CLICK! Photographer Jim Stimson snaps the shutter and then patiently recomposes the scene in front of us–a row of steel-gray peaks against the pale blue September sky. Below, the green swoop of the valley underlines it all like a painter?s final brush stroke. It’s an hour into our hike out of Agnew Meadows, the dusty trail leading uphill through the trees. We have just now come to the first clearing, the first good spot to rest, the first unobstructed view of the peaks.
And a surprise.
It’s not surprising that the peaks of the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area rise up before us so sheer and ice-cut. Or that the sharp cliffs are tufted with snowfields even in September. The surprise, to me at least, is that the whole scene is not in black and white.
I knew, of course, it wouldn’t be. Deep down, I knew the aspen leaves would glitter gold and the high lakes would be like deep blue eyes set in the granite. Yet, like so many other people, my first visions of California?s Sierra Nevada came not in person but through the camera of Ansel Adams. For years the only pictures I carried in my mind of what John Muir called “The Range of Light” were in black and white–the silver cliffs of Half Dome balancing a bone-white moon, Bridal Veil Falls flowing in white mist, a parade of clouds throwing velvet-black shadows on Yosemite Valley. “Here,” one reviewer wrote of Adams’s photography, “is to be found the very essence of the Sierra.” His work captured that essence so crisply, so sharply, it etched the beauty of these mountains so deeply into the mind that as I stepped to the edge of the clearing to see the peaks for the first time with my own eyes, I half expected the Sierra to be in black and white.
Art has the ability to change the very way we look at the world. The art of Ansel Adams has that kind of power.
Born in San Francisco in 1902, Ansel Adams would become the most honored, most recognized, and most influential photographer in the world. It is fitting, then, that his first memories were of light, of watching luminous clouds scuttle across
a blue sky as an infant. At 12, he took up the piano with such skill and emotion that his parents urged him toward a career in music. But, the light would not go away.
In 1916, on a family trip to Yosemite, the 14-year-old Adams saw the light again–this time in the Sierra. The immensity of the unbound space, the smell of the pines, the deep shadows, the cliffs rising to “undreamed of heights”–to young Ansel Adams it was all “so intense as to be almost painful.” He wrote, “I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite.” It was written in the light.
“I was climbing a long ridge west of Mt. Clark,” he wrote about one of his early journeys into the Sierra. “I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching push up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light…. I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks. There are no words to convey the moods of those moments.”
No words perhaps. But, photography could, perhaps, come close.