CLICK! The day’s first light has not yet begun to seep into the blue-black sky over Thousand Island Lake when I hear someone stirring outside my tent. Still in my sleeping bag, I stick my head through the flap for a look. Jim, camera in hand, smiles back and pantomimes a question–pointing first at his camera and then at the peaks still silhouetted in the dark. Without exchanging a word, we throw water bottles, gorp, and an extra jacket into our daypacks and move off toward the lake.
By the time Ansel Adams sat on the shores of this same lake that summer day in 1923, he had been struggling for 7 years to translate the beauty he saw in the Sierra onto film. What he was after was not simply postcard scenery, but something deeper; not just the “external event” of light on rock, but also the “internal event.” A good photograph, he said, is always “an investigation of both the outer and inner worlds.” When the two come together in a photograph, “witness the magic that is our world,” as Adams himself used to say.
Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake (1923), taken almost exactly from the spot where we are sitting, was the first Ansel Adams photograph to show a glimmer of capturing that magic.
The sun breaks over the horizon, flowing like an exhaled breath over the peaks. Clouds tinge salmon-red; the summits of Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter glow golden. The mountains, just for a moment, seem more than rock. It is as if the day’s first light has brought them to life, pumping blood into their stone hearts.
I hear Jim behind me on a rock, clicking the shutter on his camera and laughing to himself, delighted at the beauty of it all.
“I never met Ansel Adams,” Jim says in a loud voice across the small creek that separates us. “But from what I’ve read and from talking to people who did know him, I’ve heard he had this big, infectious grin.” Looking back down into his viewfinder at the shimmering light, he adds, “I’ll bet he’d be grinning from ear to ear
With the making of Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake, and even more significantly, “Monolith” 4 years later, Adams began to touch the live pulse of his artistic vision, to bear witness to the magic of the world through his camera. His musical career was forgotten, despite the efforts of his mother. “Don’t give up the piano!” she admonished in a letter. “The camera cannot express the human soul!”
“Perhaps the camera cannot,” Ansel wrote back, “but the photographer can.”
Ansel Adams did just that. During the 1930s and ’40s, his creative vision burned as brightly as the Sierra itself. “Sometimes I feel like God just puts me in the right place at the right time and all I have to do is release the shutter,” he once said. He traveled widely to be “in the right place at the right time” to release the shutter, photographing dozens of national parks–“The Tetons and Snake River” (1942), “Mt. McKinley and Wonder Lake” (1948), “Leaf, Glacier Bay National Park” (1948), and others.
But his favorite subject remained the Sierra, site of his most famous works–“Clearing Winter Storm” (1935), “Frozen Lake and Cliffs” (1932), and “Tenaya Creek” (1948). “His photographs are like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods,” said one reviewer.
Gallery exhibits, magazine work, books such as Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail in 1940 and This Is the American Earth in 1959, began to bring those “mythical gods” off the mountaintops and into people’s parlors and living rooms, opening millions of eyes to the beauty and wonder of our last wild places. Photography was now fine art: Ansel Adams its finest artist. And, if Ansel Adams could find beauty in our last remaining wild places, then perhaps there was something more in these wild places than just timber and minerals, something very worth protecting.