension that implicates the very nature of social priorities.
Stephen Tourlentes often finds himself working in the vast expanses of the American West as he documents the nation’s overcrowded prisons and program of mass incarceration and capital punishment. Focusing mainly on death row institutions, he photographs these remote facilities after dark, to reveal their continuous intrusion on the night sky, like the glow of far-off cities.
In his own time, Ansel Adams was well aware of the environmental concerns facing California and the nation—thanks, in part, to his involvement with the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, which seek to protect natural areas. Although Adams continued to make symphonic and pristine wilderness landscapes, as his career progressed he began to create images that showed a more nuanced vision. He photographed urban sprawl, freeways, graffiti, oil drilling, ghost towns, rural cemeteries, mining towns, and the sometimes dispossessed inhabitants of those places, as well as quieter, less romantic views of nature, such as the aftermath of forest fires.
Appreciated for their imagery and formal qualities, Adams’ photographs also carry a message of advocacy. For photographers working in the American West today that spirit takes on ever increasing urgency, as they confront a changed, and changing, landscape. Human activity—urbanization, logging, mining, ranching, irrigated farming—continues to alter the terrain. Global warming has contributed to coastal erosion, forest fires, drought, and more. Works by contemporary artists bear witness to these changes and their impacts, countering notions that our natural resources are somehow limitless and not in need of attention and protection.
Adams made this aerial view of the famously tangled freeways of Los Angeles while photographing for Fiat Lux, a publication commissioned by the University of California to celebrate its centennial. The most extensive of all his commercial projects, Fiat Lux took Adams three years to complete and resulted in several thousand negatives.
This unusual self-portrait depicts Adams, light meter in hand, standing next to his large-format camera and tripod. He made this image of his shadow falling across a fissured rock face while in Monument Valley to shoot a Colorama for display in New York’s Grand Central Station. Sponsored by Eastman Kodak, Coloramas were panoramic, backlit transparencies, almost eighteen feet high and sixty feet long, whose sweeping scale and luminous color were the antithesis of this intimate image that Adams shot while waiting for the weather to cooperate.
In this photograph, which is both a landscape and a self-portrait, Jonathan Calm assumes the position of past and present-day landscape photographers—under a dark cloth, using a large-format camera. He is in the act of creating an image of the California coastline, a location long favored by revered masters of photography like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Typically, Calm's skin color would not be visible to passersby, most of whom would probably visualize a white photographer under the dark cloth. Calm's pointed inclusion of his unclothed body asks us to question our assumptions about who is most welcome in the world of landscape photography, who has easy access to the landscape, and who is free to move through nature with little or no resistance.
Located south of Los Angeles, the city of Compton has a rich history tied to agriculture. Incorporated in 1888, it originally consisted of farmland. During the 1950s, many Black farmers from the American South moved to Compton during the Great Migration. Although industrial sites were established there during the late-twentieth century, parts of the city are still zoned for agriculture.
Between 2015 and 2018, Melodie McDaniel documented Compton Jr. Posse Youth Equestrian Program members and their many activities. The riding school was founded in 1988 (it was reestablished as the Compton Jr. Equestrians in 2018), and continues to offer neighborhood children year-round horseback-riding experiences in the city where they live. Between 1988 and 2018, more than 1,500 children learned equestrian and associated skills through the Compton Jr. Posse.
The Four Seasons depicts Wendy Red Star, wearing a traditional Crow elk-tooth dress, surrounded by dioramas made of cheap plastic backdrops, blow-up animals, plastic flowers, and AstroTurf. She uses these mass-produced representations of nature to point to the many stereotypical interpretations of contemporary Native Americans as primitive, simple, and closer to nature than more “civilized” white Americans. Red Star explains, “I’m dealing with really heavy topics pertaining to Crow and Native culture and the colonization of people…. You can find an in by using humor. Humor or wit can be very healing, by getting viewers to crack a smile or laugh I can get them in, that way they can investigate my work further.”
Working with a large-format camera, Laura McPhee records the impact of human activity on the land, especially in Idaho, a state she loves and visits regularly. These photographs from her Guardians of Solitude series were made in the aftermath of a massive forest fire. Caused by human error, it devastated thousands of acres of woodland before it was finally extinguished. She returned to the area that summer and saw that it had burst into bloom. In the renewal of the charred landscape, she found a powerful metaphor for human resilience in the face of terrible personal loss.